For one night, it was the San Antonio Spurs who were the bad guys.
Down 21 in the first quarter of Friday night’s showdown with the pluckily lovable Phoenix Suns, the Spurs—on the cusp of securing the best regular-season record in the NBA—mounted a furious comeback en route to a 112-104 win, staking full conference claim while sending the Suns back below the playoff fold.
To those familiar with San Antonio’s 15-year, almost gravitational consistency, none of this came as a surprise. Unless, perhaps, you’re one of the league’s 29 other teams, haunted as you'd be by this singular question:
How do they do it?
Since joining the NBA as part of the ABA expansion ahead of the 1976-77 season, the Spurs have notched 30 or fewer wins only twice. And while the team was considered a paragon of sound stewardship long before its championship run, it was the year they notched their lowest-ever win total that proved the franchise’s true turning point.
Everyone thought it would be the Boston Celtics—they of the 16 championship banners, who’d managed a measly 15 wins during the 1996-97 season—who would wind up with Tim Duncan, the fleet-footed phenom from Wake Forest everyone knew to be a genuine game-changer.
Instead, Duncan landed in San Antonio, where the team’s little-known general manager and onetime Air Force cadet, Gregg Popovich, had just assumed the coaching reins.
"The rest is history,” we might be tempted to say. Might, if we weren’t so certain the story was far from finished.
Over the next 16 seasons, the Spurs would win four NBA championships, make it to the conference finals eight times and crest the 50-win threshold every year but one: the 37-win, lockout-shortened, title-winning 1998-99 campaign—adjusted for percentage, the equivalent of a 62-win season.
With the team's current core trio averaging 34.6 years old—Tim Duncan (37), Manu Ginobili (36) and Tony Parker (31)—the Spurs, with just two more wins, will have logged the best record in franchise history (64-18) and secured the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed for the second straight season.
To point to a single reason or particular person behind San Antonio’s steadfast success would seem to cheapen the franchise’s accomplishments. In reality, any one of five answers might, in a certain well-trained light, be the right one.
You could start with Duncan, that beacon of supposedly boring basketball transcendence, whose gracefully ground-bound might be politely dismissed, if it weren't the biggest reason for his first-ballot career creeping up on year 17.
You could start with Ginobili or Parker, the two foreign fliers plucked out of draft-day obscurity (the former No. 57 in 1999, the latter No. 28 two years later)—a pair of guile-guided wings so perfectly suited to Duncan’s milquetoast mastery as to suggest a basketball telepathy.
Gregg Popovich, that master of understatement, a creaky, cranky genius in the ways of words and warfare alike: a worthy candidate, cantankerousness notwithstanding.
Or Peter Holt, perhaps, the team’s principal owner and cultural compass, who in keeping the team in San Antonio helped to foster one of the league’s most intensely loyal fanbases—a model of sports symbiosis made all the more incredible by the city’s “small-market” specs.
General Manager R.C. Buford? The front-office maestro behind three of the team’s four titles, saint of savvy signings, architect of a foundation so sound and sturdy seismologists couldn’t find a breaking point? It's his due, too.
But if there's a singular, pedagogical tie that binds all of these parties in their collective basketball brilliance, perhaps it’s this: a constant, almost maniacal attention to detail.
Here’s Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney speaking on precisely this subject back in March:
San Antonio is interested in the same measures of daily maintenance, as evidenced by Popovich’s unwavering insistence on perfection regardless of the opponent. There’s just less to glean in the result for a team that has been so impeccably prepared and so resiliently balanced for so long. That doesn’t mean the Spurs are boring, or even under-covered. They’re simply inevitable.
How inevitable, you ask? The last time San Antonio finished outside the top 10 in overall offensive efficiency was 2008-09—five consecutive seasons of upper-echelon execution.
As for Pop, his perfection fetish was on full display Friday night:
Coming off a crippling seven-game defeat in last year’s NBA Finals—a series in which they were one, bench-bound Duncan rebound away from clinching in six—the Spurs were seen, as they have been for years now, as warriors walking wounded, as much in skills as souls or spirit.
For the first few months of the 2013-14 season, with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers rising high as heirs apparent, San Antonio risked playing into that exact narrative, albeit a full four or five years late and despite a typically sterling record.
Then March came, and a rebound win turned into a burst. And the burst begat another burst, from five to 10 to 15. Before we knew it, there the Spurs were, back astride the conference they’d so often conquered, sleepy-eyed assassins cloaked in the only appropriate color.
And there they’ll remain until someone dethrones them—if precedence is to be believed, all too briefly.
But even if San Antonio’s season ends absent a bookending banner, the graceful greatness with which they’ve navigated the season will merely be the latest chapter in a treatise of NBA franchise management that might well be the best book ever written on the subject.
That is, of course, if it weren’t already the bible.