Ticket to Ride – When Number Two sat down in an undisclosed private dining room this past summer with Popo, the best weapon in the organization told his general that he wanted out. He confessed, “This isn’t the life I want anymore. I’ve got my family to think about.” Popo tried to talk him out of it but there was no changing Number Two’s mind. The silent assassin looked his teacher squarely in the right shoulder and timidly mumbled, I’m grateful for all the time you invested in developing my talent, but in the end, man, I just want to go home. I’m paraphrasing, of course. Number Two has never said that many words in one day, much less in one conversation. With a poker face that would make Doyle Brunson blush, Popo stared directly into Number Two’s eyes and pierced them so deep, it was as if he had launched into a flawless cliff dive into Number Two’s soul. After pausing long enough to have taken a bath in his soldiers’s deepest insecurities, Popo chuckled softly to lighten the mood and then chased his silence-breaker with a warm smile. He asked his pupil, “Do you like the wine?” Number Two answered, “Honestly, Popo, I couldn’t care less about the wine. I just want to go home. Will you please just send me home to California?” Popo, still smiling warmly, looked down at his wine glass as if it had just asked him a more urgent question than the man sitting across the table from him. He picked up the glass, sniffed it longingly and then swirled the blood red liquid with the precision of a sommelier. With his smile still intact, Popo glanced back up at Number Two and then abruptly returned his attention to his glass, taking it to his lips and slowly drinking it dry. After returning his glass to the table, the aging general leaped up out of his seat with the exuberance of a man half his age. Popo walked across the table, patted his soldier reassuringly on the shoulder, leaned down to his ear and answered, “I’ll see what I can do. Let me get back to you in a few weeks.” With that, he was walking for the exit. Before reaching out to open the door to leave, Popo paused, turned, looked at Number Two, and gave the now disgruntled student whom he’d once loved like a son one final order. “Pay the check.”
Outside the restaurant, Popo’s second-in-command Robert Canterbury was waiting in an unmarked black sedan. Popo jumped in the passenger seat and said, “Hey, Robby. Let’s go.” Unable to hide his anticipation, Robert Canterbury nervously asked, “Well, what happened?” Popo replied, “He wants us to send him to California.” His face sinking, Robert Canterbury nervously said, “So it’s as bad as we had feared. This is a major setback. It’s going to take years to develop another solider to replace what we’re losing from Number Two. So do you want me to contact the organizations in Los Angeles?” Ignoring the question, Pope instead instructed his subordinate, “I want you to get Number Five on the phone. I want to start working on training him as Number Two’s replacement tomorrow.” Robert Canterbury replied, “Done. I’ll let him know as soon as we get to the airport.” Popo continued, “It’s not going to take years to replace Number Two. I’ll have Number Five ready by next April. And to answer your earlier question, we’re not sending Number Two to Los Angeles. He wants to go home? Not on my watch. We’re sending him as far away as possible. Make a call to the organization in Canada. We’re sending him to Toronto.”
Five months later, it seemed like everything was progressing perfectly in Number Five’s development. He had worked night and day all summer on the covert operation to replace Number Two as Popo’s greatest combination of offensive and defensive weapon. The skill set he was unleashing during his rigorous training exercises had everyone in the organization buzzing and the other asset Popo had deported out of the country in August was quickly becoming a distant memory. Then, out of nowhere, disaster struck. On October 7th, during a simulation drill, Number Five was severely injured. The following day, it was determined that the weapon Popo had invested the entire summer in (to replace what had been lost when Number Two absconded his position) would be unable to participate in the entire upcoming campaign while rehabbing a torn ACL. Everyone inside and outside the organization assumed all was lost. The organization would need a year to regroup and the immediate campaign it was preparing for was a lost cause that would surely end in brutal defeat.
Everyone, except Popo. The day of Number Five’s injury, the old pedagogue spent the morning in his office alone, reflecting on it in silence; not to bemoan the problem but rather to construct its solution. After a few hours alone with his thoughts, Popo abruptly stood up, left his office, and started walking over to the organization’s training facility. As he expected, the person he was going to speak to was in the weight room, diligently preparing for the upcoming campaign. When the soldier stood up from the weight bench after noticing that his general had entered the room, Popo walked up and greeted him with a fatherly embrace, putting his arm over his pupil’s shoulder. Popo asked, “How are you?” He was answered with a nod that revealed the soldier’s concern for his wounded brother. Popo continued, “Look, the news is as bad as we’d feared. Number Five is out indefinitely.” Popo removed his arm from his pupil’s shoulder as the younger man raised his hands to cover his face in disbelief. Trying to quickly move past his pupil’s display of emotion, Popo said, “Look, there’s no time for that. What’s happened is in the past and we still have a mission to complete. I want you to take his place. We are going to put you through Number Five’s training regimen, only, you’re going to have to go through it while also leading our platoon out in the field every other night because summer is over and the campaign begins in two weeks. Learning on the job while simultaneously performing Number Five’s training regimen is going to be brutal. It’s going to damn near break you. But if you’re willing to accept the challenge and unequivocally commit to everything I’m going to ask you to do, I give you my word that I will have you ready to do everything we were planning to ask of Number Five by next April.” Skeptical, the soldier protested, “That’s impossible, Popo. Number Five has been working towards this assignment for two years already. I mean, it took Number Two four years of training before he was ready to take on that responsibility.” Popo shot him a determined glare and countered, “Well we don’t have four years, son, we have six months. Look, I know I’m asking you for a huge commitment but the reason I’m asking is because I know you’re capable of rising to the challenge. I see something in you. Same as Number Five. More than Number Two. Why don’t you sleep on it and if you’re willing to accept the challenge, meet me here tomorrow morning at 4:00 am and we’ll begin your preparation. And soldier, don’t show up tomorrow unless you believe in yourself as much as I believe in you and unless you’re ready to work.” With that, Popo turned and walked out of the training facility in search of a nice afternoon glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. The next morning, Popo arrived at the organization’s training facility at 3:30 am expecting to have a half an hour to prepare for the arduous road ahead. To his amusement but not to his surprise, his pupil was already in the weight room working out. The soldier turned to greet his general and said, “Hey, Popo. I do believe in myself and I will do every last thing you ask of me every single day for the next six months to be ready for April or I will break my back trying.” Nodding in approval, Popo pulled his whistle out of his pocket and responded, “Okay. Let’s get started, Number Four.”
