San Antonio Spurs 98, Orlando Magic 84: Spurs get by
AT&T CENTER — San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has rested his starters plenty of times. Some famously, others not so much. In a stretch of four games in five nights, with one key rotation player already absent with an injury, Coach Pop was playing with fire when he decided to sit Kawhi Leonard for the second game in a row with a sore knee and Tony Parker with a sore ankle.
The Spurs had lost two straight games leading up to Wednesday night’s contest with the Orlando Magic and a key game for Western Conference playoff seeding against the Oklahoma City Thunder loomed large on Thursday evening. So when the Spurs only led by four points early in the fourth quarter, there had to be some discomfort on Popovich’s mind.
Fortunately, San Antonio went on a 15-2 run at that point and won going away, 98-84, increasing its lead to 1.5 games over the Thunder for the West’s #1 seed heading into Thursday night’s nationally televised showdown. Not only did Leonard, Parker and DeJuan Blair, who caught a stomach virus, sit, but Tim Duncan played less than 14 minutes and none after halftime.
Danny Green led the Spurs with 20 points as Icy Hot knocked down 4-of-7 3-pointers, including two in the aforementioned 15-2 run.
With Parker and Leonard out, the Spurs relied a lot on their shooters to open the game up. That, and Nando De Colo. Starting in place of Parker, De Colo put up numbers that threatened to mess around and get a triple-double, but still remain a triple-single. Nando had eight points, seven rebounds and six assists in his nearly 29 minutes of play.
“Nando kept us together pretty well,” Popovich said later.
Forced to be the creative spark with so many guys out, De Colo penetrated and found shooters open on the perimeter, hitting them with pinpoint passes. Because of the Spurs’ good-to-great mentality, those passes don’t always lead directly to baskets, but they often facilitate the ball movement that San Antonio has become known for.
When asked before the game what De Colo had improved upon this season, Popovich commented that over the last two weeks Nando had made strides in his competitiveness, among other areas. Competitiveness is impossible to measure, but it’s an interesting characteristic to throw out to the public as something that has been improved. Coach Pop didn’t say that De Colo wasn’t competitive before, mind you, just that it had improved lately.
Perhaps that was a secondary benefit to the call-up of Cory Joseph some time ago. The Spurs brought Joseph up from the Toros around the time that Tony Parker went down with an ankle injury and gave Joseph every opportunity to stake his claim for rotation minutes. The risk of losing playing time with the playoffs emerging could’ve been just the spark De Colo needed.
Against the Magic, Nando came out with that newfound competitiveness on display. He knocked down an open corner 3, grabbed a rebound, forced a turnover and blocked a shot, all in the first six minutes of the game. He had three points, two boards, three assists and two steals in the first quarter alone.
Besides just filling up the box score, it appeared like De Colo was making the type of plays that push the limit of his skill set. They weren’t necessarily riskier plays, just those that come outside of the norm. It was, dare I say, Ginobili-esque.
Just like De Colo pushed the limits of what his skills are capable of, Pop did the same with regards to his strategy of resting his players. After losing two straight games, conventional wisdom would have you play your best guys in order to give the best chance of ending the streak and then take your chance on short rest with a Thunder team that hasn’t played since Saturday.
Gregg Popovich scoffs at your conventional wisdom, and more often than not it works out.