Bench explosion helps Spurs survive Duncan injury on opening night

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A Tim Duncan injury is not the way the Spurs would like to start a season, but as is the case with most silver linings, it could’ve been much worse. San Antonio defeated Memphis 101-94 in a season-opening rematch (if that makes sense) of last year’s Western Conference Finals. But when the franchise cornerstone goes down, a bit of air always escapes the building with him.

It doesn’t appear to be serious at this point, but Duncan’s chest contusion — suffered after receiving an inadvertent Tony Allen elbow — will be examined further tomorrow, and it is unclear whether he’ll play in Los Angeles against the Lakers on Friday.

Still, the Spurs survived in his absence. Kawhi Leonard was his usual solid self, leading the Spurs with 14 points, but it was the new-look, less-than-7-percent-body-fat Patty Mills that gave San Antonio the cushion it would need before Duncan went down.

The Grizzlies were looking just as physical as ever, even without Lionel Hollins at the helm. They pushed their way out to a 17-13 lead before Mills checked in for Tony Parker at the 2:41-mark of the first quarter, and the second unit opened the floodgates from there. Over the next 9:47 — the duration of Patty’s first-half playing time — San Antonio went on an easy-looking 25-5 run, breaking the game wide open and cruising into halftime with a 48-27 lead. The Grizzlies scored just seven points in the second quarter.

In the nearly 10 minutes Mills spent on the floor during the first half, the Spurs had a net differential of 112.9 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com stats. SMALL SAMPLE-SIZE THEATER IS BACK AT 48 MINUTES OF HELL! Perhaps even more interesting, however, was the fact that presumed backup point guard Cory Joseph was the only Spur who dressed to not see the floor. Take it for what it’s worth, but the former Longhorn had both knees wrapped in ice following the game. For a guy who didn’t play, this isn’t normal.

But back to the game. Duncan was injured with 10:50 remaining in the third quarter. He made his way to the bench during a timeout where head trainer Will Sevening examined his injury on the sideline. As Sevening put pressure on the All-Star’s chest, Duncan appeared to wince in pain and push the trainer’s hand away. He then walked to the locker room and stayed there for the rest of the night.

As Duncan left, the Grizzlies seemed to arrive. They outscored the Spurs 31-24 in the third quarter before cutting a once 21-point lead to five with 7:08 to play. But San Antonio bounced back on the strength of several 3-pointers and great ball movement down the stretch as they pushed the lead back out to double digits in the final minutes.

But it’s just the first of 82 games, something Gregg Popovich has regularly reiterated. So as we progress through yet another NBA marathon, we pay attention to the developing storylines. With so many returning players, deep roster continuity and ever-increasing corporate knowledge — as Pop likes to call it — the topic of conversation that has as big an impact on the present as it does on the future is the development of Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard’s increased involvement in the season’s opening game was noticeable, and the numbers reflected that. After averaging a 16.7 usage percentage (the percentage of team plays used by a player when he is on the floor) throughout the 2012-13 season, Leonard was used on 21.7 percent of the team’s plays while he was on the floor on Wednesday. He didn’t put up huge numbers (14 points, seven rebounds, two blocks, four turnovers), but he played only 30 minutes. During that time he registered a 70.9 true-shooting percentage and a 7.5 net rating.

It’s a long season, but we’re going to be talking a lot about this. Parker did not have a good game — though he had other things on his mind, like news of a baby on the way. He hit just four of his 14 shots, though he did register nine assists. Still, Leonard’s efficiency out of the backcourt was needed on a night Duncan played just 17 minutes.

But another welcome sight was the game Manu Ginobili had. The newly signed sixth man battled through one of the most difficult seasons of his career in 2012-13, so a return to form — or at least something close to it, considering his age — would be a welcome development. For at least one night, Manu looked great. Granted, he was part of the huge second-quarter run ignited by Mills, but he certainly played his part. Ginobili notched 12 points, five assists and four rebounds in 24 minutes, and he nearly registered a 30 net rating on a 66.7 true-shooting percentage.

Again, these are small storylines to pay attention to through one game, but Leonard’s development and Ginobili’s recovery are likely the two most important storylines beyond team health. As Duncan’s injury showed us tonight, even in a brief amount of time, the Spurs are not he Spurs when their stars aren’t on the court. By the time late spring and early summer roll around, nothing is more important.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com.

  • Ra

    Can anyone explain why the coaching staff has not demanded that Boris Diaw slim down?

  • joe

    The usual Spurs.. Explode to a 20 point+ plus lead and then have it widdled down, then escape at the end.

  • Josh

    He looked slimmer in person to me, to be honest.

  • Tyler

    Pretty sloppy game all around.

    Speaking of Memphis, I don’t know how Joeger keeps Pondexter and/or Miller out of the starting lineup. They’re just a much better team when either is out there. With Allen and Prince both on the floor, the spacing was terrible.

    Manu, Itialian Ice and Diaw should make for a pretty fun 2nd unit.

  • merkin

    I don’t know if i would call that Allen elbow inadvertent. It looked like he purposely rammed his elbow in Duncan’s chest when he had nowhere to go.

  • AHeights

    Since he’s only 6’8″, his bulk actually helps him keep bigger PFs out of the box.

  • camroc

    whittled. Sorry, can’t help myself…

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