Tiago returns and a new Spur survives the curse as the road trip begins

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SAN ANTONIO — The Spurs failed to adequately warn Shannon Brown of just what he was getting himself into, apparently. With Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green sitting with broken hands and Manu Ginobili rehabbing his strained hamstring, the newest Spur got lucky to finish the game with only a jammed finger and a poke in the eye; and San Antonio may have been fortunate to slip out of the AT&T Center with a win.

Tim Duncan missed two free throws with 12 seconds remaining that would’ve put San Antonio up by three, but Rudy Gay missed a 12-footer on the baseline with three seconds remaining and the Spurs grabbed the defensive rebound to thwart the Kings’ game-winning opportunity in a 95-93 win. It stopped the team’s recent three-game slide and sent them out on the nine-game Rodeo Road Trip on a good note; and despite the two missed free throws late in the game, Duncan was brilliant.

The All-Star ‘snub’ that he absolutely couldn’t care less about must have sent Duncan into revenge mode it didn’t at all I’m kidding as the Spurs’ cornerstone filled the box score against the Boogie-less Kings with 23 points, 17 boards, five assists and two blocks in just 32 minutes. With so much production sitting in street clothes behind the bench, this was a vintage performance the team needed badly.

And perhaps it’s not a coincidence this big game came with the return of Tiago Splitter. The Spurs’ starting center played in his first game action since Jan. 4 and he emerged no worse for wear afterward. His return took so much of that extra defensive pressure off Duncan’s shoulders in the 16 minutes Splitter played against Sacramento.

“It was great to be back on the court with the guys. I wasn’t that aggressive on offense, but I tried to help the guys on defense with the coverage and (back-side) helps,” Splitter said. “Most importantly we won, so I’m happy.”

Activating Splitter was the first step in a slow process that will hopefully culminate with a fully healthy team. Tiago missed nearly four weeks with the injury that kicked off this awful recent strain, but now he’s back on the court and Danny Green isn’t too far behind. If all goes well, Green could be back in action in the next week or two, Kawhi Leonard would follow fairly soon thereafter and Manu Ginobili may be ready to go sometime after the road trip.

“Yeah, they’re trickling in, so it’s great — great to have bodies back out there,” Duncan said. “Great to start getting everybody healthy. They can start getting their rhythm back and their wind back.”

But in the mean time, they still need a lot of help. Production on both sides of the ball had begun to plummet and depth on the wing had become a major issue. Splitter’s presence is going to help drastically, yet they still need a boost with all the bumps, bruises and breaks still affecting this roster. Enter Brown on a 10-day contract. The eighth-year pro made it to San Antonio on Friday night and got a workout in with the team, and the next day he was starting for the current second-place team out West.

But as Pop said afterward, the Spurs have a big void of minutes that need to be filled, so he gave Brown the nod. One aspect a lot of casual fans struggle with is why coaches don’t automatically start their best players when the normal starters are injured; there was a small backlash from people wondering why the recently waived Othyus Jeffers and Nando De Colo started recently against the Bulls, a defendable decision.

It’s not about who starts the game, but who finishes it, and many of the Spurs’ best players who are still healthy come off the bench in normal situations. Popovich needs to maintain his players’ roles as best he can, and he also needs to ensure his guys still have a last burst of energy in the tank in the fourth quarter. San Antonio needs to find ways to utilize the depth they do have.

“Well, we need minutes. We have to use those minutes so that those guys who know the system can be out there at the end of the game, otherwise they are going to be too tired,” Popovich said. “(Brown) gave us good minutes so we could get everybody else in.”

And if that’s the least he can do at this point, it helps. Every little bit does. But Brown did everything within his power to follow suit in the Spurs’ locker room and get hurt. Early in the third quarter he jammed his finger when swiping at the ball while defending Marcus Thornton, and later Gay dove for a loose ball around the San Antonio bench and knocked Brown right in the eye. Spurs trainer Will Sevening wrapped Brown’s finger in the locker room after the game, and Brown said he would be getting his eye — which was very red — checked by a specialist in the morning.

“Just playing defense — pressured the ball and ended up bending (his finger) backwards and getting it stuck. It’s just a jam,” Brown said. “I’m gonna wrap it up and keep playing. Then (Rudy Gay) he came over, dove for the ball by the bench and poked me right in the eye.”

When asked if he was aware of the plague of injuries that has befallen this team, he started laughing at the two injuries he suffered in only 13 minutes of action.

“I’ve been keeping up (with the Spurs’ injuries),” Brown said with a grin. “Hopefully I can bring a different vibe to this place. I’ll take two and keep moving.”

Brown made it to town on Friday and worked out with the team that night. The next day he was in the starting lineup. San Antonio is known for its complex offense, so a single morning practice and run-through isn’t a significant-enough cram session to provide anything more than a facile overview. But Brown said the Spurs’ locker-room environment makes the transition relatively smooth. 

“It’s easy with these type of guys. Everybody is so helpful,” he said. “Everywhere I go, they let me know if ‘I need you to do this or that, or if I can help you with a play,’ so it’s pretty easy to catch on. For the most part, I had all our sets down. I might have missed one or two, but it was a good pace out there.”

The dumpster flame that had threatened to become a full-fledged inferno is slowly but surely being extinguished in San Antonio, and a closely-fought victory over the Kings might give this team the spark it needs. The defense was very good for the first time in a while, Splitter returned to the court for the first time in nearly a month, and Brown had an early chance to be introduced in the starting lineup for the silver and black.

An injury-ravaged team that’s about to head out of town for most of February entering the night on a three-game losing streak  — none of it phased him.

“Throw me in the fire and see if I burn.”

In a month full of injury reports, that would definitely be the strangest one.