San Antonio Spurs 95, Charlotte Bobcats 91: Gregg Popovich Alvin Gentrys Larry Brown
For the Spurs, it was their second ugly win in as many games. The box score would tell you it was a classic Gregg Popovich vs Larry Brown duel: the Bobcats were leading the Spurs 48-44 at half and the pace of the game was closer to calcifying than blistering.
The key play of the game came late: Manu Ginobili put the Spurs ahead 95-91 on a clutch driving layup. Game over.
Ginobili’s game winner was crafty. It was clutch. It was a clever hesitation dribble that bloomed into an off-the-glass fall away. But it wasn’t surprising. Hardly anything in this game was surprising, with the exception of one promising early season trend.
Most of what Gregg Popovich knows, he learned from Larry Brown. He would tell that to you straight. But Gregg Popovich won this game by taking a note from another former Larry Brown pupil, Alvin Gentry.
If you’d ask Gregg Popovich why the Spurs were swept by the Phoenix Suns in last year’s Western Conference Semifinals, he’d tell you the Spurs’ bench was beaten, and beaten badly, by the high-scoring, highly-efficient Suns bench. The Spurs’ bench couldn’t make a shot against the Suns, and Phoenix, for their part, seemed to rarely miss.
Alvin Gentry had put the pieces into play long before the playoffs. Earlier in the season, Gentry went with a rotation that saw the Suns’ “second line” begin 4th quarters. Gentry routinely rode the Goran Dragic-led Suns bench until the 6-minute mark of the 4th, gradually returning Steve Nash and other Suns starters to the floor. That carefully-groomed second line hammered the Spurs four straight games.
Fast forward to this season. Gregg Popovich is quietly constructing the Spurs’ second unit into a fierce machine. The Spurs’ bench is at least six players deep: George Hill, Antonio McDyess, Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter, James Anderson, and Matt Bonner. Gregg Popovich is using those cards to play Gentry’s hand.
With 3:57 left in tonight’s 3rd quarter, Gregg Popovich took a full timeout. The score was 64-62, San Antonio. Over the next 3:52, Pop subbed the Spurs starters out in favor of Antonio McDyess, James Anderson, George Hill, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal. The quarter ended 71-69.
Gregg Popovich stayed with this second line for the first two and half minutes of the 4th quarter, finally subbing Manu Ginobili for James Anderson at 9:38.Â 76-73 Spurs. A minute later Richard Jefferson entered the game for Tiago Splitter. 80-77.
Popovich maintained the lineup of Gary Neal, George Hill, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess for the next four minutes of game time. The lead grew to 88-82, and Pop finally returned Tony Parker and Tim Duncan to the floor. All the Spurs’ starters, save DeJuan Blair, were called on to ice the game.
But for a span of almost ten minutes, Gregg Popovich relied on his bench to carry the majority of the floor minutes. And those bench players — primarily Gary Neal, who finished with 15 points on 5-7 from deep, and Antonio McDyess — took a small two-point lead and turned it into six.
The Spurs’ bench didn’t run away with the game, which makes Popovich’s gesture of confidence so remarkable. He stuck with his bench even though the score was tight. And that second line didn’t play flawlessly –Â they missed shots, bumbled possessions, and clumsily ran through their offensive sets. They played decently enough, but it was far from great basketball.
It’s difficult to say whether San Antonio’s bench can mature into theÂ juggernaut of reserves that was last year’s Phoenix Suns. But it’s clear Gregg Popovich is going to give the bench time to grow. He’s going to lean on them in tough situations. Popovich has invested in the task of confidence-building. It’s a long term play that might become the story of the Spurs’ season.