The Spurs tantalized their fans on Monday, changing Tim Duncan’s status for Tuesday’s game against the Miami Heat to questionable, hinting he might suit up for the first game of the team’s annual rodeo road trip.
About mid-day on Tuesday came the official spoiler: Duncan again was ruled out with the sore right knee that now has cost him nine games, including the last eight.
After a 119-101 win over the Miami Heat that was seen locally on FoxSports Southwest and nationally on the NBA’s TNT-TV partner, Gregg Popovich’s decision to continue with a cautious approach to the 39-year-old team captain’s return looked like the latest genius move by the Spurs coach.
The win extended the Spurs’ latest win streak to five games and improved their record to 45-8, matching the 2010-11 Spurs for the best start in franchise history. They are 15-8 on the road, second-best road record in the NBA, trailing only the Warriors.
There were legitimate reasons to give Duncan a bit of a run against the Heat, including additional recent injuries to some of the captain’s teammates. Manu Ginobili will miss at least the rest of the games on the rodeo trip, which runs through the month of February. Veteran reserve Matt Bonner missed another game with the left calf strain he suffered in Dallas on Friday. Then, second-year forward Kyle Anderson turned up ill on Tuesday afternoon.
But why risk a physical setback when Popovich’s depleted lineup has shown its ability to handle the team’s business of late, at home or away. In the nine games Duncan has missed the Spurs have gone 7-2, only losing road games to NBA-leading Golden State and Eastern Conference No. 1 Cleveland.
So Popovich went with the same starting unit he has used in five of those games: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and, in Duncan’s spot, David West.
Since his feeble performance in the 120-90 drubbing administered by the Warriors on Jan. 25 Aldridge has bounced back to the point he was named Western Conference Player of the Week for the week that concluded on Sunday.
Against the Heat the former University of Texas star continued his recent surge. He scored a game-high 28 points, making 10-of-16 shots and all eight of his free throws, while grabbing four rebounds and handing out four assists. It was his fifth game in the last seven with at least 25 points.
He got 12 of his points in the second quarter, when the Spurs outscore the Heat, 34-23, and turned around a game that had not begun well. After missing 20-of-27 shots in the first quarter they made 14-of-22 in the second.
“It was a slow start for us all,” Aldridge told reporters in a post-season press session televised by FoxSports. “I ended up finding a rhythm and ended up playing well.”
Danny Green, who finished with 15 points, said ball movement was the key for the Spurs to get unstuck.
“The first quarter we felt like we were in mud, not many shots falling,” guard Danny Green told FoxSports TV game analyst Sean Elliott in a televised postgame interview. “Once we started moving the ball a little bit and finding each other, hitting the open man, making the easy pass and taking uncontested shots we started getting into a rhythm.”
Kawhi Leonard, chosen to start in the All-Star Game on Sunday, scored 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds, one of four Spurs with at least five rebounds in a game they dominated the boards, even at the offensive end. This is a break from Spurs orthodoxy because they enter most games with strict instructions from Popovich to focus first on getting back into transition defense so they can minimize their opponents’ fast break opportunities.
This time the Spurs pulled in 11 offensive rebounds and, more importantly, produced 22 second-chance points.
Miami had only one offensive rebound.
“Rebounding is always an emphasis for us with Timmy out,” Green said. “He’s a key rebounder for us and teams have been out-rebounding us on their offensive glass. It was unusual for us to out-rebound them on the offensive glass tonight but our bigs did a great job in there.”
There was an NBA rarity during the third quarter of Tuesday’s game: A 7-point possession for the Spurs that jumped a 7-point Spurs lead to 14 and took the air out of a Miami rally.
The productive possession began with a Patty Mills 3-point make on which he was fouled by Heat guard Beno Udrih. Mills made the free throw, making it a 4-point play, and as players fought for rebounding position after he released his free throw, Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, the NBA’s top shot blocker, elbowed Spurs center Boban Marjanovic. Referee Monty McCutcheon called Whiteside for a flagrant foul, category two, requiring his ejection and giving Marjanovic one free throw, after which the Spurs retained possession of the ball. Marjanovic made the foul shot – the fifth point of the possession – and, after taking the subsequent in-bounds pass, Leonard made a jump shot.
“Rare,” Aldridge said, “but it’s the NBA. Anything can happen.”
Duncan in a Spurs game has been rare of late – he has played in just one game since Jan. 17 – and Spurs fans will wait to see what Popovich does on Wednesday night in Orlando.
*Top image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.