The Surging San Antonio Spurs Climb The Ladder In The West

San Antonio is climbing the ladder in the Western Conference. With seven straight wins under their belt, the Spurs come into tonight’s game with lowly Detroit sitting on a 19-9 record, first place in the Southwest Division and second in the West overall. TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at the Spurs—how are they put together and what specifically has been going so well the last couple weeks?

The Spurs rely on the veteran core of Tim Duncan at center, Tony Parker at point guard and now that he’s working back into the lineup, Manu Ginobili at the two-guard spot. The latter has missed most of the year—including the win streak—with a broken finger, so any case that San Antonio is just getting started can begin by citing the return of Ginobili. The Parker/Ginobli backcourt shoots the ball extremely well, with Ginobli providing the downtown threat. Duncan may be 35 years old, but he’s still averaging 14 points/8 rebounds a night. The fourth starter to draw substantial minutes is Richard Jefferson, a small forward who’s more of an outside threat, loosening up defenses with his ability to shoot three.

Head coach Gregg Popovich hasn’t won four NBA titles (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007) by being uncreative with personnel and perhaps no head coach in the league is making better use of his bench. Popovich has six players who are averaging somewhere between 20-24 minutes a game—enough to be considered substantial, but none are playing more than half the game, not enough to really be classified as starters’ minutes. While these minutes will decline for the backcourt players now the Ginobli is back, it still underscores how much the coach has mixed and matched to get the most out of his roster.

Off the bench in the low post are Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair. Splitter is bigger at 6’11, but Blair, in spite of giving up four inches gets more rebounds and the 22-year old from Pitt is going to continue to get better. Then you have Kawhi Leonard and Matt Bonner, each on the frontline, but more finesse-type players. Bonner is 6’10” and hits 42 percent of his three-point shots, while Leonard, the 20-year old from San Diego State, can also step out and hit the trey, and he gets five rebounds a game. Backcourt time goes to both Gary Neal and Daniel Green. While the latter is 6’6”, he isn’t as good a shooter as Neal, and he doesn’t rebound a lot. Still, whatever weaknesses these players have compared to each other, they all average between 7-9 points a game and there are enough unique strengths to give Popovich a lot of options in matching up.

It was January 29 when the Spurs’ young season hit its low point. They lost a nationally televised ESPN Sunday night game in Dallas in overtime. The start of the game was so poor that Popovich couldn’t even contain his anger during the sideline interview and play-by-play man Dan Shulman had to give a shoutout to the reporter, for just getting to the second question. Even though San Antonio came back and forced OT before losing, I can’t imagine the team got anything less than an earful. I remember the game for the Popovich sideline interview (I should note that the anger wasn’t a loss of temper, but a complete disdain for the questions that made it apparent how the coach felt). In retrospect, it’s more important because it’s the last time the Spurs lost.

The schedule hasn’t been a cakewalk. San Antonio’s made two trips to Memphis and won both. They went to Philadelphia and won. They beat Oklahoma City at home, along with Houston. The only easy games in that mix were New Orleans and New Jersey and four of the seven were on the road. So unlike Boston, who’s recent hot streak that TheSportsNotebook chronicled last week, San Antonio didn’t just take advantage of an easy schedule stretch. They beat good teams.

San Antonio has won in a variety of different ways. They’ve won by outrebounding their opposition. They’ve won by hitting the threes as was the case against Oklahoma City when they drained twelve or the Memphis win that started the streak, when the Spurs popped in ten from behind the arc. They’ve won by getting to the foul line more consistently—see the wins against Houston, New Orleans and Philadelphia.

But while the methodology might be different, two things have been constant throughout and those two things are named Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. Especially Parker. He exploded for 42 against the Thunder and 37 more against the 76ers, the kind of rise-to-the-moment performance you expect to find on teams with a championship pedigree. Parker nailed Houston for 24, and in the two Memphis games averaged nearly ten assists a night. In no game has he been AWOL. For Duncan, he owned Houston with 25 and otherwise has just gone steadily to the boards. 15 against Oklahoma City, 17 against Memphis, 11 more in Philly. The Quiet Hall Of Famer just keeps churning it out.

As readers can probably guess by this point I’m very high on San Antonio’s possibilities for keeping this going. Ginobli’s broken finger is going to end up being a blessing. They won without him, got other players minutes and his 34-year-old frame is going to be fresh. Popovich will need to monitor Duncan’s minutes during the regular season, and I think it’s unlikely the coach can push his vets hard enough to get a #1 seed. That likely belongs to Oklahoma City, whose young enough to push through the regular schedule and still have gas in the tank. But the NBA playoffs are a time for veterans, and if the Spurs can beat out Dallas for the division title (they currently lead by 1.5 games), get a 2 or 3 seed in the playoffs, it’s certainly feasible to see them winning the West and getting another shot at the NBA Finals.

If you’re looking for a Last Hurrah from a veteran team, Boston or Los Angeles aren’t the places to look. Cast your eyes on San Antonio.