Popovich, Spurs find 'silver lining' amid playoff struggle

Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are in unfamiliar territory: battling for a playoff berth down the stretch of the season. Darren Carroll/NBAE via Getty Images

SAN ANTONIO -- Quiet concern brews in the business and ticket offices of the San Antonio Spurs over the prospect of losing the revenue they'd come to expect like clockwork from advancing to 20 consecutive postseasons.

But for Spurs basketball operations, the vibe remains unchanged despite the danger of missing late-April hoops for the first time since 1997.

Twenty-four starting lineups, 185 total games missed -- including 61 by star forward Kawhi Leonard -- yet not one player, coach or member of personnel has lost focus in the face of current circumstances.

That has allowed the Spurs to run off a three-game winning streak for the first time since late December as they prepare to host the Golden State Warriors Monday night.

"It's been a frustrating season," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "But the challenges have pulled a lot of people closer. You have to do different things to try to stay afloat. It's been rewarding, as counterintuitive as that sounds."

Still, the payoff might manifest itself in the form of a 21st straight trip to the playoffs, which would extend the longest active streak of postseason appearances across all four U.S. major professional sports leagues.

Mounting losses and uncertainty about who will be on the court next to you on a given night -- not to mention not knowing when Leonard will return from a mysterious quad ailment -- could understandably fracture or at least stress relationships in a locker room; especially in an organization with such a long track record of success.

After all, the Spurs have held a losing record for just 48 days over a span of nearly 21 years. Adversity, however, seems to be serving as a galvanizing force in San Antonio.

"You've got to think: You can find the silver lining in anything," veteran guard Danny Green said. "These young guys have gotten a great opportunity to show what they can do, and I think this will be great for them moving forward for their careers and for us as a team also to build some character, some depth, some trust and experience with these younger guys.

"We're hoping when it all comes together that this will be good for us."

When the Spurs defeated the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 24, eight players scored in double-digits (Patty Mills, Bryn Forbes, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Davis Bertans, Dejounte Murray, Joffrey Lauvergne and Green), marking the third time they've had eight players score at least 10 points in one game. San Antonio remains the only team in the NBA to accomplish such a feat this season on multiple occasions.

In fact, the Spurs have had a total of 15 players lead the team in scoring this season (outright or tied), which qualifies as the most in the NBA, according ESPN Stats & Information. Even the reserves jump into the act, having outscored or matched the production of opponents' benches in all but 19 games this season.

"The challenges have pulled a lot of people closer. You have to do different things to try to stay afloat. It's been rewarding, as counterintuitive as that sounds."
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich

That's part of what makes this season so rewarding for Popovich.

"I think everything we do, no matter what our walk of life, you can find things that are rewarding," Popovich said. "Some things are disappointing. Some things are challenging. Some things are exciting. But it's rewarding to see guys react to the minutes that they're getting; some of these young guys that haven't played much.

"The way they reach out to each other and stay good teammates while the lineups have constantly changed, they've shown a lot of empathy and patience with each other in that regard. And I think that has allowed them to keep their heads up. Even though we've lost some games down the stretch in fourth quarters, they've maintained their ability to enjoy playing with each other. So that's been rewarding to see that. Because a lot of squads, no matter the sport, may just cash it in in a way, and these guys haven't done that at all."

They simply won't allow it, even though some might disagree with Popovich's assertion that this season has been rewarding.

"I respect all that, but I want to win," forward Kyle Anderson said. "That's what's most important to me. We're getting better, we're learning, and this can only make us tougher in the long run. But I'd rather win those games."

Team dinners, whether after wins or losses, have long been franchise staples for the Spurs and have been considered to be vital in establishing the selfless culture in San Antonio. And in a diverse locker room that includes players from France, Spain, Latvia, Australia and Argentina, Popovich believes it's important for the Spurs to get to know one another off the court for them to be more empathetic about the experiences of others, which in turn makes them more accountable on the court.

Green explained that over the course of a difficult season such as this one, it's more important than ever for the players to communicate often and spend even more time together. He pointed out the need "to grow even closer in times like these" because adversity makes teams vulnerable to fracturing.

So the Spurs have held more "group get-togethers" than in previous years, Green said, and the functions vary. Popovich arranged a private screening of Ava DuVernay's "13th" documentary during a January trip to Los Angeles. During the same trip, Manu Ginobili and teammates Brandon Paul, Mills and Lauvergne toured Elon Musk's SpaceX headquarters.

From the coaching staff's perspective, Popovich said "all of us are just more engaged off the court, showing film; showing what's good transition defense, what's poor transition defense. For us there's been a lot more time spent talking to guys before and after practices, at halftime, showing people examples because they don't have those examples. It's an opportunity you actually get to coach a little bit more in a sense. It's fun to teach. These guys, you think, well, they're grown, [and] they are who they are. But they're still players who need parameters. They want discipline. They want to get better. So, it's our job to keep teaching them. As the year goes along, you realize different things."

For a newcomer such as Rudy Gay, it's important to place what's transpiring into the proper perspective. Since Gay's rookie season in the NBA, the Spurs have played in 153 playoff contests, while he's appeared in seven.

This time last season, Gay couldn't even walk after tearing his left Achilles.

"To be honest with you, I take it for what it's worth," Gay said. "It's been a tough season for me, and a tough season for the team. But I put everything in perspective. I'm just happy to be able to play. But I can understand what Pop is saying because we have come together. I've felt we have gotten closer as a group, and everybody for the most part is on the same page. Injuries, and us not having everybody, and not being able to play at our full potential, that's tough on us.

"But we've hung together. We've never strayed from our goal, which is to win."