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Scott Howard-Cooper

Managing the minutes of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker has been paramount this season.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Spurs show mettle in last back-to-back-to-back set of season

Posted Apr 20 2012 10:15AM

SACRAMENTO -- The bus chugged out from a side door of Power Balance Pavilion at 10:07 p.m. on Wednesday, up a slight incline and through the parking lot, bound for the Spurs' hotel and one final late night of a fastbreak through California before the charter flight back to San Antonio the next day.

The Spurs had just played for the third time in as many nights, as every team was required to do at some point to fit 66 games into the condensed calendar of a post-lockout NBA. This trip was different than the others.

The Spurs were one of 12 teams handed two sets of back-to-back-to-backs and, more importantly, got this one at the most inopportune of times -- the playoffs closing in and coach Gregg Popovich wanting to keep his stars fresh, even if it meant practically writing letters to disappointed fans. That he got to toy with the media as questions came nightly whether Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were in or out was one of the benefits for Popovich.

Finally, when the stretch ended with another convincing victory, San Antonio became the only club to go 3-0 twice.

It helped that the triple was the entire road trip, not just part of a longer journey. It was like any other three-gamer in that regard. About 20 team bags -- uniforms, shoes, equipment, etc. -- and 90 in all counting regular luggage for the 35 members of the travelling party. (The Spurs would not discuss whether a back-to-back-to-back necessitated special plans on the medical side. State secrets and all.)

As the bus rolled away from the arena, it was hard to imagine the trip going any better. Not only did the Spurs sweep to maintain a slim lead over Oklahoma City for the best record in the Western Conference, but they were very sharp even while the veterans got rest. The lottery-bound opponents, the Warriors and Kings, went under the wheels right on schedule while the Lakers, minus an injured Kobe Bryant, barely offered resistance.

Plus, someone found a sport coat for Duncan.

Yes, it was a very good trip.

Monday, April 16: Oakland

Popovich is one of the good people of the league. Still, he doesn't suffer fools and will smack down what he considers a bad question from the media with a demeaning and sometimes, depending on the frailty of the reporter, intimidating response. That's the full Pop Experience.

But he seems in a particularly good mood as the trip opens, even though questions continue about lineup decisions that have resulted in some fans paying to see the Spurs and not getting to see the real Spurs. The high spirits are understandable. It's Northern California, one of Popovich's favorite spots because of his love of wine, and he spent part of the afternoon walking downtown San Francisco in beautiful weather.

The biggest logistical consideration of the trip has also been conquered. The Spurs left San Antonio on Sunday afternoon and flew into Oakland, but stayed in San Francisco. Oakland is a 10-minute commute (at most) from Oracle Arena and the late-night getaway Monday is more important than the arrival, but San Francisco is where teams almost always bunk. The tradeoff is a rush-hour drive across the Bay Bridge that can be nightmarish, although they made it to the Oracle in plenty of time.

Popovich always dissects the schedule at the start of the season in a different way than most coaches, looking to build on one-game sabbaticals for some players. But he paid particular attention to this stretch. It's a triple, it's late in the season, and the Spurs still have a return trip to Oakland ahead as part of a back-to-back to close the season next Thursday, before the quick turnaround of opening the playoffs on Saturday.

"The end-of-season schedule is really brutal and absolutely ridiculous," Popovich is saying before the game. "We have to try to be smarter than the schedule somehow or other, and that means trying to manipulate it and playing guys the right way as far as having them energetic and healthy come playoff time. That's gotta be our main concern, not positioning."

The game starts, and everything goes right for the Spurs. Four Golden State turnovers in the first 4 minutes and seven missed shots in nine attempts lead to a 15-5 Spurs advantage.

That leads to a 23-point cushion late in the second quarter, which leads to a 32-point margin in the third. The visitors are getting most anything they want, including rest. Even help from the Clippers: Oklahoma City loses in Los Angeles, allowing the Spurs to move into a virtual tie for home-court advantage through the Western Conference playoffs.

"We're in the situation, we're in the run for it," Duncan said. "We're going to do our best to try to win the West. But it's not going to break our hearts if we don't. Our main focus, as I said before and continue to say, is to be healthy and have our legs. We've got a lot of games to end the season in a short amount of time. We want to be healthy more than anything."

Final score: Spurs 120, Warriors 99.

Final minutes: Duncan 11, Parker 15, Ginobili 15.

Final thought: Although there is no way to know it at the time, this is the night that will set up the success of the trip. The light workload for the veterans removes much of the doubt over the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili availability in Los Angeles, by far the toughest game of the three. The Spurs will be able to go full strength at the short-handed Lakers.

Tuesday, April 17: Los Angeles

"Do you have every intention of playing all your big names tonight?" a reporter asks Popovich about 75 minutes before tip.

"Why would you ask me something like that?"

"It might seem an appropriate thing to do," the reporter answers.

"Yeah," Pop says, backing off. "Everybody's available and ready to go. They were available and ready to go the last time we played and got humiliated (a 98-84 Lakers win April 11 in San Antonio). So I figure we'd better at least have 'em all."

