NEW YORK -- "It sucks," DeMar DeRozan said Monday.
The San Antonio Spurs had just lost to the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center, and he wasn't even mad about their defense. Neither was coach Gregg Popovich, who said he was pleased with the effort despite the 101-85 final score. There is no shame in losing to the Nets these days, and a 4-for-24 night from the 3-point line is hard to overcome against anybody. DeRozan was frustrated, though, because the Spurs so desperately needed a different result. He was still miffed about their 130-118 loss to the lowly New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden the night before, and no one in the quiet visiting locker room imagined they'd go 1-7 on their "rodeo road trip" when they left San Antonio three weeks earlier.
"We showed spurts where we could play and beat anybody in this league," DeRozan said. "But then we go out there and lose to a team that's one of the worst teams in the league last night. It's just the roller coaster ride of it is so high and so low."
The Spurs coughed up a late lead in Toronto two days before falling down by 23 points in New York. In a few weeks, they went from fighting for home-court advantage to merely trying to hold on to the eighth spot. It doesn't feel like that long ago that Popovich was talking about defense being the bedrock of their surprising success, but they gave up an ugly 122.1 points per 100 possessions on this brutal road trip and their defensive rating ranks 23rd in the league. If they cannot conjure whatever it was that had them shutting teams down in December, there is a real risk that they could miss the playoffs for the first time since they drafted Tim Duncan 22 years ago.
LaMarcus Aldridge confirmed the obvious: "Guys are not happy." He added it would be an understatement to say he was ready to go back home. DeRozan said that they had to regroup, regain their confidence and "find ourselves again," a sentiment familiar to every fan base outside of San Antonio. For so long, though, this franchise has been defined by consistency. When important players were sidelined, the foundation laid by Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Popovich allowed the Spurs to play to their identity and overachieve.
Even last season, with Kawhi Leonard mostly a theoretical part of the team, San Antonio had the league's fourth-best defense and eighth-best net rating. What it is going through now, in the words of longest-tenured-Spur Patty Mills, is "new territory."
"It's different because the corporate knowledge is zero," Popovich said. "And it's to be expected with basically all new people, and the ones that have been here a year or two are getting used to a bunch of new people who just came in. So it takes a while for that corporate knowledge to develop, and, along with that, habits that you can count on night after night. We're just not a consistent team."
Before the Brooklyn game, Popovich said his team "can be great tonight, or we can lose by 20." Part of this can be attributed to the fact that the team is still trying to jell, but part of it is simply personnel-driven. This season was supposed to be Dejounte Murray's big breakout, and he tore his ACL before it started. Aside from second-year guard Derrick White, no active player on the roster can credibly be called an above-average wing defender.
"The most obvious reason would be we no longer have Dejounte Murray, Kyle Anderson or Danny Green, who were our three best defenders last year," Popovich said. "So it starts there. And then with a group of new guys, most in a new system, it's gone slowly. It's been in valleys and up-and-down defensively."
As weird as it is to see San Antonio looking like a regular old fringe playoff team, it is not necessarily surprising. The Leonard trade put the team in a position to remain good, but not great, and, when it seemed like everything was going right, there were real questions about sustainability. The Spurs can still have a respectable finish, and, when you look at the way they take care of the ball, avoid sending opponents to the free throw line and generate open shots out of their offensive system, it is clear that their core principles are still in place. If they are going to salvage what's left of this season, though, they have to acknowledge that it won't be easy.
"We can't be oblivious to what is happening," Mills said.
There is no time for San Antonio to mourn any of the games that slipped away, but it must try to learn from these losses -- even the one Popovich called a "pathetic performance" at Madison Square Garden. No longer are the Spurs, who finally returned home and smacked the Pistons on Wednesday, the type of team that has lots of room for error. They have to fight like hell.
"It's on us," Aldridge said. "No one's going to save us."
Catching up with Terrence Ross, who isn't shy anymore
CBS Sports: This is a pretty young Magic team trying to make the playoffs, and you're one of the few guys here with postseason experience. What's the dynamic like?
