You can’t put a price tag on the decisions Gregg Popovich has made over the years unless, of course, you’re David Stern. The $250,000 penalty for resting San Antonio’s stars against the Miami Heat likely won’t ever be viewed as an investment by the Spurs, especially since it infringed on a coach’s prerogative to do what he thought was right for his team.
It may end up being worth every penny.
Not only did Popovich rest guys he felt needed an extra night off during a lockout-like stretch of games, the residual effect on the rest of the roster could pay off lottery-style.
The Spurs’ JV more than held its own against the defending champs, falling to the Heat by only five points back on Nov. 29. To be fair, Miami has looked disinterested and disjointed in the days since, but the Spurs on the floor that night weren’t taking stock of the Heat’s frame of mind.
Nando De Colo and Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal and James Anderson and Co. went mano-a-mano (sans Manu) against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Backups normally can’t buy that kind of experience and live to tell about it.
“They can play,” Manu Ginobili said of the reserves. “Pop always gives them confidence. They know that when they are on the court that they have the freedom to play and do their thing.”
So what’s happened post-Miami? San Antonio hasn’t lost, winning four straight going into Monday night’s visit to Houston. Those no-names are as much a part of a 17-4 start as Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Ginobili.
In the Memphis game, De Colo, Matt Bonner and Patty Mills helped spark a second-half comeback that ended in an overtime win. Splitter, Bonner, De Colo, Neal and Cory Joseph were part of a bench brigade that tallied 40 points, 25 rebounds and 13 assists in a victory over Milwaukee.
“(Mills and Splitter) have been playing well for us all year,” Popovich said. “Nando just started getting a lot of time in the last three or four games. The guys off the bench have done well. Even James Anderson coming in late and understanding our system … is doing a good job out on the court. All those guys have been good.”
They were again in back-to-back blowouts over Houston and Charlotte by a combined 52 points. And what’s just as valuable long-term – Duncan, Ginobili and Parker didn’t log more than 26 minutes in any of those two games.
The unsung Spurs are playing without looking over their shoulders. Knowing the rings sitting on the San Antonio bench most nights, it’s only natural that De Colo would expect to be pulled for Ginobili should a behind-the-back pass end up in the front row. Same goes for Splitter or Neal or Joseph.
Ginobili wasn’t waiting in the wings against the Heat, and De Colo knew as much. He played that night knowing it was on him to do his job. That approach hasn’t changed for San Antonio’s other guys.
A sample of the Spurs’ depth: Popovich has used 12 different starters this season, the most in the league. The Spurs have a league-high six players averaging at least 10 points. The bench ranks second at 42.0 points per game.
“We are getting 10, 11 or 12 guys out there who are really focused on what they’re doing on the court,” Duncan said. “They’re making the most of their minutes.”
That confidence and level of play is something Popovich and the Spurs organization privately hoped for, but couldn’t honestly expect.