Here’s how Charlotte Hornets point guard Jeremy Lin reacted when asked what makes the San Antonio Spurs distinct among 29 other NBA franchises:
“A lot of times you hear about (teams) making adjustments to the Spurs,” Lin said Friday. “You never hear about the Spurs making adjustments to other” teams.
Much as there is a New England Patriots way of doing things that other NFL teams both admire and resent, the Spurs are the Spurs. They’ve had the same coach, curmudgeonly Gregg Popovich, for 20 years. The trio at their core – Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – are the winningest teammates in NBA history.
Since Duncan’s arrival from Wake Forest in 1997, the Spurs have won 11 division titles, six Western Conference titles and five NBA championships. So when someone from the outside grouses about Popovich resting veterans for a road game – they once listed Duncan on the injury report as “old” – they don’t sweat your opinion of them.
This is the team the Hornets will face Saturday at AT&T Center – one that has beaten them in 15 of the past 16 meetings and nine in a row.
Hornets guard-forward Nic Batum is close friends with two of those Spurs: Parker and former Charlotte Bobcat Boris Diaw. Those three played together on the French national team last summer, and it was an opportunity for Batum to quiz his buddies on what makes the Spurs the Spurs.
“I don’t think any of those guys care about their numbers – how many points, how many rebounds they’re going to get. They only care who is going to win the game at the end. And most of the time they do win it in the end,” Batum said.
“That’s why I think they’ve been so good so long; their mentality, their approach to the game. … Whether they’re up 20 or down 20, they’re going to play the same way.”
That insistence from Popovich on down to stick to a script is what Hornets coach Steve Clifford sees as the Spurs’ greatness.
There aren’t many wild attempts at innovation in the NBA; nothing like the wildcat formation in football or the extreme infield shifts in vogue of late in baseball. Coaching is more about making sure players know precisely what is expected of them in a given situation.
“When you watch them play everything makes sense,” Clifford said. “From the way they (defend) a pick-and-roll to the way they run a pick-and-roll.”
Clifford said the mark of the Spurs isn’t outsmarting opponents with trickery, but rather executing the simple things with such precision that it works in the most stressful moments.
“You think about all the years” they’ve excelled, Clifford said. “A (playoff) Game 6, they’re on the road with 55 seconds left, they’re down one and my vision of that team isn’t of all these great shots, it’s of Ginobili getting the ball to Duncan, making a quick cut and he just lays it in. Simple plays.”
Clifford knows his team isn’t the Spurs. But he’s encouraged that several of the players acquired in the offseason – Lin, Batum, Jeremy Lamb and Spencer Hawes – have passing skills and that unselfish approach that help the Spurs excel.
None more, Clifford said, than Batum, who has been given major decision-making responsibility in Charlotte’s offense.
“There are plenty of guys who are sound basketball players when you give them the ball. But he – and this is an exceptional quality even at this level – only gives them the ball when they have a chance to do something with it,” Clifford said of Batum.
“That, to me, is Steve Nash or Tracy McGrady: It’s being an expert on your teammates and playing in a way that makes them better all the time.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell