It’s been a rough week for Spurs players in their mid-to-late 30s.
After losing 36-year-old starting center Pau Gasol to a broken bone in his left hand and 34-year-old starting point guard Tony Parker to chronic left foot pain that necessitated an MRI exam, 39-year-old guard-forward Manu Ginobili was scratched from the lineup for Monday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center because of back spasms.
Ginobili had left Saturday’s dramatic, 118-115 win in Cleveland over the Cavaliers in the final minute of overtime, heading straight to the locker room.
As if that weren’t worrisome enough, Gregg Popovich made the most Popovichian of moves about an hour before tipoff: The Spurs coach gave Kawhi Leonard, merely the NBA’s hottest player, a night of rest.
Named Western Conference Player of the Week early Monday afternoon, Leonard had logged a season high 46 minutes in scoring a season high 41 points against Cleveland. He is just 25 years old, but with a game scheduled for Tuesday night in Toronto, the Spurs coach insisted he skip the game.
Against the team with the worst record in the entire league, adding Leonard to the inactive list was far from risky business, as a 112-86 blowout win over the Nets would prove.
Popovich sent a starting lineup he had never used this season – Dejounte Murray at point guard, Danny Green at shooting guard, Dewayne Dedmon at center, LaMarcus Aldridge at power forward, and Kyle Anderson at small forward – and came away with a 28-point margin of victory that matched the fourth-highest of the season.
It took a full quarter before the makeshift lineup seemed comfortable playing together, trailing the woeful Nets early and leading by only a point after one quarter. Once a level of ease was established, the Spurs had no trouble scoring against the 30th ranked defense in the league.
Anderson, who made his 10th start of the season, scored a season high 14 points, one of seven Spurs in double figures. He made 6-of-10 shots, including his lone 3-point attempt, never doubted the improvised starting unit would figure out how to attack.
“We just had to adjust,” Anderson told FoxSports Southwest broadcasters Andrew Monaco and Sean Elliott in a televised postgame interview. “(The Nets) have got some athletic guys and tried to deny us, get us out of our stuff a little bit. We adjusted, and it worked out.”
Anderson, who had played more than 9 minutes only three times in the previous 10 games, admits it is challenging to stay ready when he never knows when, or if, Popovich might call his name.
“We’re all professionals here,” Anderson said. “I’m a professional basketball player and I have to be ready when I’m called on. That’s just how it goes. I just try to stay focused, get in some extra work whenever I can to stay in a rhythm and just be ready to go.”
Veteran point guard Patty Mills always is ready to go, but Popovich doesn’t like to start him when Parker is unable to play. Rather, Popovich likes to keep him with the second unit, where his ability to energize his teammates and score from long range often makes a positive impact. Against the Nets, Mills scored 10 of his game-high 20 points in the final 2 minutes and 41 seconds of the second period, when the Spurs scored 39 points and took control of the game.
Mills knows Popovich is apt to rest a key player at any time and believes he is one of several Spurs capable of taking over when the team is short-handed.
“I think there’s that level of confidence, I guess,” Mills said. “You’ve just got to find that and be able to do that, no matter what the game is or who is playing. Those games are good to get out there and move a little bit.
“You never want to play without your main guys. When guys step out for rest or injuries, nothing changes. The game plan is still the same. Other guys get excited to be able to step up and fill that void. Our job is just to hold the bar and let the guys get as healthy as they can before they come back.”
As a veteran of 11 seasons, center David Lee, whose 15 points matched his season high, reminded teammates that Monday’s game is what savvy NBA observers call a “trap game.”
“I think it’s a natural let-down game between beating a great Cleveland team and then playing a really good Toronto team tomorrow,” Lee said. “This was a big win for us. These (Nets) are capable, especially in their own building, of beating good teams. They’ve done it throughout the year.”
Popovich, the master manipulator, understands that players are human and often play with added focus and energy when they know key teammates are missing. He got that from everyone on his shorthanded roster on Monday, even center-forward Joel Anthony, who signed a 10-day contract on Monday as an emergency backup while Gasol recovers from his hand surgery. In just 5 minutes, he grabbed 4 rebounds.
Thus, when the Spurs take on the Raptors, they will have scored their 35th win over the season in their 44th game, and Leonard will have had two full days of rest for a game against a Raptors team that has the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, 28-16.
It is just such judicious management of the Spurs roster that helps to explain LeBron James’ recently expressed belief that Popovich is the greatest NBA coach – ever. A four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, James on Saturday told the Associated Press he is leaning towards returning to the U.S. Olympic team for the express purpose of playing under Popovich, named head coach of USA Basketball’s men’s national team through the 2020 Olympic tournament. That assertion came two days after he had declared Popovich “the greatest coach of all time,” lauding his ability to change with the evolution of the game has included a faster offensive pace and emphasis on 3-point shooting.