NBA Saturday: Spurs Ready for Another Run

The San Antonio Spurs are ready to make a deep postseason run, again … The Toronto Raptors clinched the Atlantic Division

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Spurs Ready for Another Run

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the San Antonio Spurs’ recent 19-game winning streak was that Gregg Popovich continued his annual tradition of limiting the minutes of his key players in an effort to save them for the postseason. The Spurs didn’t stray from that philosophy this year, the team just managed to go undefeated February 26 to April 2 while sticking to their plan.

Last month, Tony Parker averaged 27.6 minutes per game. Tim Duncan averaged 28.4 minutes. Manu Ginobili averaged 21.3 minutes. The trio even sat out one game altogether, resting for the Spurs’ contest against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 24.

“Our minutes stayed low,” Duncan said. “Just like Pop likes it.”

The Spurs’ starters have played fewer minutes than any other starting lineup in the NBA this season. After last year’s run to the NBA Finals, Popovich wanted to ensure that his team would be ready for another playoff march that could last into June. Popovich wasn’t going to abandon that plan for a winning streak; he has shown that he really doesn’t care about regular season wins, as evidenced by his distribution of minutes and history of resting key players.

“Records and strings, they don’t mean anything,” Popovich said. “What we care about each game is how well we play. If that’s your goal and focus, usually that will bring more wins than losses considering everything else to be equal. Strings, records and all of that don’t really mean anything very much.

“We’ve kept [the starters’ minutes] down. We’ve always been a team that’s tried to get role players around those guys and tried to play more guys than most other teams play.”

San Antonio currently owns the NBA’s best record at 62-18. On Friday night, the Spurs locked up the top seed in the Western Conference, which makes them even scarier entering the postseason since they’ll have home-court advantage against every opponent.

“It’s a big plus,” Danny Green said. “The biggest thing for us right now is to stay healthy and to build chemistry – winning games in the process helps and getting home-court advantage, that’s just the extra bonus for us.”

The fact that the Spurs were able to win 19 straight games while still limiting their starters is a testament to the team’s depth and ability to run away with games early. Not only does resting his starters keep them ready for the postseason, it gives role players a chance to step up. Players like Danny Green and Gary Neal were ready to perform on the NBA’s biggest stage last June in large part because they had played a significant role during the season, which helped them improve their game and gain confidence. Popovich’s approach to resting players down the stretch varies from year to year, but it’s something that he believes has been crucial to the team’s success over the years.

“It’s worked well for us,” Popovich said. “This year, the bench has been very significant in keeping our heads above water and winning games. … Every season is different. The teams you play factor in as well as the current health of your team, the energy, the tired factor and what you’ve done. Are the games back-to-back? Are they three in four days? All of those sorts of things go into what you do at the end of the season. You just do it day-by-day, assess and do your best.”

Believe it or not, Popovich was actually frustrated during the team’s winning streak because he was robbed of many teaching opportunities. Losses are important for a coach like Popovich because it allows him to show players what went wrong and where the team needs to improve. Popovich’s preferred stretch, he says, is “win a few, lose a few, be sharper and have them in good shape.”

“He’s a teacher and wants to teach,” Duncan said. “He wants the good and the bad.”

“The real joy is watching your team improve,” Popovich said. “You fall in love with the day-to-day stuff – whether it’s practice, shootaround or a film session you have one on one with a player and you watch that individual grow during the year – that’s what teaching and coaching is all about. That’s the part that we all love the most. The games are competitive and that part is fun too, but it’s the teaching that I think everybody enjoys or misses when they stop doing it.”

While Popovich has developed into one of basketball’s best teachers, he hasn’t stopped being a student of the game. Even after winning four championships and 964 games, he is still open to learning new things from other coaches. He recently admitted that he watched the NCAA Tournament so that he could see what the college coaches are doing and try to work some of those things into his own game plan.

“If you were coaching a kids’ team, I’d go watch just to see what you did because I might learn something,” Popovich said. “There’s always something. It’s not just necessarily a play, maybe it’s a way that they substituted or managed or what kind of a wrinkle they might put into their team defense. There’s always something you can find that you might be able to incorporate.”

San Antonio has the fifth-best offense and third-best defense in the league this season, scoring 108.3 points per 100 possessions while allowing 99.7 points per 100 possessions. They’re the only NBA team that ranks in the top five in both categories. The Spurs’ offense has evolved over the years and it demands that players make the right play and react to what they see from the defense.

