This is when it pays off, all that commitment to the philosophy, unwavering belief, downright stubbornness.
It’s about time.
Then again, it always is with Gregg Popovich, who watches the minutes and seconds more than any other numbers in the box score.
So here were the Spurs, hardly out of the woods going into the last 5:40 of Game 3, and there were Tim Duncan and Tony Parker taking seats on the bench.
It was a night when Kawhi Leonard gave the world a glimpse into San Antonio’s future when the Big Three eventually walk into the sunset, and when Danny Green delivered another one of those do-nothing-wrong efforts. But in truth it was simply one more example of why the Spurs are back for a second straight Finals appearance — because they’ve watched the clock and taken care of their time.
Every coach, every organization talks about the importance of having a solid supporting cast. But nobody really walks the walk like Popovich, who became the first coach in NBA history to finish a season without a single player averaging 30 minutes per game.
“Guys really get screwed playing for me,” Popovich said after a practice a couple of weeks ago in the Western Conference finals against the Thunder. “It hurts their stats.”
But it helps their win total as the Spurs won an NBA-best 62 regular season games and have continued churning through the playoffs.
A year ago, it was whispered in some corners that the Spurs made it to The Finals because their biggest obstacle, OKC, was missing Russell Westbrook, who was injured in the first round of the playoffs. You could hear the whispers rising again this year when the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka was believed to be sidelined for the playoffs as the Spurs built a 2-0. But Ibaka came back and the Thunder quickly tied the series. Then the Spurs showed their superiority in winning the next two games, coming from behind at halftime in the clincher without an injured Parker.
The Spurs are back here because they are the deepest team in the league and credit for that goes to gathering the talent. But it also goes to Popovich’s steadfast adherence to his belief in conserving energy and playing time anywhere that he can. It could be November in a nationally televised game in Miami or March on a night when his team is getting blown out early in the third quarter.
“Pop has his rules, has his ways and he doesn’t change when it comes to our playing time,” Parker said.
“Sure, there are times during your career when everybody would like to stay on the court and keep on playing because you’re having a great game,” Manu Ginobili said. “But you can’t argue with the results. Since I have been on this team, we have won three championships and now we are in The Finals for the fifth time. Pop is doing something right.”
He’s got a team built around a 38-year-old Duncan, 36-year-old Ginobili and 32-year-old Parker able to stand eye-to-eye with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Heat because he has kept a tight leash on his stars’ minutes and given their supporting cast so many opportunities to thrive.
Duncan barely hit the 30-minute mark in Game 3, Parker played 33 and Ginobili 27. But the 24-year-old Leonard was turned loose for 39 minutes and Boris Diaw went for 37.
Whether it’s Patty Mills coming off the bench as the backup point guard or Tiago Splitter riding a yo-yo string in and out of the starting lineup, they have all been entrusted with responsibility during the regular season that has kept everyone fresh and bred a confidence that there is little or no drop-off. Opponents don’t just have to beat the Big Three, but everybody up and down the active 12-man roster.
You could watch when Duncan and Parker were sitting side by side on the bench as they entered the last 5:40 of Game 3 and see the same ball movement, the same crisp passing, the same poise from their replacements. Duncan and Parker would return after both getting a two-minute rest. During their break, the Spurs’ lead increased by a point.
This team, built for the long haul, always looking ahead to late June, now has a 2-1 lead, but with eyes set on what it could take to survive another long series. So if it gets back to Games 6 or 7 again and Popovich finally has to turn loose Duncan, Parker and Ginobili to go the distance, some might say it’s about time for the Spurs.
That’s because it always is.