by Johnny Mann
I flew into San Antonio preparing to write a story on the Spurs historic streak. The team had rattled off a record 19 wins in a row, and was playing a final road game in OKC before heading back to the Alamo Dome. The Thunder has owned this matchup for the past couple seasons, winning 10 of the last 12, so it wasn’t shocking that they ended the most recent run before the team got back in town to face the Memphis Grizzlies. There were a lot of factors: the Spurs had played five games in eight nights; the Thunder were coming off three days rest; Ginobili was banged up; etc. But the fact remained the streak was over and not one person in San Antonio seemed to care. And if they did they were happy to see it end.
“I hope we lose,” the bartender muttered just before halftime of the OKC game. “I don’t want the team to get too relaxed before the Playoffs. Besides, I never heard anyone bragging about how many win streaks they had.” The players generally shared the same sentiment, as Manu claimed he didn’t get the hype from the jump. “If it was one thing I didn’t care about it was the streak,” he said following practice on Saturday. “In my mind [all the talk] doesn’t make sense at all. It’s a curious thing and it’s not easy but I prefer to win 15 two times than to get to 20.”
Anyone familiar with the Spurs organization knows this is not much of a news flash. Only one thing matters and neither regular season streaks nor 60 wins guarantees a trophy. So, we get it: The Spurs don’t care about streaks. How about having it broken by your rival who you will have to face if you want a return trip to the finals? That has to mess with your mental edge.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Popovich deadpans. “It doesn’t matter who you finally lose to. You can’t take too much from one game regardless of whether you win or lose. You just have to keep your eye on fundamentals and what counts.”
The only thing that counts in San Antonio is Playoff contention and preparation. From November there has been a major focus on managing minutes to be ready for the postseason. It’s been all about resting the Big Three and giving the bench a lot of floor time. But as we get closer to the Playoffs, things are beginning to shift, as Popovich looks for the right balance going into late April. “You don’t want to overplay guys but you also don’t want to win every game by 20 and have guys only playing 22 minutes,” he said. “We got into that a little bit with this streak. I’d rather have more competitive games where we win a few and lose a few, be sharper and have the guys in good shape.”
That means added minutes from players who will see more action come Playoffs. First priority: Kawhi Leonard.
“[Kawhi] is someone we want to play as many minutes as he can against the other teams’ best player,” Pop said. “He has the inclination for it and he likes the challenge. We want him to get as much experience against great players as possible to see what they do and how they play. We want to keep upping his minutes because we want him to play a lot [in the Playoffs].”
Against the Grizzlies, we started to see the plan unfold, as they stomped their potential first round foe by 20. Leonard leads the team in both minutes and points with a career high 26. Manu returns from several days of rest and is a major factor, hitting 4-6 from beyond the arc. While it wasn’t competitive like coach had hoped, everyone looked pretty sharp. It’s a 60-win season in the bag. The beginning of another streak. Another No. 1 seed in the Playoffs. And it doesn’t really mean anything unless the trophy is raised in June.