VIDEO: Game Time: Spurs Offense
SAN ANTONIO — The Gregg Popovich minutes management plan during the regular season receives plenty of praise for allowing the Spurs’ more high-mileage players such as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to play longer when it matters most.
Like on hot, steamy indoor nights in June.
In Thursday’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals, played without air conditioning inside the AT&T Center, all three of San Antonio’s Big Three surpassed their season averages in minutes played.
Yet off the bench came Manu Ginobili, sixth-man extraordinaire, going for 16 points and 11 assists in 32 minutes; Boris Diaw putting forth 33 highly effective minutes, finishing a game-high plus-30; and Marco Belinelli adding nine points, including a pair of 3s, in 18 minutes.
Everybody knows a championship team is more than its star players. It takes max production from role players to get this far, and that’s the lesser appreciated byproduct of more bench time for starters — more floor time, experience and confidence for bench players.
“It also does develop the bench, give them some confidence to play,” Popovich said of his carefully monitored rotation. “And hopefully in the end when playoff time comes, sometimes it’s a role player that steps up in a certain game and has a heck of a night and helps you.”
San Antonio has boasted one of the deepest rosters in the league and benefitted from a group of reliable, fundamentally sound reserves who mesh seamlessly into the Spurs’ machine-like system. Numerous times during the regular season, the Spurs won games with one, two or even all three of the Big Three being strategically held out by Popovich with an eye toward making a deep playoff run.
Twice a shorthanded Spurs squad — once without Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, and later without Duncan and Ginobili — won at Golden State. In the final week of the season, the Spurs were in Dallas playing a desperate Mavericks team fighting for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.
With Parker out of the lineup, backup point guard Patty Mills, a player under development in the Spurs’ system for three seasons, dropped six 3-pointers and 26 points in a 109-100 win.
“You obviously come into a program like this and you go through it and you learn the coaches and the system and how to react,” said Mills, who had seven points and a steal in 12 minutes in Game 1. “We’re past the stage of being scared to make mistakes. And I think we’re all part of that now.”
Spurs reserves are ready for the fire of the playoffs because they spend the season playing through hot spots. In Game 4 of the Western Conference finals at Oklahoma City, the Spurs’ starters were getting blown out. Popovich benched them, down 27 points, in the middle of the third quarter. Five Spurs reserves cut the lead to 12 early in the fourth quarter, before the Thunder regained their advantage.
“You want the bench to be more perfect in some ways, but we expect the starters to set the example in the way we want to play and oftentimes the bench comes in and plays better,” Popovich said. “It happens.”
In the Game 1 win over the Heat, Spurs reserves Ginobili and Diaw combined for 17 assists, one more than the entire Heat team. San Antonio’s bench outscored Miami’s 34-20 and outrebounded it 20-10.
That’s really nothing new for this group. The Spurs’ bench finished the regular season first in scoring per game (44.5 ppg), field-goal percentage (47.8) and assists (10.9); second in rebounds (16.8) and 3-point percentage (39.1); and third in steals (3.3).
The one category in which they stunk? Turnovers, ranking dead last (5.9 per game). But even then, the Spurs’ reserves live, learn and get back to business.
“We just play freely and if you make a mistake you own up to it and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Mills said.