Hardly Spurred: Gregg Popovich just preparing for playoffs

Well, the Spurs have lost two out of their last three games.  To add to the atypical nature of this phenomenon, they were both against mediocre-at-best Eastern Conference teams.  Raise the pitchforks.

Without jumping to any conclusions, as a Spurs fan, you should already be quite aware of the utter lack of care coach Gregg Popovich seems to give on regular season games. Even though San Antonio continually boasts one of the top records, season after season, Popovich continually messes around with lineups, sits the older guys in “key” nationally televised games, and keeps injured players out at least a week after they are due back. And why might he do this?Patty

Playoffs.

Everything in San Antonio’s system revolves around the playoffs. We know they are going to make the playoffs. They know they are going to make the playoffs.  Every opponent they face knows it.  It’s just how it has come to be.

In this injury-riddled stretch of the season, Popovich’s lineups have gotten progressively stranger, especially during this Rodeo Road Trip.

When San Antonio pulled into Brooklyn on the second night of a back-to-back, five regular starters got to dress up and look nice on the bench for the bright lights of a TNT Thursday marquee matchup.  I’m not positive, but I would be willing to bet that the schedulers of the NBA weren’t queuing up this game preseason for the hot Nando De Colo/Shaun Livingston matchup.

But as I yawned along with the rest of America through this ugly attempt at basketball, I couldn’t help but notice how active Coach Popovich remained on the sideline.  He was much more animated by a pass gone awry (and there were a lot of them) than usual.

But what should he expect? It is the second and third stringers playing out there after all.  He should be joking around with Duncan and Parker on the bench when Matt “Red Mamba” Bonner tries to actually dribble the ball, right?

Wrong.  It’s all about conditioning.

Not the typical suicides-after-practice, game endurance conditioning.  Not actual increased play time conditioning either.  This conditioning is much more psychological than physical.  Popovich knows that these are professional athletes.  He knows that they can keep their bodies in good enough shape to play twenty minutes of basketball when necessary.  What he doesn’t know is how these new pieces will step up when given the opportunity.

San Antonio has always had the main core of players to get them to the playoffs, but the difference between contenders and pretenders lies in the bench and role players.

Last year in the Finals, San Antonio’s role players Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, and Gary Neal all stepped up enough to be about ten seconds away from a fifth championship.  With the loss of Neal, however, someone else is going to have to step up.  There’s no better time to start testing who that might be than on a long, grueling road trip.

So with Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili out, and Tim Duncan and Tony Parker getting a max of about thirty minutes of playing time when they do actually play, the perfect opportunity to test the depth of his team has been presented to Coach Pop.

It may not be much fun, but watch for which players are willing to step up and fill a void if a key player goes down.  So far it seems that crowd favorite Patty Mills is that guy, averaging 19.3 points in the last four games, 10 more than his year’s average.  He’s proved to have the psyche of a “put the team on my back” scorer, filling the role Gary Neal played in last year’s playoff run perfectly.

Mills’ performance has even proved enough to make Coach Pop muster up a smile and a pat on the back.That’s enough to make you want to retire on a high note, if you ask me.

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