OK, so maybe Tim Duncan wasn’t just a frisky young colt the last time the Spurs played a game at the AT&T Center. It could be that Manu Ginobili didn’t have his long, flowing hair that flopped in the wind when he flopped on the court or that Tony Parker was still coach Gregg Popovich’s favorite teenaged whipping boy.
It just seems that long ago.
When Rudy Gay’s last ditch 3-pointer missed on Feb. 1, the Spurs were able to claw past the Kings to end a three-game losing streak, hoping to crawl out of town in search of recuperation and recovery.
That’s exactly what the Spurs found on their annual rodeo road trip that might once more have saved their season. The Spurs have been forced to vacate their arena for the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo for an extended stretch each season since 2003 and have never brought home a losing record in their luggage.
This time, the Spurs traveled 8,989 miles through four time zones and left with a broken lineup that had been missing three starters — Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green — and before the journey left the East Coast in Boston, Parker and Tiago Splitter had to take their turns on the shelf.
Yet they returned with an unlikely 6-3 mark that keeps them No. 2 in the Western Conference entering their first home game in 25 nights against the Pistons (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass). It was an experience that while testing their depth, resolve and supply of bandages in their medical kit could once again give the Spurs the faith in the full roster and the necessary belief in themselves again down the stretch toward the playoffs.
“We’ve been looking for some consistency, and I saw more of that on the trip,” Duncan told Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News. “I saw the effort and execution. We’re still making a lot of mistakes, but that might just be me being around Pop too long and trying to be a perfectionist.
“We’ve improved, our confidence is there, and to see we’re operating with our 10th, 11th and 12th guys just like we are with the first guys will be huge for us and pay dividends down the stretch.”
Popovich for years has monitored and kept a lid on the minutes of his core players while maximizing virtually every man on his roster. But this Rodeo Trip might have been his best work yet. Green returned for the first game of the trip, but Leonard (nine), Ginobili (six), Splitter (four), Duncan (one) Boris Diaw (one) and Aron Baynes (one) each missed games during the trip. Parker missed the last three games because of assorted aches and pains and Popovich said he will continue to rest “for the foreseeable future.”
The Spurs even got a big win at Portland on a night when they played without the starting trio of Duncan, Parker and Leonard.
“Good trip for us,” Duncan said. “We would love to have played better (in Phoenix), but we’ve got a couple days to rest now, and hopefully we can continue to add people back to the squad and get ready for some home games finally.”
After a solid 35-6 record a year ago, the Spurs have already lost eight home games this season. They were staggering and lacked sharp execution, which made rediscovering their cohesiveness and how they play more important than where they play.
Returning home doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the lineup for Parker. After playing so deep into June in The Finals with the Spurs, Parker spent last summer playing for the French national team and led an unprecedented charge for a first-ever championship. Though the summer play kept him sharp for 2013-14, it also clearly sapped his energy and might have led to his nagging injuries. That’s why Popovich is sitting Parker now and remains determined not to put him back into the lineup until Parker is fully recovered, rested and playoff-ready.
It means Parker’s teammates will have to keep the rodeo trip attitude rolling, especially backup point guard Patty Mills.
“I think as long as the emotion, the passion, is always there, you can get it done,” Popovich said. “Look at (Russell) Westbrook, how long he was out. Look at Chris (Paul), what the Clippers did when he was out.
“When you’re on a team with a bunch of guys who care and want to be the last team standing, it’s not so much turning it on and off. It’s just the team rolls without you, just keeps going. Then you plug yourself back in. That’s what good teams do.”
Once again, the long road of the rodeo trip has brought the Spurs home with a deeper sense of who they can be.