CHICAGO — The San Antonio Spurs, apparently, are a state of mind.
They’re like the old parable about a carpenter and his trusty hammer, where he wields the tool for years, changing the handle after years of constant use, eventually even replacing the head. The question: Is that still his trusty hammer?
That’s how it was with the Spurs Monday night in Chicago.
The uniforms were right. The guy over on the side was right. But Tim Duncan (knee) was in street clothes, Manu Ginobili (hamstring) never shed his warm-ups and Tony Parker (knee) stayed back in the locker room while San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich navigated another starless night that turned out anything but bleak.
His “B” team slammed the Bulls at United Center by 14 points, 103-89.
The last time Popovich played a game without four key guys — veteran Stephen Jackson was absent for what the team termed “personal business” — he wound up both with an L and costing his boss, Spurs owner Peter Holt, $250,000 as the NBA’s penalty for thumbing his nose at a TNT game in Miami. This time, (mostly) injuries meant excused absences, rather than the controversial “rest” Popovich sought for his guys in late November.
This time, they got a W, it didn’t cost them a dime and the marvelousness of the Spurs system chugged along, largely below the NBA radar and beyond their rivals’ grasp.
“It’s your hope that you can play with anybody in your system,” Popovich said afterward, but it was an understatement given San Antonio’s head-scratching results.
Consider: Their team tracks an unofficial stat — individual winning percentage — that shows Ginobili (.724), Parker (.722) and Duncan (.715) ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, atop all active, established NBA players (Kobe Bryant is fourth at .654 and Dirk Nowitzki is next at .651).
Yet the Spurs are 8-2 this season when forced to play without Duncan, 10-3 when Ginobili sits and 2-1 without Parker. Heck, they’re even 3-0 without Popovich (he missed three games in January with the flu, staying away to avoid infecting the players).
Assistant coach Mike Budenholzer stepped in – without Duncan, by the way – and ran his substitute’s record to 5-0 in his years alongside Pop. “Hopefully, we’ve built a system where different guys can step in and fill roles and feel comfortable and confident,” Budenholzer said after the recent stint.
No kidding. Twelve different Spurs have started games this season, the most for any team in the league. The only constants in San Antonio’s NBA-best 41-12 record, as far as playing in all 53 games, have been Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter.
It won Monday thanks to 26 points from budding point-forward Kawhi Leonard and seven assists from Parker’s rookie understudy, Nando De Colo. The Spurs’ thinned bench still managed to outscore the Bulls’ 24-21 and they overcame a ridiculous rebounding disparity — 49-26, just two offensive boards — by taking care of the ball (52 percent shooting, only eight turnovers). They were scrappy with their hands for 10 steals, sank half of their 16 3-pointers and missed just three of 20 free throws.
It’s worth noting, as much as this all says about the reliability of Popovich’s “system,” this isn’t some sort of college situation where the coach is the star and the players are wholly interchangeable. He talked prior to the game about the tweaks he, GM R.C. Buford and the personnel folks have made to the roster and the style of play in recent years, a nod to their stars’ mounting mileage.
Grinding away defensively wasn’t going to work as well, either, once the league instituted various hand-checking and player-movement rules. So the Spurs consciously got sleeker, deeper and more offensive-minded — the equivalent of replacing that hammer’s old wooden handle with fiberglass.
Also at work Monday was the dynamic often at play in a long regular season. When role players know their minutes necessarily are going up, they can settle in a little, worrying less about quick hooks, and just play. Meanwhile — though the Bulls denied this afterward — the opponents might let down a bit, even subconsciously, when they’re not facing the heavy lifters. Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau‘s team has gotten similar results at times in Derrick Rose’s, Luol Deng’s, Joakim Noah’s and others’ absences.
Still, it all goes so seamlessly for San Antonio, one starts to wonder if Jerry Seinfeld was right. Maybe Spurs fans truly are rooting for shirts. Doesn’t seem to matter who’s wearing them … the guys in silver-and-black keep rolling.