Let’s do the immediate thing first, in part because it’s “immediate” but mostly because it’s the smallest part of this particular article: The Spurs played the Clippers in Los Angeles on Thursday night. The Clippers won. Kawhi Leonard was a total terror. It was weird watching him. It looked like he belonged in that Clippers jersey. It was a different sensation than seeing him in his Raptors jersey. That felt … I don’t know … ephemeral? Is that a way to describe the way someone looks in a jersey? Because that’s how he felt in a Raptors jersey. But this Clippers jersey is something else. It feels … I don’t know … heavier. More permanent. Maybe it’s because he won a title in Toronto and has already begun putting together his For Your Consideration package this season for the Best Player on the Planet award? Or maybe it’s because it’s always felt like Los Angeles was where he was going to end up anyway. Who can say? All I know is that it feels … big. The Clippers feel big.
Now let’s do the background thing, which is really the foreground thing: About two-thirds of the way into Remember the Titans, the starting quarterback for the Titans breaks a bone in his wrist during an important game against a good opponent. The team’s coach (the rigid but very moral Herman Boone) summons the team’s backup quarterback (the talented but untested Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass) to tell him that it’s time for him to take over. Bass is clearly nervous, so Boone gives him a rah-rah speech to steady him, then sends him out onto the field. Bass gathers the Titans into the huddle, makes a quick remark about the injury they’ve all just seen, then tells one of his offensive linemen (the lovable Louie Lastik) to let the nose guard get past him on purpose. (The nose guard is not only the other team’s most imposing player, but he’s also the one who caused the injury.) Lastik, confused, asks Bass why. Bass tells him to just do it.
The ball gets hiked, Lastik lets the nose guard charge into the backfield unimpeded, and Bass, that beautiful motherfucker, flicks a quick pass to a receiver, pivots at the last possible instant toward the nose guard, then ducks under the attack, upending him. The nose guard does a full flip, crashing down onto the field. A music cue kicks in, the Titans coaching staff celebrates the move, the opposing coach asks for unnecessary roughness to be called on Bass (at which the ref laughs), the other team helps the nose guard up off the ground, and Bass stares a hole through him as the nose guard’s teammates escort him to the sideline. On the next play, Bass, now full of confidence, runs an option for a big gain, and when he does the team’s assistant coach (the noble and cool Doc Hines) says to Boone, “We got ourselves a football player.” Bass goes bonkers the rest of the game, and then Bass goes bonkers the whole rest of the season. He becomes unstoppable, and the Titans become unstoppable. And it all started right there: With his ability to not only meet the situation’s intensity, but also to calibrate an exactly perfect response.
I think about that moment a lot, because I like that moment a lot, because I like the idea that they’re selling us: That there are times in sports (or in anything, really) where you insta-find out the level of temerity a person has in their bones; that there are times when something happens and you either say to yourself, “We got ourselves a football player,” or you say to yourself, “We do not got ourselves a football player.”
Here’s what I mean, and why I’m talking about this right now, and why I feel particularly good about the Spurs this year even when the rest of the basketball people at The Ringer appear to be feeling so not good about the Spurs that they didn’t mention them even once in a roundup post about all the most interesting parts of the first week of the season:
Two years ago, the Spurs were playing the Rockets in the playoffs. Tony Parker had torn a muscle in his leg in Game 2 and so there was some speculation about how the Spurs were going to handle the point for Game 3 in Houston. They could’ve gone with Patty Mills as the starter and let him run the offense. They could’ve let Kawhi Leonard be the pivot point of everything and funneled all the action through him. They could’ve rolled a filing cabinet out onto the floor and put a Spurs jersey on it. They had many, many options. What they ended up settling on, though, was asking Dejounte Murray, then a rookie who had played in less than half the games that season, to step in for Parker.
And look, starting a playoff game is already a terrifying thing. But this wasn’t just that. This was starting a playoff game (a) in the second round of the playoffs; (b) as an inexperienced rookie; (c) on the road; (d) against a hated rival; (e) while filling in for a player that had guided the team to four championships; and (f) opposite Patrick Beverley, a defender of such calamitous proportions that he makes playing basketball against him feel less like you’re playing basketball against him and more like you’ve been locked in a bank vault full of wasps. And it was a disaster. Or, rather, the beginning of it was, anyway. Murray looked wobbled. He looked off-kilter. He looked like someone who knew he was in the opening stages of a fistfight with someone stronger and meaner (which, incidentally, is also how Beverley makes playing basketball against him feel like).
I actually asked Beverley about all of this the summer after that season was over because we were running a big story on him. I asked him if when it was announced that Murray was starting in Parker’s place that game that he knew that he was going to try to pull Murray’s arms and legs off immediately. He said yes, that that was exactly what he wanted to do. And, really, that’s what he did (Murray shot 1-for-5 from the field, had as many turnovers as rebounds, and had his lowest game score of the postseason). BUT—and here’s what was so promising then, and what feels especially promising now—Murray didn’t back down. He looked overwhelmed, sure, but only momentarily, and only because of inexperience, not because of fear, which is really all you can ask of a player. (This is the same reason I love Patty Mills. It feels like Mills has never missed a shot because he was afraid. He’s only ever missed a shot because he missed a shot. You can measure any of his misses up against, say, that time Peja Stojakovic air-balled a wide-open 3 that would’ve put the Kings ahead in the final 10 seconds of Game 7 of that iconic 2003 Kings-Lakers series to see both ends of the spectrum.)
At any rate, Murray shot 50 percent from the field in Game 4 of that Rockets series, then 50 percent again from the field in a closeout Game 6, along with 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals, and a block in less than 24 minutes of action. (It was his highest game score of the postseason.) Watching him after Tony went down very much felt like one of those “We got ourselves a basketball player” moments. Which is why it was such a massive fucking bummer in the 2018-19 preseason when he went down for the year with a torn ACL, and why it has felt so good watching him start off this season already doing devastating things. (He put up an 18-8-6-3 stat line on the Knicks in the first game of the season. It was very exciting to watch. And he played only 24 minutes.) (And maybe even a bigger indicator of the type of impact he’ll be able to have on the team: Here’s a great piece from Pounding the Rock about how Dejounte, despite being on a minutes restriction as he eases his way into full-time responsibility, has already turned his transition attack into a nuclear strike for the Spurs.)
And so you take what Dejounte is already doing, and then you add in that Derrick White, another of the Spurs’ younger players, already had a “We got ourselves a basketball player” moment in the playoffs (he hung a 36-5-5 stat line on the Nuggets in Game 3 of their first-round matchup this past postseason), and … I mean … I don’t know. I don’t know exactly what all of this means. But I know I feel good about it.