The most meaningful story at The AT&T Center on Friday night had nothing to do with the game between the Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies.
Sure, the Spurs locked up no worse than No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs be defeating the grossly shorthanded Grizzlies, playing without their three best players and hoping the NBA season ends before they have dropped out of the playoff mix.
San Antonio’s 110-104 win made it mathematically impossible for third-place Oklahoma City to match their win total in the ten games that remain for both teams. LaMarcus Aldridge had one of his most efficient games of the season, making 12-of-16 shots and scoring 32 points as the Spurs kept their home court record perfect, 37-0. That matches the best home court start in NBA history, the 37-0 mark at United Center by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who went on to the NBA’s all-time best record, 72-10.
What did the Spurs think of matching such a streak?
“Let me try to put it nicely: I couldn’t care less,” Ginobili said.
The real story Friday was revealed a few hours before tipoff, when the Spurs announced that Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are not making the road trip to Oklahoma City and Memphis for the team’s next two games. A couple of hours after the game ended, Aldridge was added to the list of rest-ees for Saturday, though it seems he may be available for Monday’s re-match with the Grizzlies in Memphis.
Welcome to the true prologue to the playoffs.
Gregg Popovich has been selectively resting his older players in the final month of the season for the better part of the last decade, a nod to the grind of the 82-game NBA schedule and the need for fresh legs once the “second” season begins.
It is a delicate exercise, balancing rejuvenation and rust. Popovich has been at it long enough to have a good feel for the process.
“You just try to do your best,” Popovich said. “You don’t want to de-condition them and you don’t want to lose rhythm, but you want to rest them. So you try not to lose rhythm and you try not to de-condition them.”
The process actually began in the planning for Friday’s game when Popovich decided Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Danny Green needed to sit out, along with scoring leader Kawhi Leonard, out with a bruised right thigh. Diaw is 34 but Green won’t be 30 until late June and Mills is just 27. Clearly, the team’s 60-11 record – now 61-11 — has given Popovich even more flexibility in making sure his players are fit for the postseason, and never mind that the Spurs hadn’t officially locked up second place before the game.
“We knew we would eventually get a win in the last 10 games,” said Ginobili, who made two late 3-point shots to put away the win. “And we also knew that the chances of getting to (first place) Golden State are slim to nil. So I guess Pop is going to start playing a little chess from now on.”
Consider Friday’s roster scratches Popovich’s version of the Sicilian defense, the classic defensive chess opening.
Of course, chess is a mind game, and sitting three key veterans against an Oklahoma City team that could well become a second-round playoff opponent is a mind game, too, regardless of Saturday’s outcome.
Friday’s maneuver produced a closer contest than many would have anticipated against a team that has had so many players on its roster this season (27) that coach Dave Joerger jokes he requires players to wear name tags at practice sessions.
Second-year forward Kyle Anderson started in Leonard’s spot against the Grizzlies. Kevin Martin, signed to a free agent contract on March 9, made his first start as a Spur and scored 13 points.
Experience for newcomers like Martin and veteran point guard Andre Miller, who joined the Spurs three days before Martin did, is a bonus side effect of the rest program for veteran Spurs.
“It’s obviously good for these other guys to get minutes and play in situations where they get used to the guys,” Popovich said.
Martin logged 33-and-a-half minutes, the most he had played in a game since Dec. 11.
He felt every one of his 2,010 seconds.
“Well, we got a win,” he said. “That was the most important thing. My lungs, I’ll probably get an ‘F.’ I felt like I was running in mud most of the game but I needed that. I hadn’t really played that many minutes since mid-December so it was fun.”
*Top Image:The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.