NEW YORK — Gregg Popovich has been around the game of basketball and his San Antonio Spurs team long enough to know when he has seen enough, and after three quarters of the Spurs’ 100-83 loss to the New York Knicks on Thursday night — well, suffice it to say he had seen all he needed to see.
Popovich pulled stars Tim Duncan and Tony Parker with 3:02 left in the third quarter of what was a seven-point game against a Knicks team battling for first place in the Eastern Conference. And as New York’s lead ballooned to 17 within the first two minutes of the fourth quarter — and then 25 later in the frame — the NBA’s most perverse coach never gave much consideration to putting them back in.
The Spurs (26-9), playing their fourth game in five nights, saw their seven-game win streak end in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden, but it didn’t much matter, just like most individual wins and losses don’t matter for the league’s least fascinating, but most frustratingly consistent team.
After making 15 consecutive playoff appearances and winning four NBA championships since selecting the big man Duncan first overall in the 1997 draft, this is a franchise that has learned to play for May and June and has never put too much stock in what happens on random Thursday nights in January. And given those accomplishments, all under Popovich, who are we to question their methods?
“I could see it wasn’t going to happen,” Popovich said of the decision to phone it in against the Knicks, who shot 54.5 percent in the second half and made 12 3-pointers on the night. “We were too low on fuel and their defense was too good — a bad combination. And then they made shots, which makes it even worse. Toward the middle or end of the third quarter, they started knocking them down, and that was that.”
All told, Duncan, who is having an exceptional bounceback season at age 36, played 24 minutes and followed up his monster game in Wednesday night’s win in Milwaukee with an unexceptional 11 points and six rebounds. Parker contributed 11 points and six assists in the same amount of time. Reserve guard Manu Ginobili played exactly two seconds more than Duncan and Parker and added eight points on just 2-of-10 shooting.
It could be argued that Popovich willingly gave away a winnable game by sitting his stars late — and maybe he did. But really, we should consider ourselves lucky that Popovich even played them at all, especially considering what happened last time San Antonio visited an East power in the final game of a four-games-in-five-nights stretch.
On Nov. 29, Popovich defiantly sent Duncan, Parker and Ginobili home before the final game of a nine-day, six-game road trip that concluded with a nationally televised game in Miami. The league ended up fining the Spurs $250,000 for “resting players in a manner contrary to the best interests of the NBA,” but even now it doesn’t sound like a decision Popovich regrets making.
Before Thursday’s loss, Popovich revisited the choice to concede the Heat game — which they really didn’t concede at all, and nearly won despite having a skeleton crew — and contrasted it to Thursday’s game, which came on the heels of wins over the Mavericks, Nets and Bucks in four days leading up to it.
“This one, everyone is pretty healthy and we’ve had time, so it’s a little bit different circumstance,” Popovich said when asked if his stars would be playing. “But it’s not about rest. It’s about health and it’s about safety. Rest comes into it a little bit more toward the end. … For us, being a little older in the beginning of the year, it’s about doing what we have to do so that they’re there at the end of the season. That’s the main thing.”
The palpable lack of concern over Thursday’s result was almost comical in the San Antonio locker room after the game. You haven’t seen a team not give a damn about a loss until you’ve seen the Spurs not give a damn about a loss, and, as expected, San Antonio dismissed the defeat as little more than one of 20 to 30 losses the Spurs will absorb this season. The Spurs players were a “nobody expects to go 82-0” away from using every post-loss cliché in the book.
“It’s a long season, it’s a lot of games,” Duncan said. “You’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some. We feel pretty good about ourselves right now; I think we’re playing pretty well. We dropped a game, but we won three out of four on four in five nights. That’s a pretty decent go at it, so we’ll take it and move onto the next one.”
When asked what his team needed to do to turn things around when it takes the floor for its next game, Saturday at home against Philadelphia, Duncan doubled up on his distant, almost blithe demeanor.
“Turn what around?” he asked, in a way that didn’t sound nearly as pretentious as it reads. “We lost a game — it’s the middle of the season, it happens. … We just won [seven] in a row and lost a game. I think we’ll be all right.”
After winning a league-best 50 games in last year’s condensed, post-lockout regular season, the Spurs ran out of steam against a younger, more energetic Oklahoma City team in the Western Conference finals.
Thursday’s loss dropped San Antonio to third in the West, behind the Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers only by percentage points. Should the Spurs get another shot at yet another title in a Duncan era that has been nothing if not uniform, the Spurs don’t want fatigue to be their downfall — and they don’t care how flippant they sound about it.
It might not always be the most popular approach, but when it comes to the Spurs, and particularly Popovich, the only thing that matters is the endgame, and little else — not opponents, not winning streaks, not national TV broadcasts or playing till the final whistle and certainly not hefty fines — carries any weight.
“It’s a long season,” Popovich said during a postgame news conference that was so somber it started with a fiscal cliff joke. “(We have a) game on Saturday, that’s the one that matters now — whoever it is.”