SAN ANTONIO -- There was a friendly face waiting to greet Brett Brown everywhere he turned at the AT&T Center.
After spending seven seasons as an assistant coach with San Antonio, Brown returned to the AT&T Center on Monday for the first time as Sixers head coach.
“You get flooded with so many memories of championships and good people and just elite competitors under a roof of an organization that is so prideful in doing the right thing,” Brown said. “[They are] led by I think the best coach in the game and a general manager that complements the head coach so well. You come back here, you revisit with all those types of memories and friends you haven’t seen in a while.”
The trip down memory lane ended in familiar fashion for the Spurs -- with a lopsided victory -- if an unfamiliar outcome for Brown in San Antonio.
The Spurs rolled to a 113-91 victory on Monday night, extending their winning streak to 14 while handing the Sixers their 25th straight loss (see story).
The victory proved bittersweet because it came against “one of my best friends,” San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich said.
“No, it’s never any fun doing that,” Popovich said. “Win or lose, it’s never fun either way. The wins aren’t as much fun and the losses are bad because they are losses, losses speak for themselves. You want to enjoy your wins, but it’s just harder when it’s with somebody like that.”
Making it even harder is the dubious path it kept the Sixers on.
The Sixers next play Thursday in Houston, where they can match the NBA record for consecutive losses of 26 straight set by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010-11.
“I feel terribly for him, but I don’t feel sorry for him,” Popovich said. “I feel badly for him because he has to go through it, but I don’t need to feel sorry for him because he would be angry if he knew I felt sorry for him because he doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him.
“He doesn’t feel bad for himself, I can tell you. He looks forward to going to work every day and he’s going to work those guys to death and he’s going to love them to death, both at the same time, that’s who he is.”
One of the most important lessons Brown learned under Popovich is focusing on the bigger picture. Winning and losing streaks are never as telling as what they eventually lead to is a mantra the Spurs' coaches and players preach.
“Obviously, it's a rough season for them; it's a rebuilding season for them,” Spurs veteran Tim Duncan said. “[Brown] knows that. They know that. They have a lot of young guys. He's just trying to get the system in place that has them playing the way he wants them playing. It's a process. He knows that.”
Brown knows Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was San Antonio -- even if it seems that way.
Under Popovich, the Spurs have captured four NBA titles, won 50 games for a league-record 15 consecutive seasons and are vying for the league’s best record while earning their 17th straight postseason berth.
Yet before all that success, Popovich struggled with injuries and a fluid roster after taking over as coach 18 games into the 1996-97 season. San Antonio finished 20-62 that season, but the dismal record yielded the top pick, which the Spurs used to draft Duncan and begin one of the greatest runs in sports history.
The Sixers could be on a similar path, owning two first-round picks that are expected to fall in the Top 10 of one of the deepest drafts in a decade.
They will also have 6-foot-11 Nerlens Noel, who has sat out his entire rookie year following left knee surgery, after being selected with the sixth pick in last year’s draft.
Adding all that talent to rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams and Thaddeus Young could make the Sixers an instant contender.
But Brown knows it takes more than talent to be successful.
The Spurs have battled injuries all season, but their crisp ball movement, defensive intensity and unselfish play have allowed them to sit atop the league at 54-16.
San Antonio had 31 assists on its 44 baskets Monday night against the Sixers.
“In my opinion, that’s how you play the game,” Brown said. “So what you see is a system born out of many, many years of corporate knowledge where the winks and the blinks and the wrinkles and subtle nuances [allow them to] understand each other’s tendencies, and the offense shines. It’s not just a byproduct of good players or a great coach. It’s a decade worth of corporate knowledge. That’s what you aspire to get to.”
It can only come with structure and experience.
San Antonio's Big Three of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have played for 39 seasons, which is seven years more experience than the entire Sixers' roster combined. The Sixers have six rookies on this year's roster.
“We run the completely same offense,” Young said. “But they do all the ins and outs and we don't. That's the biggest thing. They ran a play that we knew, but they ran it a completely different way than we ran it. And that's because they knew we were going to pick apart the first side and second side, so they came from a whole different angle and ran the play. We were all mind-boggled about how they all knew ins and outs.”
Despite the early troubles, Popovich said the Sixers made the right choice in hiring Brown.
“I think he is as tough minded as the environment that exists there in Philly,” Popovich said. “He’s a very focused individual with great competitiveness and unbelievable fiber. He keeps an eye on what’s important. He will always be participatory and creative, but at the same time very consistent in his demands and knowing what wins and loses. He can stick with a program and is loyal as the day is long. He’s a winner in life in a whole lot of ways.”