MIAMI — Gregg Popovich is in a great mood, seeming to enjoy every aspect of the conversation. There was talk about wine, his favorite beverage and probably his favorite topic.
There was talk about players who came through the San Antonio system. There was talk about past NBA Finals matchups and some coaches he admires.
Then the chat turned to the Spurs. And the effusive answers from the venerable San Antonio coach were no more.
“We’re doing what we’ve always done, I guess,” Popovich shrugged.
True, but that’s what makes the Spurs worth talking about. Off to the NBA’s best start at 4-0 — and matching the best start in franchise history, one they could top at Orlando on Friday — the Spurs are generally ignoring this era’s preferred method of go-go-go, pace-and-space, shoot-the-3 basketball and relying instead on post-ups and defense.
It’s working, even as the Spurs wait for Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker — their best player and their point guard — to make their season debuts.
“It’s remarkable what they do and how they reinvent themselves every year,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The faces change, but their standards and excellence remain the same. So now they’re doing it retro, doing it totally old-school, the way everybody said you can’t do it.
“They’re doing it by building a top-caliber defense, not playing with incredible pace, not playing with the 3-point line right now … and they’re still beating everybody.”
San Antonio’s latest victim: Spoelstra and the Heat, winning 117-100 in Miami on Wednesday night. The Spurs were plus-12 in rebounds, plus-14 in bench scoring, shot 10 for 17 from 3-point range while holding Miami to a 9-for-26 night from beyond the arc. In a 9-minute span of the second half, the Spurs used a 32-13 run that decided everything.
Popovich dismissed the Spurs’ effort as mediocre, especially on defense. But all Miami could do afterward was tip its cap.
“They just know how to play,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said. “They have that consistency. They have that system that is really good. You can see every cut, every pass, it’s crisp. Sooner or later, you’re going to get hit by a screen and they’ll take advantage of that.”
Even without Leonard and Parker, it’s all working.
LaMarcus Aldridge, who often didn’t seem to fit with the Spurs during his first two seasons, is averaging 26 points and is off to the best four-game start of his career. Rudy Gay, a Spurs newcomer and a backup for the first time since he was a rookie, is averaging 14.8 points on 58 percent shooting. The Spurs are allowing an average of 93 points per game — 12 teams entering Thursday have given up more than that in every game they’ve played this season.
It seems like a very basic style.
And it’s proven to be very effective.
“That’s what I know,” Popovich said. “That’s what I’m teaching. It suits our team and our personnel, so why not?”
Popovich treats the nuances of the Spurs’ system as if they are state secrets. The basic principles are easy and obvious, though. He tells a player simply to play to his strength. Case in point: Dejounte Murray, who’s filling Parker’s role while the veteran recovers from a leg injury, is the only guard in the NBA right now with more than 100 minutes as a starter and less than three 3-point attempts.
Murray has taken two, and missed both. He’s not a shooter yet.
“His focus right now is defense and rebounding,” Popovich said. “Eventually he will learn about pick-and-rolls and when his shot gets better, he will be real dangerous.”
This is what makes the Spurs dangerous: No one is asked to venture out of their comfort zone, and Popovich figures out the rest.
“You’ve got to adapt to your personnel,” Spurs veteran Manu Ginobili said. “If you have LaMarcus Aldridge, you’re going to post up more than other teams. Defensively, we’re trying to be who we always be and always were. I’m pretty sure that’s what other teams like to try to be. No secret there. We just try to be the same old defensive team and adapt to whoever we have offensively.”
The Spurs have won 60 percent of their games in each of the last 20 seasons — a streak eight years longer than any other team in NBA history, and four years longer than any other team ever in the four major North American sports leagues. Popovich is going to pass Phil Jackson, George Karl and possibly Pat Riley on the NBA’s all-time wins list this season.
Golden State is the NBA’s best team and LeBron James its best player, but San Antonio is still the league’s standard.
“You just have to credit Pop, their program and the players that they like in their program and their adaptability to be able to sustain their excellence,” Spoelstra said.
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