The San Antonio Spurs are a well-oiled machine and Gregg Popovich controls their every move.
On Friday night, the Spurs took on the Phoenix Suns without Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, both of whom were sitting out the back end of a back-to-back. Phoenix needed a victory desperately as its fighting for one of the final two Western Conference playoff spots, but the Spurs came out victorious, topping the NBA’s biggest surprise team, 112-104.
San Antonio trailed by as many as 21 points early on, but came storming back led by Danny Green, who scored 19 points in the first half including four long balls. Tony Parker played a big part in helping the Spurs even the score early in the second half, scoring 16 points in just seven third-quarter minutes.
However, instead of sticking with Parker down the stretch of what was a back-and-forth contest, Popovich handed the game over to a trio of youngsters, who helped guide the Spurs to victory.
In crunch time, Popovich played Patty Mills, Kawhi Leonard and Green alongside veterans Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli. Popovich is one of the NBA’s best forward thinkers and there’s no doubt in my mind that he wanted to test his youngsters on Friday night.
Fortunately for San Antonio, Mills, Leonard and Green passed the test with flying colors.
Mills was able to control the tempo late in the game, keeping San Antonio’s offense free flowing and effective. Green played stellar defense and continued to stretch the floor, topping off his 33-point outburst with a back-breaking three that stretched the lead to six with a little over two minutes left to play.
Phoenix did a superb job of blanketing Green for most of the fourth quarter (aside from the aforementioned three, which he hit in transition), but the same can’t be said about Leonard. The San Diego State product was the best player on the court in the closing minutes, forcing steals, creating offense and grabbing rebounds. Personally, I’ve never seen Leonard take over a game in crunch time like he did Friday night (which is partially because Duncan and Parker are normally taking care of that) and there could be no better sign for the Spurs heading into the postseason than seeing Leonard up his game on both ends.
If San Antonio wants to win a title this year, contributions from its youngsters are going to be essential. If the young guys can’t get it done in the postseason, expect San Antonio to miss its June date with the Miami Heat (barring injury, no one is beating Miami in the East).
However, the way the young guns have played recently gives no indications that they can’t keep it up in postseason play, as San Antonio’s depth at the one and the wings is better than it’s been in years. Even Popovich has been getting a little giddy about his youngsters coming into their own; I think I almost saw him smile after Friday night’s game.