Terrence Ross: Just trying to be a leader in certain things. Not necessarily even on the court, sometimes. Sometimes, like in the locker room, kind of letting 'em know what's acceptable, what's not, trying to set the vibe and set the tone so that, when you come to work, it's a serious mentality.
You gotta make sure that you're on top of everything you need to be on top of. It's just the little things, not so much on the court. 'Cause the little things kind of help you prepare to be successful and to be consistent on the court. I think that's probably one of the biggest things that I learned from Toronto that I tried to help bring here.
CBS: You weren't the loudest guy in Toronto. At this stage of your career, are you less shy when it comes to speaking up?
TR: For sure. Because now, when you lose a game, you know what caused it. Sometimes it's on the court, sometimes it's preparation and sometimes it's just the mentality that you have to bring. So, it's a combination of different things, but definitely I think that shyness has gone away.
CBS: Some people in my position downplay the importance of getting a lower playoff seed. You're in that fight, though. How much does it mean to you and this team?
TR: It means a lot. Especially since, this time last year, we weren't fighting for nothing. It was just, like, we were waiting for the season to end. This year, we have an opportunity to get to the playoffs. We're close. Right now, it's really about sticking together and making sure that we do everything that we can to put ourselves in a position to get there and try not to leave it to other teams.
CBS: You guys have the top defense in the league in the last 15 games. What has gone into that?
TR: Man, I think our attention to detail. Everybody is locked in. We all know what we're playing for. It's really about unity. We all come together. I think that's why we're all playing together well. We're trusting each other. Everybody's stepping up … everybody's handling it professionally and I think that's just the type of attitude it takes to get to where you want to go.
CBS: Was there some relief when the trade deadline passed?
TR: I think it was more of a relief because now we can all just focus on what we've gotta do. We don't gotta worry about nothing. We don't gotta think about what's happening here or who's coming here or who's leaving. It's all about the now. This is the spot we got, this is what we gotta deal with, this is what we're gonna do. I think that was the most relief, just knowing this is what we've got and this is our team, this is how we're going to rock out.
CBS: Some non-basketball stuff: Tell me about your love for Fleetwood Mac.
TR: Man, I love rock music. Growing up, I listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac. I don't know, they're just one of those classic rock bands I always kind of listened to. [I listen to] everything. From 21 Savage to Red Hot Chili Peppers. Everybody in between. I can't even name all of 'em. My playlist is so random, you don't know what you're going to get.
CBS: I remember you being mad you missed a Fleetwood Mac show in Toronto.
TR: Yeah, no, it happens all the time. You see it when you're warming up in the arena. Like, oh, who's coming to such-and-such arena this date. OK, we're gone, we're gone, we're gone. It's all just on the road. So summertime is when I try to catch up.
I don't even think I got to go to any last year. I literally missed Pearl Jam's concert in Seattle. I was out there for like a week. The day I left was the day they had their big concert. That was the one I wanted to go to and I missed it.
CBS: What are you watching in your free time?
TR: Right now, it's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. That's what I'm binging right now.
CBS: Where are you at in it?
TR: I finished it. I'm re-watching it. I watch everything from that to Seinfeld.
CBS: What are [Ross' son] Tristan's favorite shows?
TR: Whatever I'm watching.
CBS: You let him watch It's Always Sunny?
TR: Not Always Sunny. But usually whatever cartoons come on. But I mean, he likes PJ Masks and Super Why! and Paw Patrol.
CBS: Does this mean you wind up being a Paw Patrol fan?
TR: I wouldn't say a fan. But I've definitely seen more than I'd care to watch.
