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Spurs Tackle NBA Title Defense with Consistency in Their Message and Players

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterOctober 21, 2014

Soobum Im/USA Today

SAN ANTONIO — Kyle Anderson has had it easy, relatively speaking.

Not only did he have some help from fellow rookies who, unlike him, aren't expected to make the San Antonio Spurs' final roster, but when the first-round pick from UCLA was told to sing "Happy Birthday" to the organization's latest import, longtime Euroleague coach Ettore Messina, he was allowed to do it in just one language:   

English. 

"That's the only one I know," Anderson said, laughing.   

It isn't the only one spoken in these parts, of course. The Spurs have long been the most multilingual operation outside of Rosetta Stone, to the point that even the Jacob Riis quote about pounding the rock until it finally splitsthe one that Gregg Popovich has adopted as the squad's mantrais posted in Spanish, French, Portuguese and Latin in the corridor leading to the locker room, where it is is written in English on the wall adjacent to Tim Duncan's locker. 

But there is another language spoken here, one that has been honed over the past 17 years, an era in which San Antonio's NBA franchise has made 17 playoff appearances, reached six NBA Finals, won five championships and never produced a winning percentage under .610, even while playing in what has typically been the more powerful of the league's two conferences. 

You can call that language Spurs-ian.

By now, it should require no translation. 

The dialect has evolved slightly over the years, twisted slightly by the tongues of dozens and dozens of different speakers. But it has always been marked by certain core characteristics, notably its liberal, earnest use of sports clichespouting time-honored principles such as discipline and teamwork and sacrificeas well as its rote, dismissive responses to the media's silly storylines. 

It is still spoken in the Alamo City. This was evident on a reporter's recent visit, when that reporter tried to push a series of premises, built on the notion that the Spurs are about anything other than striving for excellence for its own sake. 

The Spurs returned 14 of the 15 players that won last season's NBA title over the Heat.
The Spurs returned 14 of the 15 players that won last season's NBA title over the Heat.D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

The first premise? That the Spurs might struggle some to summon the same fire during the upcoming 2014-15 season, which follows their near-perfect NBA Finals victory, as they had last season, when they were driven to destruction by the 2013 NBA Finals heartbreak in Miami. 

Surely, the absence of that trigger has to be of some concern after Popovich openly acknowledged last season that his team had turned Ray Allen's dagger into a motivational weapon. 

Correct? 

As veteran forward Matt Bonner acknowledges, "It's impossible to replicate the same exact circumstances. I think, psychologically, there's a difference between winning a championship and coming off losing the way we did the year before. It's up to us to be professionals, be competitors. Same group of guys helps, I think, because we can hold ourselves accountable and play as a team and try to build off that."

But some teams can get full of themselves, especially if they're being told just about every day, as guard Danny Green was by everyone, that they just played a beautiful, practically perfect brand of basketball. They might spend their summer reviewing that glorious tape, as they blistered the Heat in five games.

So the Spurs did that, right? 

"No," Bonner said. "No. Not much. I've seen highlights a couple of times, but that's about it."

"No," veteran center/forward Boris Diaw said. "I still haven't. No. I just kind of remember. I don't need to watch it." 

Fine.

Still, Popovich had to have some concern about the way his team has come back from its most recent, somewhat more celebratory offseason.

So he's pleased about their approach? 

Boris Diaw says he has yet to watch a reply of last year's NBA Finals victory.
Boris Diaw says he has yet to watch a reply of last year's NBA Finals victory.Michael Sohn/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Well, I didn't expect them all to come back 20 pounds overweight or anything," he scoffed. "They just came back like they do every year. Just like Miami came back, I'm sure, after the loss last year. These guys are all pros; they come back. It's their job; they go to work, and then we see what happens. None of us know what's going to happen at the end of the year. But no, I'm not surprised by the way they come back."

And they all did come backwell, all but one. Damion James, the only Spur not to play a minute in the 2014 playoffs, signed with Washington prior to training camp, with Anderson expected to take his spot. That's 14 returnees, two more than the Heat had at the start of the season following their past two championships, six more than the Mavericks had after winning the 2011 title, six more than the Lakers had after the 2010 title (though it should be noted they had just 13 players on that 2010 title roster).

That's three more than returned after the Spurs' 2007 championship; four more than returned after the Spurs' 2005 championship; eight more than returned after the Spurs' 2003 championship, after which David Robinson retired and Steve Smith and Stephen Jackson were among the notables to sign elsewhere; and four more than returned after the Spurs' 1999 championship. 

