SAN ANTONIO -- Excuse San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for eschewing effusive praise, pats on the back and fist pounds after his team dropped the West's current No. 3 seed, the Oklahoma City Thunder, 93-85 on Saturday at the AT&T Center.
In capturing their 56th victory, the Spurs clinched the Southwest Division for the fifth time in the past six seasons and set an NBA record by rolling to 51 wins in a row when outshooting their opponent this season. Defensively, the Spurs have held opponents to 85 or fewer points in 20 games this season, with the next-best teams (Cleveland Cavaliers and Utah Jazz) accomplishing that feat on just 11 occasions.
However, for Popovich and the Spurs, that's really all just noise.
Beginning Saturday with the win over the Thunder, the Spurs embark on a four-game stretch that features three of the top five seeds in the Western Conference -- all squads San Antonio could face in the postseason. For San Antonio, the outcome of Saturday's outing -- or any of the next three against the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors -- isn't nearly as important as the self-evaluation the club can glean from matchups in preparation for the playoffs.
"I think it's important to be playing teams that you'll probably be playing in the playoffs at some point," Popovich said. "It's kind of like a final exam, in a way, where you see you still have time to improve some things. But it's about how you play -- not the win or the loss, really. If we win, we won't be that excited. If we lose, we won't be that depressed."
San Antonio atoned for its season-opening loss at Oklahoma City with a strong defensive effort, and it was aided by the visiting team's fourth-quarter woes. While on defense, San Antonio held the Thunder to just 85 points, which marked the 20th time the Spurs have done that this season (last season, they held opponents to 85 or fewer just 10 times). The Thunder entered Saturday having lost an NBA-high 11 games after entering the fourth quarter with a lead.
Oklahoma City held true to form Saturday. It headed into the fourth leading 68-66, then relinquished that edge for good when Danny Green, who shot a horrid 1-of-10 on the night, drained a 25-footer to put the Spurs up 79-76 with 7:19 left to play.
"He's a pro, and we made it clear to him there's only two outcomes: it goes in, or it doesn't," Popovich said. "But he still gets his paycheck, [and] his family still loves him, so screw it -- let ‘em fly. And he did."
Despite the rough outing, Green called San Antonio's current stretch against tough competition "the best time of year" and said "these are the best tests we can have to prepare us for the playoffs. I was joking with Kevin Martin earlier. He thought he was going to come in and get some warm-up games. But this is probably the toughest part of the schedule for us, and he was thrown in the fire. So good luck."
Popovich mentioned that at this point in the season, he's trying to find the players the club can trust in crunch time.
"That's every year, but he always has his group of guys that he can trust," Green said. "But there are some guys that can emerge and build some trust with him, and he can throw in there, like a guy like Kevin Martin or Andre Miller that have some experience and might be able to give us a lift or a boost in the fourth quarter."
The Spurs' most recent home loss came a year ago Saturday, when they fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers in overtime. Oklahoma City appeared poised to defeat the Spurs on the anniversary of that loss when the Thunder held a 7-point advantage in the third quarter. But a gritty defensive performance overcame an off-night on which the Spurs connected on 40 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from 3-point range.
"We just stayed with it," said LaMarcus Aldridge, who finished with 24 points and nine rebounds. "Our guys stayed confident taking shots. We got good looks the whole game, but they weren't going in. So we just stayed with it, and in the fourth quarter, things turned for us."
Kawhi Leonard led the way with a team-high 26 points. The win over Oklahoma City marked the 14th time this season that Leonard and Aldridge each scored at least 20 points. That has happened 10 times since the start of February.
"We're a humble ball club," Leonard said. "We just want to get better as each game goes and as the season goes on. So it doesn't matter who we are playing. It's just about us. Are we going to execute? Are we going to go out and have energy and play defense? And we fought through the whole game. Whoever you're playing that's in the playoff [race], it's going to be a great game. Everybody wants to get better and be playing their best basketball going into April."
That's why Popovich stresses that wins and losses aren't as important as the team's development down the stretch.
"It's the same for every team. You're going to go back to the film and see what you want to get better at and look at players who you really trust. Who's going to be on the floor at the end of games come playoff time? That kind of thing," Popovich said. "Win or lose, it's a matter of improving. That's the deal."