Topic change.

"There's been a lot made of Kobe sort of being more of a coach on the sideline (while injured). Do your players do that when they're on the bench? Have they ever tried to draw plays or anything like that?"

"Duncan doesn't let me say a word most of the time. He's been a thorn in my side for 15 years and I don't know how much longer I can take it."

"How have you managed to tolerate all that?"

"It's just I'm a helluva guy."

Popovich, on his game.

Topic change again, back to sitting players when they're healthy.

"The first time we did it was in Portland," Popovich said of the Feb. 21 game with Duncan and Parker resting and Ginobili injured. "For a variety of reasons, we sat our guys. I got a letter from a gentleman who was disappointed because he came to the game with his cousin, they paid money and they wanted to see so-and-so and so-and-so.

"I wrote him back and I said, 'If I was in your position, I would write the same letter. I agree with you totally. You're right. But my priorities are different than yours.' In the general sense, frankly, everything doesn't go our way in life. Everything go your way every day? Sometimes things happen."

When Popovich addresses his team before the game, he doesn't bring up April 11. He doesn't need to. Several players say afterward it was on their mind without being prompted. Parker, who had one of his worst games of the season (he went 2-for-12 and scored four points, although he did have eight assists without a turnover), said it was especially on his mind.

Parker is in complete control in the rematch, piling up 29 points on 14-of-20 shooting with 13 assists. Duncan looks fresh. The Spurs shoot 59.5 percent and put L.A. away by halftime.

Final score: Spurs 112, Lakers 91.

Final minutes: Duncan 35, Parker 31, Ginobili 26.

Final thought: An impressive showing even if the Lakers were without Bryant. Popovich has been praising Parker's advances in leadership and defense, but Parker has never passed the ball better either, despite the seven turnovers this night. What a season.

Wednesday, April 18: Sacramento

A player sitting out a game has three options:

• Watch from the bench with an outfit that includes a sport coat,

• Watch from the bench in uniform-as-a-costume,

• Stay in the locker room and watch on TV.

Duncan wants to watch from the bench, but has no jacket. In the Spurs world, this passes for high drama.

Hello, Sean Marks.

The former Spur, now an assistant in basketball operations, learns he will be volunteering his charcoal-colored coat. Duncan reaches the bench 20 seconds before the horn that signals the national anthem and the end of warmups. Boris Diaw gets the start at power forward.

The organization loves Diaw for his basketball IQ, just as Popovich appreciates the edginess Stephen Jackson injects into a locker room that apparently can be too calm. Backup guard Patty Mills, another addition, was signed when T.J. Ford decided to retire rather than risk further back and neck injury. (Ford was subsequently traded in the Jackson deal with Golden State as salary-cap ballast.) All three were in-season acquisitions, and Pop can't stop talking about having more depth this season than ever before.

The number of bodies has been put to use at several points in the season and is particularly beneficial in a back-to-back-to-back when resting the veterans is a priority. The calendar is starting to catch up to the Spurs. With two games in a row, plus a 1 a.m. arrival in Los Angeles followed by the bus ride to the downtown hotel, plus a 1 a.m. arrival in Sacramento followed by a shorter bus ride to the downtown hotel, players are feeling it as they stretch in the visitor's locker room at Power Balance Pavilion.

"It was hard to get ready, to get loose, to get warmed up to play," Jackson said. "But once the game started, your body lets go and you're into the game and the adrenaline's going. But that third game is definitely tough because you're sore, especially after that tough-fought game against the Lakers."

"It adds up," rookie Kawhi Leonard said.

"The fourth quarter of the third game, you're like, 'Dang. Here it comes,' " center DeJuan Blair said.

Here comes the burn in the legs. Here comes the panting.

It doesn't show much, though. The Kings shoot 51.1 percent the first half and trail only 58-57 at halftime, then get left behind in the third quarter. There is no need to sweat the fourth.

The Spurs have won for the third time in as many nights, looking in control (as they should have been considering the opponents), getting wins while getting rest and earning a half-game lead over the Thunder for No. 1 in the West. Popovich's good mood the first night carried all the way.

"Pop is so careful with the minutes," Ginobili says in the near-empty locker room, just before walking to the bus for the ride out of Sacramento. "I played 14 in the first game, 25, I think, in L.A., today less than 20. Imagine the Dallas-Utah game (triple-overtime on Monday). They played 53 minutes, some of the guys. I didn't play 53 in all three games. TD didn't play today. I don't think that is a problem. We played well and we took care of business when it counted."

Final score: Spurs 127, Kings 102.

Final minutes: Duncan 0, Parker 25, Ginobili 17. (Three-game totals: Duncan 46, Parker 71, Ginobili 58.)

Final thought: Ginobili's math on his combined playing time is slightly off -- he was standing in the middle of the locker room, without stats for reference -- but he otherwise got the trip 100 percent right. The Spurs played well. The Spurs took care of business.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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