SAN ANTONIO — For a change, Gregg Popovich wasn’t the one shortchanging the fans in the arena and a national television audience.
“We didn't have to rest anybody, because they all got hurt,” said the Spurs coach.
Popovich’s roster looked like the Saturday night sign-in sheet at your local emergency room.
Kawhi Leonard was scratched after he took a blow to the head Thursday night in Oklahoma City and is in the NBA’s concussion protocol. LaMarcus Aldridge was sidelined after experiencing a minor heart arrhythmia. Tony Parker was out with stiffness in his back. Rookie Dejounte Murray was kept in street clothes due to tightness in his left groin.
On the other hand, the Warriors were weary.
“They’re tired and we’re vulnerable to the schedule we’ve been on,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr. “The training staff has told me we have several guys who are just fried. We know that when you’re tired and haven’t slept much, you’re more vulnerable to injury.”
Thus, the starting lineups were: Patty Mills, Danny Green, David Lee, Kyle Anderson and Dewayne Dedmon vs. Patrick McCaw, Shaun Livingston, Matt Barnes, Kevon Looney and Zaza Pachulia. In other words, pre-season basketball for what was perhaps the highest-stakes game to date in the 2016-17 season.
With Mills pumping in 21 points, what was left of the Spurs drummed out a 107-85 win over the remnants of the Warriors to make the race for the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs a virtual dead heat. While San Antonio still trails Golden State by 1/2 game in the standings, the Spurs clinched the season series and the tiebreaker should teams finish with the same records.
“Rest and health is number one,” Kerr said. “Everything else is secondary."
With his leading scorer Kevin Durant already laid up by a hyperextended left knee and his team concluding a 13-day, eight-game, 11,000-mile road odyssey, Kerr faced a dilemma that had to make everyone in the league office and the suites of network TV executives cringe. He decided to sit stars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and sixth-man Andre Iguodala.
“We had to get through this night,” Kerr said. “I told the guys I was really happy with the work they put in. That was the main thing. We had to get through this trip and they allowed us to do that.”
There were hundreds, maybe a thousand, kids and adults wearing Curry jerseys in the stands.
“I genuinely feel bad for the fans who bought tickets for the game to see Steph or Klay or Draymond,” Kerr said. "But I have to do what I have to do. Our team has been through the wringer here the last couple weeks. The travel has really worn us out. We needed to get through this game and I’m happy that those guys are gonna get several days rest before our next game. I think this will put us on a good course going forward. We needed to do this.”
The Warriors have now lost five of their last seven games and what may not help down the road is if they were to meet the Spurs in the Western Conference finals and not have home-court advantage because of a game in which the rookie McCaw played a career-high 42 minutes and shot 0-for-12.
Popovich, who was a forerunner in the school of resting players no matter the game or the situation, shrugs at the possibility of further tweaks to the schedule.
“I think they have done a good job to try to make it better…and we've seen improvement in that area,” he said. “But there is probably a limit to how much better you can make it given the restraints. So, unless you add days, it is pretty tough to refigure it any better than it is now. I guess what's fair about it is that every team goes through a stretch where it's kind of ugly.”
It is a situation that is particularly hard on the elite teams that are in greater demand for national TV slots.
“I think that happens,” Popovich said. “Once in a while, you get an 8:30 (p.m.) game and you have to lose an hour wherever you are going and you've get back…We've had those get back at 4 or 5 in the morning kind of games and you don't really have your best product out on the court. But it does happen to everybody.”
“Having worked in the TV business, I know how the stuff works,” Kerr said. “The networks have a draft at the beginning of the year. They pick the dates they want. They have certain dates that are important to them. That’s a huge part of our business. So, I’m sensitive to that, too. But the players are what drives this business and the quality of play drives this business. So, there’s a happy medium in there somewhere.
“I have no problem going on a five-game East Coast trip in seven, eight nights, all the cities are nearby. That’s part of it. But to fly back to Oakland for one game, then Minnesota, San Antonio for back-to-back makes no sense. Ask anybody with expertise on this stuff and they’ll tell you the players are extremely vulnerable to injury, as a result. That would be the worst thing for the product and for the networks if guys like Steph and Draymond and Kawhi or whoever were injured during the playoffs.”
Kerr was asked when he first considered sitting his key players for Saturday’s game.
“Last summer,” he said. “When the schedule came out we looked at it. I knew from the last several years that you can’t predict how players are going to feel from one game to the next. But you can look at the schedule and say, ‘Man, that’s gonna be tough.’ ”
It’s a grind that’s tough on the players. It’s tough on the league’s image. It’s tough on the fans who bought the tickets.
It could be especially tough if the Warriors should happen to find themselves back at the AT&T Center for a Game 7 sometime in late May.
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