Pop at his most accommodating and effervescent. (Getty Images)
Here's how it tends to work: The NBA jams as much basketball as it possibly can into our eyes and ears on Wednesday nights, putting two-thirds of the league or more to work and giving League Pass junkies a solid six to seven hours of roundball-related stimulation between tipoff on the East Coast and the final buzzer out west. Then, after we've recovered a bit, we're served up a nice, easy-to-digest slate on Thursday nights featuring only two or three games, and headlined by the weekly TNT double-header that features a marquee matchup for prime-time Eastern audiences followed by an exciting Western Conference pairing designed to keep you awake, entranced and ready for the comedy stylings of the "Inside the NBA" crew's postgame show.
It's a good, manageable formula, provided the headline games are interesting, and with a clash of the titans between the defending NBA champion Miami Heat and Western Conference finalist San Antonio Spurs — two teams that have combined to win 23 games this season and lose just six — batting leadoff, this Thursday night's slate sure seemed to fit the bill.
It appears Gregg Popovich has done it again.
With the road miles piling up on his veteran team, the Spurs coach has dispatched four of his top five leading scorers home to San Antonio [...] Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green did not travel with the team after Wednesday night's win in Orlando, instead heading back to South Texas this morning for an extra day of rest leading up to Saturday's sure-to-be-rugged home game against Memphis.
The four were spotted on a Southwest flight making a pre-lunch escape from central Florida.
How much Nando De Colo, Patty Mills and James Anderson were you itching to see tonight? Did you answer, "Tons?" Well, then, lucky you!
As McDonald notes, this isn't a new move for Pop — he sat Duncan, Parker and Ginobili at the same time for three games last year, "a 137-97 loss at Portland in February, and in nationally televised victories over Phoenix and Golden State to close the regular season in April." (Hmm, "nationally televised," you say?)
This is, of course, a massive bummer for hoops fans who'd been eagerly awaiting a potential Finals matchup between two offensive juggernauts — Miami ranks second in the NBA in offensive efficiency, scoring at a blistering rate of 110.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool, while San Antonio ranks fourth at 105.9-per-100. With the Spurs sending their top four scorers home — and also playing without injured wings Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson — what had been a hotly anticipated shootout looks poised to turn into a one-sided knife-to-a-gunfight type situation. And with just two games, running consecutively, on the Thursday schedule, there won't even be any early-evening curiosities — "Are the Bobcats actually kind of fun this year? Whoa, how are the Hawks 9-4? Wait ... the Kyle Singler from DUKE?" — to check out as a Plan B if this one turns out to be a stinker. Them's the breaks, NBA fans, and them's the breaks, TNT. (And, it seems, for gamblers — as of 5:40 p.m. ET, Bovada's taken the game off the board.)
It is also, of course, absolutely Pop's prerogative to manage his lineup however he sees fit, and there's legitimate logic to his choice to give his four top guns a breather.</[>
Green and Duncan have started all 16 Spurs games this season, each playing more than 63 percent of the team's total minutes; Parker's sat down once and has still played more than 61 percent of the Spurs' minutes. Both Green and Duncan are getting more playing time than they did a season ago — Green's jump (23.1 minutes per game last year to a team-leading 30.9 thus far this year) is significantly larger, but Duncan's (up from 28.2 to 30.7) is nothing to sneeze at, especially considering we're talking about an about-to-be-37-year-old with nearly 41,500 total NBA minutes on those fundamentally sound legs. Parker (down from 32.1 to 31.7) and Ginobili (up from 23.3 to 23.8) are in pretty familiar territory, but the Frenchman's older than he's ever been (natch) and coming off a deep playoff run followed by a summer of work leading his national team in the Olympics, as is the Argentine, who's also battled injury issues in two of the last four seasons. And a lot of those minutes have come against a pretty tough schedule, with seven of 16 games coming against the Thunder, Clippers, Lakers, Knicks, Nuggets and Celtics, and 10 of those 16 coming on the road. Yes, every team has to deal with four-game-in-five-night stretches, but not every team's coming off an opening month like the Spurs, with as many moving (and aging) parts to prevent from turning into broken pieces.
But that's all broad-strokes talk — in the specific context we're dealing with, the Spurs have played (and won) five road games in the last seven days, including three in the last four days, in which Parker, Green, Duncan and Ginobili averaged 32.6, 32.2, 30.6 and 26.7 minutes per game, respectively. Rather than run them out for their fourth in five nights, Pop tells his guys to hop a flight home — commercial, of course, because that's perfect — so they can get two full days of rest before a Saturday night tilt with the Western Conference-leading Memphis Grizzlies, which is kind of a nice way to start a weeklong homestand. Sure, you might be punting on a nationally televised potential Finals preview, but in the grand scheme of things, you're probably putting yourself in better position to win the next three and keep the driving forces of that offensive engine humming. Popovich says his lead dogs are "getting tired," so he's going to rest them. It smells plenty fishy given that none of the players taking a seat have yet dealt with any injury issues this season, but there's really not much that can be done about it; any sort of fine or public reprimand for sitting healthy players for any reason would likely open the door to larger discussions of things like tanking for lottery positioning, and it wouldn't seem to make much sense for the league to start engaging in that kind of public argument over a Thursday night game in November.
The choice might not make the fans in the stands or on their couches, or the execs in the NBA or Turner offices, particularly thrilled, but Pop doesn't work for us or for them, and between-quarter Sager chats notwithstanding, creating compelling television matters about as much to him as what we think about why Cory Joseph hasn't gotten more of a shot thus far ... which is to say, not even a little bit. Which is precisely why Spurs fans love him, even if they might not love the prospect of tuning in to watch the silver and black get waxed by the Heat tonight. (Let's all keep our fingers crossed that Patty just goes off, for the sake of sheer watchability.) It just sucks for the rest of us, and for anyone looking forward to seeing what absolutely could have been one of the best games of the year.
Of course, maybe this is the best possible night for the Spurs to roll out the B-team. With Charles Barkley flying south from Atlanta to Miami to call the game on-site, maybe we can get a live version of "Who He Play For?" Five bucks says that even with "SPURS" across their chests, he won't get 'em all right.