The mixtape: Forever Young
Firstly, holy shkldsjaflksjfd:
Trae Young's last 15 games:— Kevin Chouinard (@KLChouinard) February 28, 2019
30 pts / 8 ast
26 pts / 8 ast
23 pts / 8 ast
28 pts / 9 ast
27 pts / 8 ast
10 pts / 10 ast
19 pts / 5 ast
20 pts / 11 ast
13 pts / 7 ast
22 pts / 14 ast
16 pts / 11 ast
30 pts / 10 ast
23 pts / 8 ast
36 pts / 8 ast
36 pts / 10 ast
I know we're not supposed to compare the two, but Trae Young's recent run has me thinking about Stephen Curry's late Rookie of the Year push nine years ago. I haven't used this space to rave about Young since October, but he has made the Atlanta Hawks one of the most entertaining teams in the league all season. He deserves a mixtape, or maybe multiple mixtapes, and this dumb musical choice made me laugh:
The crazy thing: This is the longest one of these I've made, and all of the highlights are just from the last three weeks. I might need to make an album-length mixtape for him at the end of the season.
Checking in on … Isaiah Thomas
It's way too early to have a real take on Isaiah Thomas in Denver, but at least it doesn't seem like he has thrown everything off. The Nuggets are 4-0 with him in the lineup, and coach Michael Malone has been creative with super-small lineups. There have been a bunch of weird turnovers, a result of his timing being off, but that is to be expected. There have also been some encouraging signs, like when he lofted the ball over Garrett Temple and Ivica Zubac:
And when he squeaked past Temple and scored off the glass:
When Thomas is at his best, he does that kind of thing routinely. The injured guy we saw last year, however, rarely got to the rim. It will likely take Thomas time to get comfortable being as aggressive as he used to be and putting his 5-foot-9 body on the line against giants on a regular basis. That is what to watch with him in between now and the postseason.
Hmmm: Kyrie Irving just wants the playoffs to start
"I can't wait for all this other B.S. about the regular season, keep getting better, talking over and over and over again about what we can do to keep getting better playing in the regular season," Irving told reporters, via NBC Sports' Chris Forsberg. "I just want to be at the highest level playing."
I'm sure plenty of players feel this way. The regular season is too long, and anyone who has gone deep in the playoffs knows that there's no substitute for that level of intensity. He might also think that Boston needs to be thrown into a high-pressure situation in order to reach its potential, which, honestly, might not be a bad take. Irving has been on Cleveland Cavaliers teams that have looked shaky at this time of year and still gone to the Finals, a fact he brought up on Wednesday, so he is speaking from experience.
The sentiment does not sit right with me, though. The Celtics have lost four straight games since the All-Star break, including a blowout in Toronto and a shocking loss in Chicago. Several players, Irving included, have vented about their lack of cohesion and problems with role definition. They do not employ LeBron James, and it feels like a bad time to say that Boston's issues will take care of themselves eventually. I am the guy who wrote just last week that the Celtics shouldn't be dismissed, particularly because Irving tends to rise to the occasion, but it is unsettling to hear a team leader talk about skipping steps like this.
Irving is right that it is boring to keep talking about getting better. Boston has problems, though, and it needs to spend the next month-and-a-half finding solutions.
10 more stray thoughts: Happy Birthday to Luka Doncic, but please, Mark, don't use the phrase "losing his teenageinity" again … Joakim Noah came so close to beating LeBron and the Bulls in consecutive games … We all need to make more time to watch the funky new Grizzlies, by the way … Two Celtics things: They really miss Aron Baynes and Al Horford might be the most interesting player in the whole league come playoff time … Thrilled to see Chris Paul healthy and playing like himself … The Rockets' offensive rating should not be higher than it was last season, but it is! … I have been disturbed by the lack of Nemanja Bjelica in my life lately, but a Marvin Bagley injury is absolutely not how I wanted that situation to be resolved … It's messed up that Karl-Anthony Towns isn't getting more attention, so shoutout to my guy Danny Chau … Seems like Brooklyn is finally going to have Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and D'Angelo Russell healthy at the same time soon … Lauri Markkanen's February averages: 26 points, 12.2 rebounds, 62 percent true shooting percentage.