“It’s a motion offense, it’s malleable, it’s ever-changing in the sense that when players are moving and the ball is moving sometimes things happen in the offense that you didn’t plan on,” Popovich said. “The players just do and it becomes part of the offense. Other things coaches may concoct over in an office because you watch enough film where you try to manipulate something and it becomes part of the offense. Basically back in the late 90s, Brett [Brown], [Mike Budenholzer], [Hank] Egan and I, we decided how we wanted to play and what kind of an offense we wanted to use. We decided on a motion offense and put in the basics. Each year, we tweaked it a little bit ourselves, added some things that we saw the players do and so it evolves and continues to evolve. It doesn’t stay exactly the same, but the base is always the same.”

Chemistry is extremely important for the Spurs’ attack, as every player must be on the same page. While other teams change coaches and personnel every few years, San Antonio has been able to keep their same core intact. That’s because everyone in the organization, from top to bottom, is on the same page as well, and understands the importance of continuity.

“It’s a matter of getting an opportunity, sticking with it, having a group around you that can share the vision and having patience to get it done,” Popovich said. “We’ve been fortunate to have great synergy between ownership, management and coaching for quite a while. That creates an environment for players that allow them to be more successful. That’s really what has gone well for us.”

Because of this, the players all get along and the team’s chemistry is unrivaled. When a new player joins the team, as Austin Daye did in February, they quickly learn their place and fall into line.

“This team has a really high basketball IQ and everyone knows that,” Daye said. “Everybody speaks on how this bunch of guys can just make things happen. It is great to play with these guys, some that will be in the Hall of Fame and you know that before they finish their careers. To play with these guys, it is an honor for me and I feel blessed to be in this situation.”

One of the keys to Popovich’s offense is ball movement. Players rotate the ball and find the open man. San Antonio isn’t going to force shots and beat themselves. The Spurs’ ball movement has improved over the course of this season, and it has been one of the team’s strengths recently.

“It is huge,” Ginobili said. “At the beginning of the season, we were winning, but we did not have this type of feeling that everyone was involved. Now, everybody is moving the ball really well and everybody is making shots. When that happens, when those things click, it is fun to play when you are on the court and it is even fun to watch when you are on the bench because everybody is in a good mood.”

“I think we’ve moved the ball really well,” Popovich said. “We shared and moved it very well. We’ve gotten a lot of uncontested shots because of the ball movement. That’s been good.”

“We really love to move the ball together,” Marco Belinelli said. “That’s why we’re winning together.”

The Spurs are always a team to watch entering the postseason, and this season is no different. San Antonio is ready to make another run to the NBA Finals, and this time they may be the ones hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy when all is said and done.

Raptors Clinch Atlantic Division

Last night, the Toronto Raptors clinched the Atlantic Division for just the second time in franchise history. The Brooklyn Nets lost to the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, which sealed the division title for Toronto.

The last time the Raptors won the division was the 2006-07 season. Toronto is now 46-33, which puts them in the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed. The team clinched a playoff berth awhile ago, but didn’t win the division until last night. After learning that they won the Atlantic,  the players celebrated the accomplishment, but made it clear that they aren’t satisfied.

“It’s big,” Amir Johnson said, wearing a red T-shirt that recognized the division win. “Especially for me and everybody else in the room who has been here. We’ve been here for five years and we’ve been through our ups and downs and to take the Atlantic is a big deal. It’s a proud moment.”

“We’re still anxious,” DeMar DeRozan said. “We still want more. We’re not satisfied with nothing. We understand we have much more basketball to play and a long road to go and we want to take advantage of it. Not just get there and say we got there, where people doubted us. We definitely feel like we can go in and make some noise.”

Entering the season, the Raptors seemed like a long shot to win the division since the Nets and New York Knicks were being labeled contenders and Toronto was considered a fringe playoff team. It seemed even more unlikely when the Raptors got off to a 7-13 start, traded Rudy Gay, and reportedly considered moving other veterans such as Kyle Lowry and DeRozan to rebuild.

However, the Raptors have been a on a tear since late December, and Lowry and DeRozan have had career-years.

Toronto was able to end their five-season playoff drought this year, and now seem poised to make some noise in the postseason. Winning the Atlantic and securing a top-four seed certainly helps.

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