Little more than one hour before the Spurs’ Tuesday night game against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Center, Gregg Popovich believed there was a good chance Kawhi Leonard would be in his starting lineup against the No. 2 team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
Leonard had missed Monday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, dead last in the 30-team league. The Spurs cited no injury, indicating that the head coach had dictated rest for his best player, and an easy victory proved the wisdom of his decision.
When it came time for tipoff in Toronto, however, Leonard had been scratched with a sore left hand. Nearly as worrisome: Jonathan Simmons, his primary backup, also went on the injured list with a sprained right wrist.
That left Popovich with only 11 healthy players, three of them rookies.
It didn’t matter. By the fourth quarter, the Spurs coach was giving fans tuned in to the FoxSports Southwest telecast a glimpse of the team’s future, playing four players age 24 and under, including the three rookies, through much of a tense final period in what became a 108-106 win.
Based on Tuesday night’s play of rookies Dejounte Murray, 20, Davis Bertans, 24, Bryn Forbes, 23, and third-year forward Kyle Anderson, 23, the future of the team looks pretty bright. Combined they made 6-of-7 shots, 6-of-6 free throws, and scored 19 of the Spurs’ 29 points in the deciding period.
Murray was the Spurs’ top scorer in the fourth quarter, getting eight of his 11 points in his 9-plus minutes in the period.
“The guys that were in there for a lot of the second half, obviously, were new guys,” said Popovich, whose team is now 36-9 and 20-4 on the road, the league’s best road record. “But, they’ve got the kind of character where they learn pretty quickly and enjoy playing together.
“Dejounte had a great second half, playing professionally and within the system, not trying to do anything special and just playing with his teammates” he added.
Veteran leadership was provided at different stretches of crunch time by 39-year-old Manu Ginobili, 33-year-old David Lee, 31-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge, and 28-year-old Patty Mills.
Mills, who finished with 18 points, cited the fortitude required of all his teammates, but particularly the rookies.
“Execution and guts,” Mills said in a televised postgame interview with FoxSports Southwest broadcasters Sean Elliott and Andrew Monaco. “A gutsy game, especially on the road. It’s all about guts and determination and how much you want it. For the guys who had an opportunity to come out and play tonight, all we’re doing is holding down the fort. I thought we did a very good job of it tonight.
“The guys played their hearts out tonight, and it really showed.”
Mills was particularly impressed with the composure and confidence the three rookies showed.
“They’re all working hard,” Mills said. “They all put in the work to understand the system, to understand the plays. The best part is that we all have confidence in them. We see how hard they’re working, and it’s good for us to give them confidence. They go out there and they’ve done a great job this whole road trip holding down the fort.
“Great experience for them to get meaningful minutes in crunch time and execute and just feel how the game is being played in that moment. It’s a good experience for them to get under their belt and there will be other opportunities throughout the season. It’s a learning atmosphere here with the Spurs and it really gives you a chance to learn and develop your game and this is just part of it.”
Making his second straight start in Leonard’s spot, Anderson made one of the most important defensive plays of the game, though casual fans likely missed it altogether. Popovich’s immediate recollection of it was a case of mistaken identity.
With 5.1 seconds remaining and the Spurs ahead by the eventual final score, 108-106, Aldridge missed the second of two free throws, and Toronto’s Lucas Nogueira grabbed the rebound. The Raptors were out of time outs, so Anderson and teammate Danny Green converged on Nogueira and pressured his outlet pass, delaying it by a second or two. By the time he delivered it to Terrence Ross, the Raptors guard had to heave up a 33-foot prayer, Aldridge scrambling from the foul line to contest a shot that never made it to the rim.
“When [Nogueira] got the rebound it took him a while to get rid of it because he got pressured,” Popovich said, crediting Aldridge with the pressuring instead of Anderson. “I thought that was really important because it took a second, second-a-half, or two seconds off the clock and made the shot a little bit more rushed.
“It seems like a really little thing, but that was pretty important.”
Ultimately, getting the team back to full strength is vitally important. Until it is, the Spurs will need little plays like Anderson’s to keep them nipping at the heels of the Golden State Warriors in the race for best record in the Western Conference.