Last night, the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Denver Nuggets 118-108 in from of a raucous, Fiesta-immersed crowd at the AT&T Center to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven first round matchup. Do I even need to announce who was the player of the game? If you’re reading this post and you don’t already know, that would mean you know nothing about the Spurs or the results of last night’s contest and are just reading this because you enjoy the brilliance of my writing. On second thought, my writing is kinda brilliant so there’s a decent chance you are reading this despite not having any knowledge of Game 3. As I was saying, the player of the game was Derrick White. Number Four was flat-out sensational. So much so that last night, he was the best player on the court. Our second-year point guard lit up the Alamo City with a career-high 36 points on 15-21 shooting. Most of those shot attempts were at the rim as Derrick got wherever he wanted on the court facilitating a masterpiece offensive performance that also included five assists and only one turnover. Derrick was equally dominant on the defensive end, grabbing five rebounds, collecting three steals and adding a block for good measure. The most impressive indication of his defensive impact was his performance as the primary defender on Denver’s second leading scorer and Game 2 hero, Jamal Murray. Murray finished with an underwhelming six points on 2-6 shooting.
After Derrick obliterated the Nuggets for 26 points in the first half, Denver made the adjustment of putting Gary Harris (their best perimeter defender) on Derrick in the third quarter. The focus on slowing down White allowed DeMar DeRozan to go nuts in the period, enjoying the freedom to unleash his offensive arsenal against single-coverage from lesser Denver defenders than Harris. DeMar had 19 of his 25 points during the third frame and finished the game shooting an efficient 9-18 from the field and 7-8 from the line. Back to Derrick, I’m still in awe of what he did last night after having nearly 24 hours to process it. His development this season has been astonishing and last night he put everyone in league and casual basketball fans around the globe on notice: another two-way star has arrived in San Antonio.
Given everything that has transpired in the last twelve months, from Kawhi Leonard’s abandonment of his teammates and inexplicable trade demand, to also losing our next best perimeter defender Danny Green in the trade with Toronto, to losing our next best perimeter defender and best prospect to replace Leonard’s two-way abilities on the court Dejounte Murray to a season-ending injury in October, I’m equally in awe of Coach Pop. Everyone in the basketball-viewing world believed the Kawhi Leonard trade was utterly devastating for the Spurs. Everyone, except Gregg Popovich. That’s the magic of being the greatest coach in the history of the game of basketball. It’s not devastating to lose a disgruntled superstar when you’re the one who turned that raw, athletic wing-defending prospect without a jump shot into Kawhi Leonard. While everyone else was bemoaning the loss of a player of Leonard’s caliber, Coach Pop was focused on developing another one in Dejounte Murray. While everyone else was bemoaning the bad luck of Dejounte’s preseason injury and the loss of a player of Murray’s caliber for a year, Coach Pop simply started over again in with Derrick White. Through three games, Derrick White has been the best player in the series and maybe the best two-way player in the 2019 NBA Playoffs thus far. He plays with a poise beyond his years and is doing things Leonard could have only dreamed about during his second season with the Spurs. Derrick White is becoming an NBA superstar before our very eyes and it only took Coach Pop six months to orchestrate a solution for the giant two-way hole in our lineup that was created when he was forced to ship a disgruntled superstar (one who would likely not be an NBA superstar at all but rather playing in China right now had the Spurs not decided to give him the golden ticket of seven years of Pop’s coaching when we traded beloved Spur George Hill for his draft rights). And guess what Spurs fans? The silver lining in Dejounte’s injury is that with Derrick’s development, next season we will have two budding two-way superstars in our backcourt in Murray and White. The silver lining in Leonard’s trade is DeMar DeRozan will be lining up alongside them. The future is bright and as long as Coach Pop is roaming the sidelines, a bright future is eternal.
For now, however, we can’t look ahead. The Denver Nuggets are coming back tomorrow afternoon for another crack at pooping the Fiesta-Coming-Out party Derrick White started yesterday at the AT&T Center. The Nuggets will be angry and desperate tomorrow. If we let up, even a smidge, they are going to be ready to capitalize on the opportunity to even this series up before returning home to Denver. Jamal Murray in particular has accepted the challenge to answer Derrick’s answer to his Game 2 fourth quarter heroics and will be poised to repeat them in our building if given the opportunity. Something tells me Derrick is going to be ready for Murray’s answer to his answer. If the #BlackAndSilver come out prepared to protect the home court advantage we worked so hard to secure in Game 1 and follow the lead of our starting point guard and our newest budding NBA superstar, we will make tomorrow Derrick White’s curtain call for the Fiesta-Coming-Out party he threw yesterday. Derrick said in his first-ever trip to the postgame press conference last night, “I’m just trying to stay in the moment.” I have full confidence he can and if he does, I like our chances to continue the job of defending our home court as if it were the Alamo. After all, the moment Derrick is trying to stay in is ascending to NBA superstardom and the best way to stay in it is for him to take the court tomorrow night and ask himself one simple question: “Who Gon Stop Me?”
Featured Image Source: The Spectrum
Headline Image Source: StatMuse