It's the most returnees from a title team since the Heat brought back 13 players from their 2006 squad, including everyone but Shandon Anderson and Derek Anderson, and got swept out of the first round by Chicago

"It's very rare," guard Danny Green said. "Usually teams after they win one, they usually break apart. Guys go different places and get traded. It's rare when you see a team where everybody comes back. I think it's different. Hopefully we can do something different. It's not easy. It's not easy to repeat at all. We know that. But at the same time, I think we have the professionals here and guys to lead us to get it done. Pop, Tony [Parker], Timmy and Manu [Ginobili] on down, they've won before. This is the first for our young guys. We are just following their lead and we'll be OK." 

But, of course, none of those leaders have ever repeated either. The Spurs have never even reached the NBA Finals following a victory. 

After returning 13 of 15 players from their 2006 title team, the Heat were bounced out of the 2007 playoffs in Round 1.
After returning 13 of 15 players from their 2006 title team, the Heat were bounced out of the 2007 playoffs in Round 1.Elsa/Getty Images

How about that as a second premise?

Becoming the first team in franchise history to do that? 

Is that enough of a carrot?

"For sure," Green said. "We're all about reaching and achieving goals. Every time we set foot on the floor, we want to compete and win." 

Right, Matt Bonner?

It's about the repeat?

"I think just winning a championship, whether it's a repeat or not, is all the motivation you need," Bonner said. "You know, it's the ultimate. You dedicate so much of your life to achieving that goal, you sacrifice so much, that you never know how many chances you're gonna get." 

What say you, Boris Diaw?

What would it be like to stand out among Spurs as a back-to-back champion?

"What if they already did it?" the veteran forward/center said, smiling. "We wouldn't want to do it again? We'd try to do it again anyway, even if they did it in the past." 

So, if the "repeat" thing doesn't engender extra excitement, and with 82 gamesplus the playoffsproving to be a grind for so many recent champions, is there a risk of boredom? Of complacency? Of getting tired of each other?

Several members of the 2014 Heatfrom Chris Bosh to Dwyane Wadehave admitted that the grind got to them, and that many of them needed a fresh start. (They got it, incidentally, with only seven members of the 2013-14 Heat still in that organization, and only nine currently in the NBA anywhere).

How about a third premise: That the Spurs will sour on each other? On the season? On the process? That they will take greatness for granted?

"You don't just pick up where you left off," Bonner said. "You can't skip any steps, physically and mentally. You don't come out of training camp playing championship basketball, generally speaking. I'm sure it's easier said than done, but you can never relax, never be satisfied, especially the way the Western Conference is built. There are great teams getting better, so we're going to have to get better too if we want to try to win another championship."

Gregg Popovich will look to get the Spurs back to the NBA Finals for the first time in back-to-back years since Tim Duncan arrived.
Gregg Popovich will look to get the Spurs back to the NBA Finals for the first time in back-to-back years since Tim Duncan arrived.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Can they commit to that? Again? Even without artificial enticements? Even without revenge on their minds?

"I think we'll be OK," Green said. "Just us being us. Just wanting to win. Everybody here is a competitor. And just having a mindset of not being satisfied. Obviously it's a different year, it's not the same size chip on our shoulder as we had before. We've still got to play like we do. And be just as hungry as we were before, just as motivated. We know we have to be even more perfect than we were last year, because teams are coming at us even harder, an even bigger-sized target on our chest." 

Even if it doesn't appear to unnerve them. 

"We were close [in 2013], but we didn't do enough, we [had] to be more perfect," Diaw said. "We did better last year. Now the mentality is 'OK, we did good, now we've got to do it again.' We've got to play the same way, we've got to bring back the same energy. At least we remember how we did it. It was not easy. We had a lot of work behind it, a lot of motivation. So now the mindset is to do it again. I think it should be the same. But just be a little bit better. We've got the same guys."

Well, and one new one. 

"He's obviously got a heck of a lot to learn," Popovich said of Anderson, "but he's done a good job in trying to jump on board and keep up with everybody."

Shortly after Popovich said so before last weekend's preseason game against Miami, Anderson sat in front of his corner stall in the quiet Spurs dressing room. He spoke of trying fit in, of using this season as a learning experience, of modeling himself after his elders in terms of the way they prepare and eat and act.

"They're professionals off the court, not only on the court," Anderson said. "That's something I can take with me as long as I'm a professional....And I think Kawhi [Leonard] is an excellent example, a guy who bought in. He trusted the staff that they would make him better, and it's worked out for him. That's the only thing I can do, is come in here and trust the Spurs."

Yeah, he's keeping up.

He already speaks fluent Spurs-ian. 

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.

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