At this time of year, the sting of a single loss is nothing to really worry about.
It’s the piling up of injuries that cause the pain and could burn up the Spurs’ season.
Forward Kawhi Leonard broke a finger in Wednesday’s loss to the Thunder and will probably be sidelined for a month. He’ll join in rehab and on the bench with center Tiago Splitter (sprained shoulder) and guard Danny Green (broken finger).
Here’s where the challenge begins. Not merely trying to survive without three regular members of the starting lineup, but trying to keep a lid on the minutes of San Antonio’s Big Three.
Coach Gregg Popovich has long treated the bodies of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker as if they were art work from a museum, spending the regular season as much as a curator and caretaker as a coach. More anything else, he protects them.
That’s why when the Spurs traveled to Miami for a nationally televised, much-anticipated date against the Heat, Popovich gave Duncan, Ginobili and Parker the night off, even going so far as to booking them on a Southwest Airlines flight home to San Antonio. For that, the Spurs were fined $250,000 by commissioner David Stern.
Even a chastened Popovich never apologized for his actions to protect the long term health of his franchise trio and said again after the latest blow that doing anything else would be “unwise.”
So after a Friday night stop in Atlanta, the Spurs will travel to Miami on Sunday for another marquee game against the Heat on ABC (1 p.m. ET). It will be their first trip back to South Florida since Games 6 and 7 of The Finals last June, the first chance to exorcise the demons of those painful losses.
But the Spurs and Popovich have never been about one game. Nor have they been scratching and clawing for every ounce out of the regular season, even if it means falling a spot or two in the Western Conference standings. Their belief has long been that playoff seeding is not as important as health. That’s never been more important than now when Duncan is 37, Ginobili is 36 and Parker is 31.
The Thunder proved again in their 111-105 win that they can ride the prolific scoring abilities of Kevin Durant — even in the absence of the injured Russell Westbrook — and rise to the top of the conference standings.
For the Spurs, it was a defeat that dropped them to 3-8 against the other teams currently ranked among the top six in the West. Yet even with another costly loss, there will be no panic, no change in plan. At least for now.
Popovich maintains that he’ll do everything he can to keep playing time right about where it is for Duncan (29.2 mpg) Ginobili (24.6) and Parker (31.6).
While the temptation may be great and the necessity could arrive if the Spurs have to pull themselves out of a sudden long skid, the focus must remain on the distant horizon. Especially if there is to be any hope of eventually landing the franchise’s fifth NBA title.
The truth is that those title hopes will rest as much with Leonard, Splitter and Green. Their legs and lungs that injected some much-needed youth into the lineup last season, enabling the Spurs to make their surprising Finals run. It was Leonard, Splitter and Green who were the leading scorers 10 months ago on the last occasion when the Spurs beat OKC. That trio walked off the floor at the AT&T Center to a thunderous ovation that was supposed to be a peek at the future.
Theirs is a solar system that still revolves around the Big Three, but the youth and speed of the Little Three give the Spurs defense more bite. They also give Popovich so many more ways to go from night to night, quarter to quarter, possession to possession.
“Kawhi’s news is way tougher than the loss,” Ginobili said on Wednesday night. “We have to figure it out.”
So they’ll go small at times and they’ll reach with defensive match-ups that occasionally are unexpected or exotic. But what the Spurs insist they won’t do is burn themselves out in January or February and leave nothing but ashes for April, May and June.
“I won’t overplay Timmy, Manu and Tony just to win games,” Popovich said.
That’s the challenge. No matter how much it hurts.