With his Spurs playing their third game in five nights, Gregg Popovich rested 39-year-old Manu Ginobili and 34-year-old Tony Parker for Saturday’s home opener against the New Orleans Pelicans.
They will be fresh for Sunday’s game against the Heat in Miami, a fourth game in just six days, but some in the sellout crowd at AT&T Center were disappointed they didn’t get a chance to see the remaining two-thirds of the Big Three trio that led the Spurs to four NBA titles during 14 seasons when Ginobili and Parker played with recently retired superstar big man Tim Duncan.
Their discontent didn’t last long. Starting in Parker’s stead, Patty Mills scored 18 points in a 98-79 victory that kept the Spurs a perfect 3-0 for the season that began on Tuesday with a stunning blowout against the Warriors.
Kawhi Leonard, who scored 65 points in road wins in Oakland and Sacramento, scored 16 of his team-high 20 points in the third quarter. LaMarcus Aldridge scored 12 points and did solid defensive work on New Orleans power forward Anthony Davis, who came into the game having scored 95 points in the Pelican’s first two games.
Davis scored 18 on Saturday. Popovich credited Aldridge, who defended him without double-team help and held him to 6-for-15 shooting.
“Anthony is obviously a great player,” Popovich said. “We just wanted to work on individual defense so we didn’t give him any help. We just let him guard him.”
Parker’s absence Saturday also created an opportunity for Argentine guard Nico Laprovittola, whose play as Mills’ backup had the arena buzzing by game’s end. In just under 22 minutes, Laprovittola scored seven points, handed out four assists, and grabbed four rebounds. He played with the same passion that has characterized Ginobili’s 15 seasons in silver and black, and the crowd loved it.
“He’s got a comfortable game about him in the pick and roll, his passing abilities and making plays,” said Mills, who made 4-of-7 3-pointers on his way to his most productive game of the young season. “It’s exciting to watch. He’s got that Argentinian flair.”
A 26-year-old from Buenos Aires who has played professionally in Argentina, Lithuania, and Spain, Laprovittola impressed Popovich with his play for the Argentine Olympic team in Rio de Janeiro in August. Invited to Spurs training camp on a make-good contract, the 6-foot-4 guard earned a spot on the roster. He hasn’t yet wrapped his head around the fact he has made it to the NBA, let alone that he shares a locker room with his basketball hero.
“Manu for me is not a brother,” Laprovittola said. “For me he is like a God. I grew up watching Manu on the TV; watching Manu win the gold medal in the Olympics. It’s a great honor to play with Manu and play with the Spurs, and I am enjoying it very much. It was my dream and is my dream, but before the Olympics I never thought about the NBA. My mind was on Europe. I want to get more experience in Europe but the opportunity was this year, and I took it.”
Ginobili sounded a lot like a proud older brother as he praised Laprovittola’s play in Saturday’s victory.
“He is not here because of me,” Ginobili said. “He is here because he is an NBA player. He knows how to play and is very competitive.”
It was Laprovittola’s basketball intelligence, mental toughness, and maturity that earned him a spot on the roster. His steady play in his first real test as an NBA player didn’t surprise Popovich, who refused to reveal before the game that Laprovittola would come off the bench behind Mills. He also withheld the fact from Laprovittola, choosing to simply call his name when he gave Mills a rest with a little more than a minute left in the first period.
“He didn’t bat an eye,” Popovich said. “He went out and played like he was playing any place else in the world. You know, unimpressed with the situation. He was a competitor. He just goes out and plays.”
Laprovittola got some pre-game advice from Ginobili about how to run the Spurs offense, which helped him overcome some pre-game nerves.
“I was a little nervous,” Laprovittola said. “It was my first game at home but when I start I feel good … I know I have to be ready when TP (Parker) or Patty are out. That’s it.
“Manu told me a little bit. I tried to be always very focused because my English is not the best. But I have to be ready all the time. I know I am a smart player and have a little experience in Europe and South America, but in the NBA I’m new so I have to be very focused.”
For one night, at least, the focus was on Laprovittola, and Spurs fans who watched the game learned the correct pronunciation of his name: La-pro-VEET-ola. That’s because Ginobili made sure that the radio and TV announcers who call Spurs games – Bill Land, Sean Elliott, Pau Castro and Bill Schoening – had it down before tipoff.
Some of Laprovittola’s teammates are still working on it. Asked if he had learned the correct pronunciation, Mills paused for a moment, then grinned.
“Nico,” he said, bursting into laughter. “Nailed it.”