Once every year, the colossus known as the San Antonio Spurs comes to Charlotte and gives the Hornets a one-night look at sustained excellence.
Sometimes the game matters a fair amount. Sometimes it doesn’t matter a bit.
Rarely does it matter a lot, but it will Monday night when the Spurs (59-10) play the Hornets (39-30) in a game with playoff implications for both teams.
“It’s always huge to play against the Spurs,” Charlotte’s Nic Batum said. “It’s always special to play against a team like that. They’ve been great for 15-20 years now, with a lot of the same players and all with the same coach.”
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Indeed, you could make the argument that San Antonio is the best franchise in all of pro sports. Since San Antonio drafted Tim Duncan out of Wake Forest University in 1997, the Spurs have won at least 50 games in every full NBA season. They have also made the playoffs every year and, most impressively, have won the NBA championship five times.
They have reloaded on the fly over and over, remaking their team with one surgical personnel move after another, much like the NFL’s New England Patriots. No matter who is out there, San Antonio wins.
Tim Duncan has played for all five of San Antonio’s NBA title teams, and Gregg Popovich has coached all five.
Duncan turns 40 next month, and he came off the bench, played just eight minutes and scored a single point Saturday night when the Spurs beat Golden State 87-79 to go to 35-0 at home this season. Tony Parker only scored six points against the Warriors. Manu Ginobili had just nine. So that was 16 points – combined – from the Spurs’ former Big Three.
It didn’t matter. Kawhi Leonard is San Antonio’s best player now, and the Spurs have LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green (who forced Stephen Curry into 1-for-12 shooting from 3-point range and 4-of-18 overall) and several other strong players, as well as the NBA’s best and crustiest coach in Gregg Popovich.
As for San Antonio’s legendary ball movement, Batum said: “That’s the way the game should be played. … Move the ball, cut, share the ball, play as a team.”
It’s the way Batum plays, too, and he’s a primary reason why the Hornets are going to make the playoffs this season. Charlotte took a bad loss at home Saturday night, though, trailing by 15 most of the way against a lousy Denver team.
A sellout crowd Saturday night – the Hornets’ 12th sellout of the season, setting a franchise record for most sellouts since Charlotte’ NBA franchise resumed play in 2004 – had little to cheer about. Charlotte played the sort of game the Spurs simply never, ever play at home. It was a reminder of how far the Hornets really need to go to get to the Spurs’ level.
“We had bad energy,” point guard Kemba Walker said.
San Antonio is not invincible on the road; the Spurs have taken 10 losses away from home this season. San Antonio provides difficult matchups everywhere, but the Hornets do boast Batum (a better version of the Spurs’ Boris Diaw) and Walker (who can hold his own against Parker) as well as their own version of Duncan in veteran big man Al Jefferson. Those two have matched up against each other in the paint hundreds of times.
In the teams’ first meeting this season, the Spurs beat Charlotte by 20 in November behind Kawhi Leonard’s 23 points.
“Anytime you go against Tim Duncan, you better have your ‘A’ game,” said Jefferson, who used Duncan’s example this past offseason to shed 25 pounds. “You better have your shoes tied up real tight. I think the older he gets, the smarter he is, the better he gets. … I think if he plays until he’s 45 or 46 years old, you still better be ready, because it’s not going to be an easy ride.”
The Hornets play nine of their final 13 regular-season games on the road. They have been pretty good there but better at home, and a win vs. San Antonio Monday would negate the sting of that ugly defeat to Denver.
You also never know whether it might be the last time Duncan, the best player Wake Forest has ever produced, plays in Charlotte. Duncan isn’t a guy who wants to accept accolades and standing ovations in opposing arenas for an entire season as Kobe Bryant has this year. Eventually, he’s just going to leave and take his bank shot with him.
But not yet. Even once Duncan is done, the Spurs won’t be going anywhere.