The San Antonio Spurs looked to be in good position to pick up their third straight win on Tuesday night, holding a seven-point lead over the Los Angeles Clippers with three minutes to go in their meeting at Staples Center. All-Star center LaMarcus Aldridge had once again been brilliant, carrying the Spurs’ offense with 33 points on 20 shots to go with eight rebounds while manning the middle of a defense that had held L.A. to 42.1 percent shooting.
With Aldridge dominating in the paint, San Antonio had gotten just enough contributions from the rest of the rotation — 25 from Rudy Gay and Bryn Forbes off the bench, a dozen from Patty Mills as he fought through some spotty shooting, stuff-the-box-score all-around play from Danny Green, Kyle Anderson and Dejounte Murray — to get within hailing distance of their first road win since Feb. 25. Unfortunately for those who love the silver and black, though, “hailing distance” was as close as they’d get.
The Clips roared back in the final three minutes, finishing the game on a 17-7 run. An L.A. attack fueled by the off-the-bounce play — and shotmaking of Lou Williams and Tobias Harris erased San Antonio’s lead, and Austin Rivers nailed a big lead-taking triple with 29 seconds to go …
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) April 4, 2018
… and, after what looked to be a questionable foul call against Green on Harris with just under three seconds left and the Spurs down one, Manu Ginobili stepped out of bounds before he could attempt a potential game-winning shot, as the Clips kept San Antonio at bay just long enough to come away with a 113-110 win to keep their slim hopes of snaring one of the West’s final playoff spots alive.
For San Antonio, which led by as many as 19 in the second quarter on Tuesday, the loss represented a missed opportunity. After the Portland Trail Blazers dropped a surprising decision to the tanking Dallas Mavericks earlier in the evening — one in which Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard suffered an ankle injury that resulted in him having to be carted out of the arena after the final buzzer — the Spurs had a chance to draw within two games of the West’s third seed, mere weeks after looking like they might fall out of the conference’s top eight all together.
Instead, they not only remain three games behind Portland with four games to go; they also dropped a line in the bracket, falling to fifth place behind the surging Utah Jazz, who knocked off the Los Angeles Lakers to improve to 45-33 — the same record as Gregg Popovich’s club, but Utah owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, so up come the Jazz and down slide the Spurs into fifth place.
In the grand scheme, Tuesday’s loss isn’t the end of the world for Popovich, Aldridge and company. The postseason projection systems on Basketball-Reference.com, FiveThirtyEight and ESPN all peg San Antonio’s chances of securing one of the five remaining playoff spots in the West at 99 percent or better; entering the final week of the season, even after being without two-way linchpin Kawhi Leonard for nearly the entirety of a drama-infused campaign, the Spurs look like a virtual lock to make the playoffs for the 21st consecutive season.
They did lose out on another bit of franchise and league history with their 33rd loss of the year, though:
The Spurs' 18-year streak of 50 wins in a row comes to an end.
— Paul Garcia (@PaulGarciaNBA) April 4, 2018
That’s right: for the first time since the 1998-99 season, the Spurs won’t finish the season with a win total north of 50. And even that’s a bit of a cheat, considering the ’98-’99 campaign was shortened by a lockout to only 50 games total … so, y’know, winning 50 would’ve been a pretty friggin’ amazing feat that year. The Spurs had to settle for just going 37-13 — a 61-win pace over the course of a regular 82-game slate — and whitewashing the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals to win the first of five NBA championships under Pop’s leadership.
It’s not the end of everything San Antonio has held holy for two decades, but it is the end of something … not that the Spurs’ resident greybeard Argentine philosopher was willing to entertain that notion after the game, according to Jeff Garcia of News4SA.com:
“It’s the most ridiculous thing,” said Ginobili. “I don’t care at all. We want to make it to the playoffs.”
[…] with four games left on their regular-season slate, the margin for error is small.
Said Ginobili, “We want to make it to the playoffs. If we won 50, 49, 80, one, nobody gives a damn.”
You can certainly understand why Ginobili and his teammates would feel that way. After all, the Spurs haven’t exactly thrown themselves parades for extending their playoff and 50-win streaks over the years, so why would they gnash their teeth and rend their garments over things breaking the other way this year? I mean, they’ve got more important things to worry about … like, for example, that they haven’t won a game on the road in more than a month, and that they blew an 11-point lead with 12 minutes to go in a game that could’ve helped them secure a playoff spot in a more tumultuous season than the franchise has seen in more than a decade.
“That’s a tough loss,” Popovich said after the game, according to Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News. “We can’t give up forty-whatever,  points in a quarter, especially the fourth quarter, and win a basketball game on the road … The defense caved in in the fourth quarter … We were very undisciplined.”
Both Popovich and Ginobili referred to the lack of defensive discipline that allowed L.A. to get off the ropes as “disappointing.” Neither would put the same label on failing to win 50 games. It makes sense; this time around, the Spurs are less jockeying for position among the sport’s truly elite teams than they are actively fighting for their postseason life each and every night. They need to be focused on staying in the moment, doing all the small things, and trying to just grind their way across the finish line one day at a time.
The rest of us, though, have the benefit of taking a step back and taking a broader view, and the reality is that this does matter, even if only a little bit.
For 18 years, spanning the eras of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, the Spurs were as close to a sure thing as American professional sports could offer. No matter what happened or who filled out the roster, by hook or by crook, they’d be up near the top of the standings, with an “x” marking a clinched playoff spot next to their name earlier than just about anybody, and with a number higher than 50 in the win column before season’s end. As the Leonard saga has unfolded this season, though, it’s become clear that San Antonio isn’t necessarily ordained to be different than anywhere else. Injuries happen, disagreements fester, stuff gets weird, and you lose more than 32 games.
Durable all-time greats, forward-thinking management and a peerless organizational culture can only sustain you for so long. This year, things broke so that the Spurs won’t win 50 games. Someday, they’ll break so that the Spurs miss the playoffs for the first time since “Titanic” was the highest-grossing movie in America. Eventually, ultimately, the rules apply to everyone.
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