In the wake of the Spurs’ 105-92 loss to the Thunder, the eulogies, panic and drama were quick in coming. With the series now tied at 2-2, the ghosts of San Antonio’s collapse against Oklahoma City after going up 2-0 in 2012 rose up and the whispers about what falling to the Thunder yet again would do to the Spurs’ and Gregg Popovich’s vaunted reputation began circulating. With due respect to Serge Ibaka’s monster return and the outsized talent on the Thunder roster, how does a team held up for so long as the model of consistency and execution crumble so spectacularly?
The problem is that there’s a baseline flaw in that question, and it’s one that reveals a persistent and resilient narrative anchor in our understanding of sports, but also of life generally. For all the lip service to history repeating itself, for all the jokes about time being a flat circle, there’s a strong belief in perfectibility, in history as an ever-rising arc, in how we think about champions. Michael Jordan purged himself of weakness, of an immature selfishness, to become great. LeBron James discovered his inner resolve. Or — more mechanically — the Spurs constructed a dense, resolute architecture that consumes and absorbs the quirks and inadequacies of role players in order to fashion them into stainless steel warriors to stand alongside Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Put simply, we have a really hard time believing that something that’s become great can ever be bad again. Writ large, this belief is played out in the way we see the moment we’re in as the culmination of all of humankind’s effort. Virtual reality! Instant access to email wherever you go! SportVU! Moon pies! What a time to be alive. Writ small, it’s leveling up in a video game. You garner enough experience to get that Daedric Smithing perk you’re never going to wake up in Markarth not knowing how to make some sweet Daedric gauntlets.
But in the real world, where the entire sweep of history can look like a beautiful curve tracing up toward the sky, every actual day is a blank sheet, another trip to the well. And when you’re at the outer limits of your capabilities, testing the knife edge of your skills, sometimes the well is dry. The page stays blank.
You could see it in Gregg Popovich at times during Game 4. Whether yelling or boring holes through a player or ref, his look didn’t so much say, “What is going wrong?” as “This is going wrong.” His response to a question about going deep into his bench was simply, “Thursday.” After the Spurs trounced the Thunder in the first game, he was hardly more voluble, explaining that they had no “plan” to take advantage of Serge Ibaka’s absence. “You take what’s given,” he said. “Play the game. Respect the game and whatever’s there, take advantage of that.”
Sometimes, there’s nothing there, even for a Hall of Fame coach and several Hall of Fame players. Popovich put in his bench partway through the third and never looked back, not even when the reserves cut a 27-point lead down to 12. The Spurs’ aging starters would have to be ready for Game 5, win or lose. Any perception we have of a season or a series or history itself as arcing upward towards invulnerable excellence is the view from inside a flat circle. There are circles inside that big arc, and maybe that bigger circle looks like an arc from another perspective. The crumbling and the consistency are each their own kind of illusion.