SAN ANTONIO coach Gregg Popovich looked like a schoolteacher watching his students take a test for most of the night at the Wells Fargo Center. For a good part of the game, even when his team's lead fell as low as five late in the fourth quarter, he sat with his arms crossed, his bearded face carrying a look of limited interest. Occasionally he rose, as if to make sure no cheating was taking place. Once in a while, he applauded what his team had just done.
Plays rarely had to be called, and on a night when Popovich gave two of his big stars a rest, he had a pretty easy one himself as the Spurs coasted to their eighth straight victory, 109-103, improving to 13-4.
Not surprisingly, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker watched from the bench as the Spurs played their third game in four nights. The 76ers were also down two starters: Nerlens Noel (hip) and Tony Wroten (knee) were sidelined. But the way San Antonio conducts its business at both ends of the floor, it didn't really seem to matter who was wearing the black jerseys, the outcome, as it has been much of the season for the 0-17 Sixers, was a foregone conclusion. So confident was Popovich that star sub Manu Ginobili played just under 13 minutes, not at all in the fourth quarter.
The Spurs shunned normal NBA offense, rarely running screen and rolls, instead relying on quick cuts, never-ending ball movement and seemingly endless successful dribble-drives. If they did need someone to isolate and get a basket, Kawhi Leonard was more than able, as he scored a career-high-tying 26 points to go with 10 rebounds. It was his tough layup and ensuing foul shot that gave the Spurs a 104-96 lead with 42.7 seconds to go. He led six Spurs in double figures.
The Sixers extended their team-record losing streak to begin a season and got to within one of tying the NBA record, set by the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets. They play the Timberwolves in Minneapolis tomorrow night.
The Sixers played hard and turned the ball over just 12 times. They dealt 22 assists and held the Spurs to just 35.3 percent shooting in the second half in cutting into what had been a 24-point deficit. But in the end, again, it came down to talent, and San Antonio's subs had more than anyone the Sixers could throw together on the floor.
"We worked real hard clawing back," said Michael Carter-Williams, who led the Sixers with 24 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. "They started off very well, got a jump on us and the whole game we spent getting back and trying to close the gap."
Alexey Shved scored 19 to complement MCW; Henry Sims had 12 and K.J. McDaniels 10.
Popovich, Brett Brown's NBA coaching mentor and one of his closest friends, has as much confidence in Brown to turn the Sixers organization around as he does in his backups to win games while starters rest.
"He's a mensch," Popovich said. "To go through what he's doing on a day-to-day basis is beyond difficult. I wouldn't wish it on anybody, but if somebody has got to do it, he's the perfect guy because he is one of the most upbeat and positive individuals I have ever been around. It's not a hokey, acting sort of thing. He's a positive guy. He's got great fiber and he's going to wake up every morning going to work teaching and doing what needs to be done. He knows what needs to be done to build a program. It's building a base in different ways and it has nothing to do with [wins and losses]. He'll be great at it.
"Losing is tough on anybody. You talk about the confidence of a team and how do you get through it. We've been fairly successful, but if we lose two in a row I'm thinking of how to build the confidence of the players back up. That's the truth. Athletes are interesting beings at this level. You've got to constantly make sure that you're polishing, like clean up, clean up, fix up. [Losing early in my career] was difficult. This is unimaginable."
Brown knows it, but, as Popovich said, he isn't going to stop fighting.
"Whatever it takes," said Brown, on trying to break the losing streak. "When you are depleted in the big spot, like we were without Nerlens, then you have an opportunity maybe to experiment a little bit more. But the group is that. There's a lot of moving parts and I'm happy to call upon all of them."
He has no choice.