The Spurs regular season ended Wednesday with an unlikely 96-91 win over the Dallas Mavericks, a result that made them wait a while to know for certain that they will face the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs.
Game 1 will be Sunday at ATT Center. Game 2 is scheduled for Tuesday, also at AT&T Center. Games 3 and 4 will move to Memphis, Game 3 on April 22 and Game 4 on April 24.
Had the Mavericks won it would have been impossible for the Grizzlies to pass them in the Western Conference standings and gain the No. 6 seed. Losing kept the final standings in question until the conclusion of the Golden State Warriors game against the Grizzlies.
There was never any real doubt the Warriors would win the late game in Oakland and settle the issue. They were seeking the best record ever, 73-9, and got it easily, Steph Curry hitting 10 3-pointers and scoring 46 points in a 125-104 win.
So there was plenty at stake for the Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Don’t doubt they were thrilled when Gregg Popovich decided to leave four of his starters, plus two valuable reserves, in San Antonio. The Spurs have one of the deepest rosters in the NBA, but playing without Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and David West seemed to guarantee a Mavericks win.
But the nine Spurs who made the trip were guaranteed to compete, even after they fell behind by 18 points at halftime. They erased the entire deficit before the end of the third period, then took their first lead since the first quarter on a 3-pointer by Danny Green – the only starter who made the trip – midway through the fourth quarter.
“These guys deserve a lot of credit for their competitiveness tonight,” Popovich told reporters in a post-game interview televised by KENS-TV. “They had a bad stretch in the first half and they worked themselves out of it in the second half by being steady, by being solid, by not turning it over, communicating and stocking together.
“So they did a fine job. I was real proud of them.”
The aggressive play of the Spurs’ two rookies helped turn the game. Center Boban Marjanovic scored a season-high 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Jonathan Simmons also produced a season high point total, 19.
The outcome left the Spurs with a 67-16 record, the best in franchise history. They are one of six teams tied for seventh-best record in NBA history, but had the misfortune to achieve it as Golden State put together the most successful season ever.
“In most years, if you say you’re going to win 65, you think you’ve pretty much got a good position for home-court for the whole playoff,” Popovich said before tipoff, apparently forgetting his team had won its 66th game the night before. “That’s not the case. It’s surprising in a way. Sixty-five sounds like a lot. What they’ve (Warriors) done makes it pale.”
The Spurs locked up the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference two weeks ago. Their loss to the Warriors on Sunday had eliminated them from contention for the No. 1 spot. There was nothing to gain against the Mavericks on Wednesday but plenty to lose had one of the players who remained behind had been injured.
Recent team history explains Popovich’s thinking about sitting his stars. Nothing is more important to the Spurs coach than getting his team to the post-season with a roster full of healthy players, so what happened precisely five years previous has informed his thinking about every season finale since.
On April 13, 2011, with nothing left to gain in a 61-win season that already had earned the No. 1 seed in the West, Popovich opened the game with all five of his regular starters: Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess, Richard Jefferson, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the team’s No. 2 scorer, at 17.4 points per game.
Little more than two minutes after tipoff, Ginobili got his right arm caught while fighting through a screen and suffered what was thought to be a hyperextended elbow. He would miss Game 1, a Grizzlies win that cost the Spurs the home court advantage they spent the whole season attaining.
Ginobili returned for Game 2 but had to wear a heavy brace that limited his range of motion. He never was himself through one of the most disappointing series losses in franchise history, a 4-2 upset at the hands of the No. 8 seed. Later, it would be revealed Ginobili’s injury had been a fracture.
That Popovich subsequently has erred on the side of caution in season finales in understandable.
Popovich never tries to orchestrate playoff matchups because he lives in fear of the basketball gods.
“Playoffs are all about matchups, and each team presents different problems, so it’s best not to try to manipulate and do things – win or lose – so you play a certain person, because when you do that, the basketball gods will get you,” he said before Sunday’s game against the Warriors. “So whoever is there, you play them. If it’s Team A, they have special things you’ve got to take care of; Team B different; Team C different.”
In truth, he could not have manipulated matchups to produce a better first-round opponent than the Grizzlies. Two months ago, Memphis was challenging the Clippers for fourth place until All-NBA Center Marc Gasol suffered a fracture in his right foot and was lost for the season. They lost standout point guard Mike Conley in early March when he developed tendinitis in his left Achilles tendon. When All-Star power forward Zach Randolph missed 9-of-12 games during March they began a slide down the standings that landed them at No. 7. They lost 14 of the final 17 games of the season. Because of injuries and trades they have had 28 players on their roster this season, causing coach Dave Joerger to joke that he makes his players wear ‘Hello, My Name Is — ‘ name tags at practice.
Without trying, the Spurs landed in a matchup with the most injury-plagued team to make the post-season.
Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.