SAN ANTONIO — On Wednesday night, in New Orleans, NBA commissioner David Stern made sure to be on hand when one of the sexiest, glitziest teams in the league adorned fans and media with something equally shiny and impressive: Kobe Bryant becoming just the fifth player in history to score 30,000 points in his career.
But it was 500 miles due west, away from the records and the commissioner and a 9-10 Lakers team that has commanded so much attention, that the San Antonio Spurs continued to be the slow, steady, sure organization that racks up wins in its no-flair style.
The kind of fireworks, drama and Q-rating scores Stern has masterfully used to lift the NBA higher in the American imagination? None here, not this team. There are no ego battles, no stars demanding exits, no Linsanity, no teams hijacked by their own players, no big-city angst over a so-so season. Just a Spurs squad quietly taking care of the Milwaukee Bucks, 110-99, to lift its record to a near-league-best 15-4.
This is the crux of Stern’s anger last week at San Antonio’s decision to send its stars home instead of play them in a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat. One week ago today, Restgate burst onto the scene because Stern has as much of an issue with the Spurs’ success as how they do it. The drama was as much a reminder that Stern would rather see an NBA dominated by teams in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago as it was about that one incident.
Those in the Spurs organization know this, and they feel strongly that they did what they always had done: Let Gregg Popovich coach his team, his way and the way he always had. Resting players wasn’t new, and had happened nearly a dozen times since 2007. Was Popovich also tweaking a commissioner who’s as much a control freak and mind-game tactician as he is? Maybe. Probably. And he probably thought he was doing it safely within the rules. It sure looked that way to everyone but Stern.
But what got lost in Stern vs. Pop is that the Spurs are winners, and they have earned the right to win their way. They nearly beat Miami a week ago without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green. They followed that game up by beating Memphis, which has the best record in the league.
And on Wednesday night, they got 40 points, 25 rebounds and 13 assists from their bench, even though Gary Neal started in place of an injured Green, against a Milwaukee team that played them tough.
Think all that experience playing the Heat had something to do with it?
“They’re talented,” Parker said Wednesday. “They showed it in Miami, and tonight they showed it again. Pop is always trying to do stuff to make sure our bench is performing, and tonight it definitely performed.”
They showed it in Miami, but they might also have learned it in Miami. This is a league where you learn by doing. The Spurs have done it, year after year, their way. The way Pop has taught them to. So with the spotlight elsewhere and the drama behind Restgate fading the Spurs are still the Spurs: Winning games quietly in flyover country, watching Duncan — perhaps the most underrated all-time great in history — seem to shed years, and enjoying Parker’s continued MVP-level of play.
And watching a bench blossom under the tutelage of a coach who can rest his three stars against one of the league’s best teams and, a week later, still be 15-4.
Maybe even Stern is starting to get that he can’t rewrite how the Spurs do business in large part because it works so well. He stressed from New Orleans that had the Spurs notified everyone, well, heck, who knows what would have happened?
He also seemed to back off his criticisms of Popovich. Maybe it has dawned on him you can’t criticize a coach with four rings for, you know, coaching his team.
“Pop is a great coach, Hall of Fame coach,” Stern said. “This decision was made by the entire senior management and ownership of the San Antonio Spurs, and I felt that they were doing what they perceived was their job and I was doing what I perceived as my job and that’s what happens.”
Exactly. Stern’s job is to keep his TV partners happy and sell the league. The Spurs’ job is to win games and, ultimately, championships.
A quick trip to San Antonio serves as the perfect reminder: They’re not living it up under the star-studded lights of the big city, but they’re very much inching closer toward another postseason run.