Youth, depth spark Spurs' success
BOSTON -- They're not old. They're not dull. They're not done.
The Spurs are suddenly and surprisingly young. They're fun, which is even more surprising. And this June they may yet win their fifth championship in 14 years, which would be an amazing achievement of resilience and renewal.
San Antonio held off the Celtics 87-86 on Wednesday despite a poor second-half performance from one of its eternal Big Three, point guard Tony Parker.
"Guys that you wouldn't expect -- like Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Matt Bonner -- allowed us to pull through that game,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "They've gotten a lot of experience this year and they've helped us a lot and it showed tonight."
Tim Duncan is 35 and Manu Ginobili is 34, but the former is averaging only 28.6 minutes per game and the latter has missed 29 games. Everyone else, apart from the recently acquired Stephen Jackson, is in his peak years or younger, and altogether they've enabled the Spurs (38-14) to earn the fourth-best record in the NBA.
A lockout-shortened schedule, forcing teams to play an average of 3.9 games per week over four months instead of the usual 3.5 over nearly six months, should have been murderous for an old team. But the Spurs aren't old, and they've negated the lockout's impact by rotating 11 players for at least 19 minutes per game. Ten Spurs have scored at least 20 points in a game. San Antonio extended its winning streak to nine Wednesday, and over the previous eight victories seven players were scoring in double figures.
Green, a 24-year-old shooting guard who scored 14 points against the Celtics, earned his role after Ginobili suffered an early-season hand injury. "We didn't know if Danny Green was going to make our team or not,'' Popovich said. "And he's starting.''
Leonard, a rookie small forward, is starting and leading the Spurs with 1.4 steals. San Antonio picked him No. 15 after a draft-day trade that sent George Hill to Indiana. "We didn't know that Kawhi Leonard was going to come along this quickly, let alone be starting,'' Popovich said.
Guard Gary Neal, in his second year, was signed as a cheap free agent from Europe last season. DeJuan Blair, the starting center, was a second-round pick in 2009 when other teams ignored him based on their credible concerns about his knees. (He has missed one game in three years.) Second-year big man Tiago Splitter leads San Antonio in shooting at 60.6 percent, while backup forward Bonner sank a key shot-clock-beating, mid-range jumper in the final minute against the Celtics. At 31, Bonner is the oldest of the Spurs' unapplauded role players, but he can't be considered old as he keeps improving.
"He can put the ball on the floor now and drive it a little bit,'' Popovich said. "So he's expanded and become more valuable to us.''
Duncan, Ginobili and 29-year-old team MVP and leading scorer Parker are surrounded by a deep rotation that ought to put general manager R.C. Buford in contention for Executive of the Year. Last month, Buford augmented the roster with the acquisition of the 33-year-old Jackson, who understands the Spurs' system after winning a championship with them in 2002-03; big man Boris Diaw, who is smart and skilled enough to fit in; and point guard Patrick Mills, who can provide limited minutes on short notice.
The Spurs' depth and ability to bring out the best in a variety of players enabled them to win five games in six days last month. NBA scouts say Duncan looks as strong as he has in years.
"Going down the stretch here, we're a lot more concerned with health and energy than we are wins and losses -- as long as we're theoretically getting better,'' Popovich said. "I'd like to see us get better defensively in certain ways, and we're trying. As long as we're on that path, our health and our energy are more important than anything because in the West anybody can beat anybody. One through eight, anybody can beat anybody.''
He was reminded of that last spring, when, with Ginobili struggling with an elbow injury, top-seeded San Antonio was upset by the No. 8 Grizzlies in the first round. If they're healthy, the Spurs will be hard to defend because so many of them have shown they can score around Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.
Popovich complains about the defense because his team isn't what it used to be at that end of the floor. "We're a little bit better than an average defensive team,'' he said of a club that ranks 13th in points allowed per possession. But the Spurs are exceptional offensively. Over the years they've transformed into the only NBA team to rank among the top five in scoring, shooting (both inside and outside the arc), assists and fewest turnovers.
When Ginobili joined San Antonio in 2002, the system was based on defense. "It's very different,'' he said of the way the Spurs play today. "We play faster, we don't post as much as we used to do. Defensively, the idea is pretty similar; probably we don't execute as well as back then, so we try to make opponents make more mistakes. We are more active.
"But the biggest difference is offense. We were very conservative. Now, wherever you find the opening, you just take it right away.''
What used to be a team for purists has turned into a group that shares the ball, scores quickly in prolific numbers and brings out the best in future Hall of Famers who continue to seek another championship. The more things change, the more they stay the same: Maybe you've heard that line before, but it has new meaning in San Antonio.