Gregg Popovich breathed a sigh of relief in the aftermath of the Spurs’ victorious homestand against the Kings the other day. He had just seen his charges clinch a 21st consecutive playoff berth, a modern-era National Basketball Association record bested only by the pioneering Syracuse Nationals. Not normally predisposed to celebrating a modest stride, he allowed himself a moment of comfort, and with reason. When the black and silver were last compelled to take an early vacation, he was just a rookie head coach and franchise legend Tim Duncan had yet to declare for the draft.
Popovich won’t admit it, but the current season is, in many ways, his best at the helm. For all his achievements as five-time champion and three-time Coach of the Year, he hasn’t looked more in command at the hot seat than through his 2017-2018 campaign, during which the Spurs were handicapped with the highest number of man-hours lost to injury in the league by far. Among those sidelined was All-Defense staple and Most Valuable Player candidate Kawhi Leonard, from whom everything hitherto emanated. In the absence of his top dog and in the face of an unprecedented churn of personnel, he managed to stay competitive in the cutthroat Western Conference.
All things considered, it’s a wonder the Spurs still have a chance to claim homecourt advantage in the first round of the postseason. With some luck accompanying a win over the Pelicans today, they may yet find their resolve rewarded by good news. If nothing else, the development would be reflective of their roller-coaster ride; earlier this week, they weren’t even certain of booking a seat in the playoffs. And if their effort waxed and waned for parts of their grueling trek, their confidence did not — as good a testament as any of their faith in Popovich and the magic he routinely wields.
Certainly, the Spurs continue to face an uphill battle. Given the depth of the field and their relative lack of talent to implement the best of Popovich’s plans, making the conference semifinals would be a feat in and of itself. All the same, contentment will not be theirs to experience; winning has been so ingrained in them that nothing less than a crack at the Larry O’Brien Trophy will qualify as a job well done. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. Then again, they are who they are, an extension of a mentor who demands excellence on the court and off.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.