After a solid month of demolishing most every opponent to come across their path, the Spurs' saw their massive winning streak stopped the only way it could: With a concession, of sorts, by head coach Gregg Popovich. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan exited San Antonio's 106-94 loss to Oklahoma City on Thursday with three minutes remaining in the third quarter and never returned. Manu Ginobili didn't even dress. Danny Green (37 minutes) and Marco Belinelli (30) led the Spurs in playing time for the night, which could be read as a statement on San Antonio's purpose in this game if Popovich hadn't otherwise provided one so clearly.
In an unusually enlightening peek into San Antonio's huddle during TNT's broadcast, Pop had this to say:
"I could care less whether we win or lose this game. I'd rather win but I want to win the right way."
Never has the ethos of the Popovich-coached Spurs been laid out so plainly. That "right way" eluded San Antonio during a pivotal third quarter, in which Oklahoma City's team speed was the most apparent and powerful force on the court. Thunder players were flying in coverage and crowding inside, the combination of which held the Spurs to 30 percent shooting for the frame. On the other side of the ball, Kevin Durant finally caught a groove by scoring 12 points in the quarter on just nine shots -- output that, to that point, doubled his scoring total for the game. The entire process was rather predictable; San Antonio played relatively well to start, the collective athleticism of Oklahoma City eventually turned the tide and Pop pulled the plug before his best players had an honest shot to come back.
This game will inevitably be pried for meaning, though there isn't much to glean beyond what was already known. The Thunder are an excellent team and when at their best can shake down San Antonio's offense like few teams in the league. The Spurs are an excellent team with exceedingly little interest in fighting for a game with so little bearing on their season. We shouldn't take anything away from Oklahoma City considering it now has swept the season series and won six of the last eight games in this matchup, though San Antonio played this one close to the vest. Any series between the two teams will be appreciably different in the way that any anticipated, thoroughly game-planned, extended bout would be.
The verdict of such a series remains to be seen, as does the probability of their matchup occurring at all. There will be no easy push through the Western Conference playoffs for either contender. Beyond that, it's impossible to know how the postseason process itself will shape these star-crossed rivals in health and rhythm alike. They'll be different teams if they meet in May, with fuller rosters and no minutes restrictions and much more at stake beyond playing the "right way."
Still, it's worthwhile to glance back in admiration at the Spurs' streak that was. Only seven other teams in NBA history have rattled off 19 wins in a row. Four of those seven went on to win the title. One of the remaining three was an NBA finalist. That in itself doesn't earmark the Larry O'Brien trophy for the Spurs, but their performance within that streak puts them in prime position to contend. The apparent ease with which San Antonio won so many of those 19 is telling; the best teams execute reliably against opponents of all kinds, and since Feb. 26 the Spurs have done so almost unimpeachably. They didn't play especially well on this particular Thursday, as can be the case when they line up against the Thunder. But no team is so spectacularly suited to handle so wide a variety of potential matchups as these Spurs -- from the post-grinding Grizzlies to the tough-defending Warriors to even these ever-formidable Thunder.
The Spurs are just on another level when it comes to regular season game management, as their impressive streak was maintained without deviating from the team's greater plans for rest and the operation of a deep rotation. They've done all this -- the streak, the top-five ranking in offense and defense, the league-leading Net Rating -- without pushing any player beyond 30.1 minutes per game, and in the process they've gotten better. Soon we'll see, definitively, how much.