Deep bench providing huge lift for Spurs

With a truncated two-week training camp and a shortened
regular season that numbers just 66 games, the 2011-12 NBA season could come
down to one simple factor for many teams — depth or a lack thereof.

Through their first 21 games, the San Antonio Spurs have been practically
unbeatable at home with an impressive 10-1 record at the AT&T Center, but
they are just 2-8 on the road.

However, no matter where they are, one thing has been a huge plus for the Spurs
so far this year and that has been their second unit. This group, which
features the likes of second-year big man Tiago Splitter, sharpshooter Gary
Neal, Danny Green, long-range specialist Matt Bonner, James Anderson and rookie
Cory Joseph, has been rock solid to say the least.

Through 21 games, the Spurs bench was chipping in around 39 points per contest,
solid numbers indeed. It’s Even more impressive because the second unit hasn’t
been at full strength this season. Neal missed time with an injury and backup
point guard T.J. Ford, a former University of Texas standout, is currently
sidelined with a hamstring issue.

Another key contributor off the pine for San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich
is rookie Kawhi Leonard, but the 6-foot-7 small forward was recently thrust
into the starting five as a fill-in for Manu Ginobili, who suffered a broken
hand in early January and is slated to miss about six weeks.

But this unit hasn’t missed a beat. In Sunday’s overtime loss at Dallas, it was
this second unit that led a furious second-half comeback. Popovich was so
pleased with how his bench had performed that he basically left them in from
the waning stages of the third quarter, all through the fourth and overtime.

Sure, the Spurs eventually lost 101-100 in the extra frame but their head coach
is clearly pleased with how well his second unit has performed.

“The bench has been really good for us in a lot of games,” Popovich said. “The
young kids have done a good job, brought energy and actually scored for us
because we’ve been offensively challenged quite often in periods of the game.

“I think in Minnesota, we didn’t score for seven
minutes in the fourth quarter. But in general, the young kids have given us
some of that. They’ve been good.”

But the Popovich isn’t alone in his praise for what the second unit has done
thus far. The guys who are part of that group agree they’ve brought a lot to
the floor every night, but each member knows they can always do more.

“I think the bench has been great,” Neal said. “Tiago, Danny, Cory and of
course Matt Bonner with the way he shoots the ball and spaces the floor, the
bench has been great. Of course, you can always get better and there are
situations you wish you could have played better, but I think overall,
collectively as a group the bench has been good.”

Green added: “I think overall we’ve done a pretty good job of coming in
and bringing the energy that we need. It hasn’t been as consistent as we would
like to keep it, but for the most part, for the experience that we lack and the
young guys that we have, we’ve done a pretty good job.”

As one of the most experienced members of the Spurs bench, Bonner knows exactly
how crucial depth can be for any team hoping to make a long run in the
postseason. The University of Florida product sees that as being a huge asset
for him and his teammates going forward.    

“With the condensed schedule, depth is important,” Bonner said. “You can’t
play your starters 40 minutes a night; you won’t make it through the schedule. We
trust in everybody on our roster to come in and contribute. That’s what we’ve
done. We’ve come in, tried to contribute energy and give a little boost on
nights when we need it.”

Even with injuries, guys filling in as starters and the like, no matter who has
been getting on the floor, the second unit has continued to bring it and on
several occasions, has helped keep Popovich’s team in games.

But that’s exactly what a bench is supposed to do according to one member of
this talented group.

“That’s bound to happen every year. The NBA season is a long season,”
Green said. “Guys are going to get hurt, guys are going to have injuries,
especially with this hectic schedule we have this year. Games are coming more
often than usual.

“We have to trust each other. We have young guys that have
potential and can play. That’s why everybody has to stay ready on the bench.
Guys go down, we have somebody step up and pick up the slack a little bit. I
think it’s been very important. Hopefully in the future, that will help make
our bench a lot deeper.”