Whenever he looks at the standings, San Antoino Spurs coach Gregg Popovich knows his team’s record can be a little deceiving.
So to make it clear for his players, he’ll write their record on the team’s white board, and he’ll tell everyone in the locker room to look at it.
Before they set out on their nine-game rodeo road trip, they were 34-13. They had the second best record in the Western Conference and the LA Clippers, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat, and Memphis Grizzlies were all staring up at them in the standings.
Once his team gets a good look, Popovich turns back and tells them, “Now, that’s not really our record. Here’s our record.”
The record he’s counting includes the January losses to the Heat and the Rockets, the December losses to the Pacers and the Clippers, the two losses to Portland, and the three losses to Oklahoma City, the best team in the West.
Those are the teams Popovich considers elite, and the only win San Antonio has to show for itself against them was an early-January victory over the Clippers, who were without Chris Paul.
“I’ll put it up and it’s like 1-9 against the teams I consider to be the best teams in the league — a couple in the East and three or four in the West,” Popovich said.
He didn’t have an explanation. He could have thrown out any slew of injuries the Spurs have dealt with this season. He could have pointed to the games he’s decided to rest his stars.
But he said, “I look back at those games, and I haven’t come up with anything, to be honest with you. I can make something up.”
They all had something in common though.
“I just think that those teams are much younger than us, much more athletic and they’ve given us problems,” he said.
They ran into a very young Celtics team Wednesday night, but they were by no means elite. They were limping into the All-Star break with 19 wins going into Wednesday night.
The Spurs were without Manu Ginobili (hamstring), Kawhi Leonard (finger), Tiago Splitter (calf) and Tony Parker, who was sent home early to get a jump on the All-Star break.
The Spurs still did what they’ve done all season, feast on a sub-.500 team. Behind Tim Duncan’s 25 points and nine rebounds, they blew by the Celtics, 104-92, at TD Garden.
Knowing there was a six-day break until their next game, Popovich had no problems pushing Duncan to the limit.
He played 35 minutes, 10 of which came in the fourth quarter when he dropped 12 points and only missed one of his six shots.
Over the course of the night, Duncan turned the Celtics young big men into his dance partners on the post, spinning off both shoulders, falling away for jumpers, and leaning in for hook shots, kissing them all, of course, off the glass.
The Spurs outscored the Celtics, 46-32, in the paint, but Popovich made sure to clarify, “We didn’t. Duncan did.”
For Duncan, it was nothing new.
“They kept coming to me and I just put it in the hole,” Duncan said. “It wasn’t anything special. It wasn’t anything I changed. They started going down for me.”
What stood out, though, was the job the Spurs role players did around him. From Marco Belinelli (who had 9 of his 16 points and five of his career-high 11 rebounds in the first quarter) to Patty Mills (who scored 16 points and knocked down three 3s in order to win a one-on-one shootout with Jerryd Bayless) to Boris Diaw the good cop to Duncan’s bad cop on the block (18 points, four assists), the Spurs role players quietly operated around Duncan.
When he thinks about the deceptive gap between his team and the other teams in the Spurs’ neighborhood in the standings, Popovich said his team will be better for it.
“Having those other guys out allows them to get some experience and down the road one or two of them will be able to help us,” Popovich said.
Still 24 of the Spurs’ 38 wins have come against teams under .500.
When they get back from the All-Star break, the number will be staring them in the face.
“We know we haven’t beat too many of the top teams in the league,” Duncan said. “We’ve had a struggle this year in that respect. There’s a second half of the season to play. We’re in decent position, we’re right in the hunt.
“We’ve been dealing with a lot of injuries, we’ve lost a lot of those games, and even with all of those things we are where we are. So hopefully, the second half we can turn that record around a lot.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.