LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Gregg Popovich didn’t put much thought into San Antonio’s playoff streak when it was rolling along.
He’s not thinking about it now, either.
The Spurs’ record-tying run of 22 consecutive playoff appearances is over, and the longest season in team history – almost 300 days from the first game to the last – is also, strangely, over earlier than the NBA is used to seeing. The final outcome was a 118-112 loss to the Utah Jazz on Thursday night, a game that was meaningless in the standings.
“Looking at the past doesn’t do much good,” Popovich said. “Any success we’ve had has been because we’ve had some great players.”
Rayjon Tucker had 18 points for the Jazz, who finished with eight players in double figures and used their regulars either sparingly or not at all.
“You can’t say enough about the Spurs,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “They’ve been the premier franchise in the NBA for a long time.”
Keldon Johnson scored 24 points to lead seven Spurs in double figures. Marco Belinelli and Luka Samanic each had 16 for San Antonio.
The Spurs were officially ousted when Memphis beat Milwaukee, and Phoenix completed an undefeated eight-game run in the NBA’s restart bubble with a victory over Dallas.
Those games went final shortly before San Antonio-Utah started. The Spurs needed the Grizzlies or the Suns to lose to have any chance of getting into the West play-in series that begins Saturday to decide the NBA’s final postseason berth.
“It’s tough,” Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan said. “It’s more so tough putting your faith in somebody else’s hands.”
Popovich’s routine seemed normal. He met with assistants to discuss strategy before addressing players during timeouts. When someone needed a little 1-on-1 instruction, he approached and offered a word or two.
It looked just as it always does. Only this time, it was very different.
For the first time since April 1997, the Spurs played a game knowing that the playoffs were out of reach. The 22-year run of playoff spots tied the Philadelphia 76ers’ franchise for the longest in NBA history. The 76ers, starting as the Syracuse Nationals before moving to Philadelphia, went to the playoffs every year from 1950 through 1971.
With San Antonio out, the longest active postseason streak now belongs to the Houston Rockets. They’ll be in the playoffs for the eighth consecutive year starting next week.
This is how long the streak went: David Stern wasn’t even halfway through his 30-year run as commissioner when it started. The Charlotte Bobcats – that’s what today’s Hornets went by then – were still 6-1/2 years from playing their first game. Pat Riley was still coaching the Los Angeles Lakers.
And now, for the first time since 1981, the playoffs will happen without either Riley or Popovich as head coaches.
The Spurs won five championships during the streak. They played 284 postseason games over those years; the only franchises within 100 of that were the Lakers (218), Miami (196) and Boston (192). And the Spurs won 170 playoff games in that span; only seven franchises have more playoff wins in their entire history.
All 170 of those wins for the Spurs came under Popovich, a total that gives him more career playoff victories than any two current coaches combined. There were 102 players who got into at least one Spurs playoff game during the streak, including current NBA head coaches Jacque Vaughn, Steve Kerr and Monty Williams.
The Spurs came into Disney as playoff long shots and felt the eight games they were guaranteed of playing during the restart would be ways to have young players grow from competition. They made it to the last possible day of contention.
“At this point, it’s been a huge success for our team and our young players, the development that we’ve talked about from the beginning,” Popovich said. “We’re very happy with what’s gone on here.”
He has given the restart rave reviews, both on and off the floor.
Popovich – an Air Force Academy graduate and the coach of USA Basketball’s men’s national team – wore a shirt pregame that read “Vote Your Life Depends On It.” He has remained outspoken on the need to end racial injustice and police brutality during the Spurs’ time in the bubble, talking about that perhaps as much if not more as he has about basketball.
“It’s important to bring these up, painful as they are,” Popovich said. “Some people talk about getting tired of hearing about it. But that’s the point. It has to change.”