I'm about to make a confession, and being the proud guy that I am, this is not going to come easy, so bear with me for a second. Someone once said that confession is good for the soul, and while I've never been much of a believer in that -- here we go anyway:
I was wrong.
Playing the Big Three
Earlier in the season, we had several discussions on PtR about the need to increase the minutes of Los Tres Grandes in big games and the playoffs. Several of you pointed out that you agreed that we should keep Tim's and Manu's minutes down, but I pontificated that the idea was silly. Come playoff time, I said, we needed to play Tony for 40 minutes or more, and Tim and Manu should get 36 minutes or more. My idea was that you can simply not afford to have your stars on the bench, especially when your opponents are keeping theirs on the court.
"Teams have to limit their rotation for the playoffs." We've heard that so often it's become a cliche for the sport. I regret that I mindlessly bought into it myself. After all, the playoffs are so competitive that you can't afford to have your greatest players resting. They can rest from July to September, can't they?
Vive la différence
But this Spurs roster, and Pop's use of it, has brought me 180 degrees on this issue. And, as I mentioned earlier, I'm a tough nut to crack. And that brings us to the question: should we continue the 11 (or even 12) man rotation, or should we cut it down as (if) we go farther in the playoffs?
So why has the deep rotation worked? One reason is surely because they can all score. Due to the tight scheduling of the regular season, we had 11 players average 20 minutes or more. Of our Top 12 scorers, only Bonner and Diaw are averaging less than 7 points per game, but I can't think of a team in the League whose offense wouldn't be improved with them in their rotation, can you? Of our top 12 scorers, there is no reason to cringe when any one of them is left for an open shot.
Second, they can all run the floor (though I expect someone to name Bonner in order to challenge me). Of our top 12, every one of them can get back on defense. To me, the speed of our team is the unsung hero. The non-statistical category that explains why we have destroyed our opponents in the second half of the season. No matter who we put in the game, we don't have to change our tempo.
Third, the defense has only a minor letdown when the starters leave. When the shot-blockers on the starting team leave the court, who can replace theirs like Tiago replaces ours?
Fourth, and this is something that nobody can match, our bench (Ginobili, Splitter, Bonner, Blair, Neal, Jackson, Mills, and Anderson) is a team that could make the playoffs in the West, and would probably be a team that would get first round home court in the East. When our bellweather players go to the bench, we're replacing them with STARTERS.
But you can't effectively use 11 or 12 players under playoff pressure, can you? Well, probably not, unless you have a coach with Popovich's job security. And it is Popovich's use of these players that has caused me to see the light.
If you've studied the stat charts, +/- figures, and followed playoff teams, you know that there's only about 4-5 points separating the best remaining teams from the weakest. In other words, the best teams(San Antonio, Oklahoma CIty, Miami) are only about ONE POINT A QUARTER better than the seemingly weaker teams remaining (Philadelphia, Boston, Clippers). The great coaches spend their entire lives trying to figure out how to get ONE or TWO MORE POINTS out of their lineups. And I'm convinced that Pop has created that by (1) the late season acquisitions, and (2) using the extended rotations to keep the opponent off balance.
That last point is the key. When you study Pop's substitution pattern, you can see that, with every substitution, he is changing the nature of our offense (and defense, for that matter). When he brings Tiago in for Tim, suddenly, the guy setting the pick is breaking toward the basket instead of breaking for the jump shot at the key. When Manu is in, the defense is no longer just watching for Danny's 3-pointers, but they're now having to play an opponent with PG skills. And, as often as not, Pop replaces a 4 with a 3, a 2 with a 4, and by doing so, creates that moment of confusion that gives us one of those all-so-many wide open shots. The opponents are well trained to know what the skills of our players are. But the way Pop counteracts that is by putting each player on the floor with different lineups. Ty Corbin is the first playoff coach to leave the court wondering how to coach against a guy who has no problem with putting four wing players in the game with one post player, and still runs flawless patterns. He won't be the last.
This brings us to the question of human nature. We've seen teams like this blow up due to internal jealousies. I never know whether to credit the coaches or the players, but I suspect that our success is due to a combination of a phenomenal coach and a group of players who have checked their egos at the locker room door in order to compete for this ring.
And that's why I no longer hold my breath when Tim and Manu are not on the court (I still fret when Tony is sitting down). We are not losing points when they are off the court. And it goes without saying that if Tim and Manu continue to get about 30 minutes each, they'll be minutes to remember.
So I say keep the rotation just the way it is. Let the Clippers and whoever comes next worry about how they're going to play us, not the other way around. And I feel real bad that I didn't feel this way all along.