Less than one full week into the season, Gregg Popovich already is in mid-season form.
Once fined $250,000 for sending four players home before a 2012 game in Miami, the Spurs coach still wonders why the NBA’s schedule makers can’t get their act together.
Despite a 106-99 Sunday night win over the Miami Heat that ran his team’s record to 4-0, starting the season with four games in six nights didn’t sit well.
“It’s ridiculous,” Popovich said. “Seems like they could figure that out.”
What Popovich figured out for his team was a tried-and-true strategic view of handling the grind of the 82-game season: He rested two of his oldest players – 39-year-old Manu Ginobili and 34-year-old Tony Parker – during Saturday’s first game of a set of back-to-back contests so they could be fresh for Sunday’s second game, which followed a red-eye charter flight that didn’t deliver the team to its Miami hotel until after 3 a.m.
With an eye to the 82-game grind, he followed up on Sunday by resting another 30-something starter in Miami. Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, 31, sat out Sunday’s game for general rest and to give his knees a chance to recover from the strain of three games in five nights.
Parker was back in the starting point guard role against the Heat, and Ginobili came off the bench, resuming the sixth man role he has had through most of the last six years of his career. Newcomer David Lee started as power forward in Aldridge’s stead.
Without having to share the interior offensive load with Aldridge, who averaged 18 points in the first three games, center Pau Gasol had his most productive game as a Spur thus far, with 20 points and 11 rebounds. A six-time All-Star with career averages of 18.2 points per game and 9.5 rebounds through his first 14 NBA seasons, Gasol admitted that having not yet scored more than nine points in any of the first three games was hard to accept.
“Yeah, it is, it is,” Gasol said after scoring nine points in Saturday’s win over New Orleans. “But it just started. Got to stay with it and understand what’s my role here. I try to fit in as best as I can. I don’t try to be disruptive.”
With Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, the NBA’s top shot blocker this season, defending the rim, Gasol wisely took his game to the perimeter on Sunday, even to the 3-point line. Of his nine field goals, six were from at least 12 feet from the basket. He attempted two 3-pointers and made one.
“LaMarcus is such a big presence for us, so his absence definitely opened up other things,” Gasol said. He’s one of our main players and we want him 100% and ready to go. I just tried to do my best tonight and get a feel for how I could help. More opportunities came my way, and I tried to capitalize on them.”
Gasol did the bulk of his scoring in the first half, during which the Spurs led by as many as 16 points.
The second half belonged to Kawhi Leonard.
Still just 25 years old, Leonard may be the only Spurs starter who doesn’t get a rest game this season because he continues to show he is the team’s crunch time star.
This was especially true on Sunday, when Miami came back from the 16-point deficit to briefly lead midway through the fourth quarter. Leonard followed by scoring 17 of his game-high 27 points in the final six minutes and 25 seconds despite playing with a cut under his left eye that required the attention of head athletic trainer Will Sevening and kept him off the floor for nearly two minutes. He scored 14 of the Spurs’ final 20 points.
Guard Patty Mills, the only other Spur to score in the final six-and-a-half minutes, described Leonard’s impact to Fox Sports Southwest broadcasters Bill Land and Sean Elliott in a televised post-game interview.
“You see the style he’s playing,” said Mills, who made two of his four 3-point baskets in the final 6:25. “It’s an aggressive mindset. He’s going hard to the rim, getting foul calls, going to the line, and shooting free throws. That builds momentum, and it’s great to see his progression.”
Popovich praised the mental toughness his players showed in battling through the fatigue of the tough schedule and the travel itinerary that didn’t deliver them to their Miami hotel until after 3 a.m the day of.
“I thought we hung in tough on the road,” Popovich told reporters in a televised post-game interview. “That was the best part of the game. Just hanging in on the road is always important, and I thought we did that in the fourth quarter.”
Mills was especially impressed with his team’s response
“It’s the energy, the effort stuff, the grind stuff that got us through tonight,” Mills said. “When they made a run we didn’t drop our heads. We hung in there.”