It's not exactly breaking news, but the Spurs are on a winning streak. They've won a franchise-record 19 regular season games in a row and they have the best record in the league by four games over Oklahoma City Thunder. There has been much speculation as to whether coach Gregg Popovich will sit his "big three" of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, since it is not only a SEGABABA but also the fifth game in seven nights [Editor's note: That's a FIGASENI to you, Erler. -jrw] for the good guys.
I for one really hope he does, though this may come as a surprise to readers who know my well-chronicled position on the importance of home court advantage and also my theory about the team's recent one game road trip to Denver, where Pop surprised most Spurs followers by taking everyone along on that flight and playing them in a game that wound up being a 133-102 rout for the visitors.
If you didn't read that rehash, my theory was that Pop originally planned to keep his best players home for that one but reversed course for a couple of reasons. First, I argued, that as much as Pop wants the team to lose so that he can get on his guys some, give them a bit of an edge going into the playoffs and re-instill that appropriate fear, he recognizes that losing without a full complement of players wouldn't be seen as a legit loss, and any messages he's trying to send would come with a large asterisk attached. My second point was that it was a punishment of sorts for the team blowing almost all of a 24-point lead to the Nuggets at home a couple of days earlier and a test to see if his players could respond to his ranting and raving after a win instead of only being scared straight after a loss.
So, why would I be taking the stance that Pop should sit his vets at OKC, especially since it's not really a four game lead over the Thunder but actually a two game lead considering that the only thing that matters is the loss column --a three-game difference -- and that that Oklahoma City have already clinched the tiebreaker between the two teams? If the Spurs lose tonight, then really their margin of error drops to one game, with the magic number staying at five with six to go.
I have several reasons, actually.
Naturally, the first involves Ginobili. To me the most noteworthy thing about the team's recent wins over Indiana and Golden State was that in achieving them the team officially crossed a final regular season threshold that the 2012-13 team didn't. Not only did they get their 59th win against the Warriors when last year's crew topped out at 58, but more importantly they got past March 29th with Ginobili's hamstrings intact. As I wrote in the rehash of the Spurs' win in Chicago, there have been disturbing parallels between last season's Manu and this year's version when it comes to the general time windows when he suffered hamstring strains.
In 2012-13 he had his first tweak on Jan. 13 against Minnesota, missed four games, came back, and hurt himself again, more seriously, in his fourth game back, on Jan. 30 against Charlotte. Pop held him out five more games after that and Ginobili struggled through 18 more before straining his hammy for the third time against the Clippers, on March 29th. There were just ten games left in the season when it happened.
By contrast, this season he tweaked his hammy the first time on January 7th at Memphis, missed two games, played eight and then hurt it again a bit more seriously on a dunk at Houston on January 28th. The same windows, right?
However, as I pointed out, this year's Ginobili has been significantly better than last year's when you get into the advanced numbers. And now we're three games past the same date on the calender where he hurt himself for the third time last year. He's been healthy for 22 games now, ever since the All-Star break, basically. This is uncharted territory for him now, and I think Pop is hellbent on protecting Gino as much as possible, having played him a shade less than 19 minutes a night the past four games. Remember, not only did he get injured late last year but also in the final game of the 2010-11 season, at Phoenix, in a year where he was the team's best player. I think Pop wants to bubble wrap Ginobili as much as possible. And he should.
Secondly, I think the Spurs have already proven that this is a different squad than the ones who faltered badly down the stretch in two of the past three seasons. As much as we want to use Ginobili's broken right elbow as the main excuse for the team's first round loss to Memphis in 2011, the cold hard facts are that the Spurs were leaking oil badly going into that postseason, losing eight of their final 12 games, including six in a row at one point. In the process, they squandered home court in a possible Finals matchup with Chicago, which wound up being moot of course because neither team got there.
Last year the Spurs lost seven of their last 10 and four of their last five, primarily due to Ginobili being out and Parker struggling with his own injury issues. They even lost a late-season game to the Kobe Bryant-less Los Angeles Lakers, which prompted a few misguided souls to predict a first-round upset for L.A. It seems ridiculous looking back on it now, but I swear it happened.
Regardless of whether it matters for the Spurs to go into the playoffs with momentum, I think it's fairly apparent that they're not going to enter the postseason coming off a bad April. They've already won the first three games of the final ten and there aren't too many daunting games left on the schedule. Even if the Spurs lose at OKC and Houston -- the Rockets may not even have Dwight Howard or Patrick Beverley for those games -- and maybe one to that tricky back-to-back at Dallas and home to the Suns, that would still be a record of 7-3 over the final ten. More importantly, it would mean home court advantage unless the Thunder won out the rest of the way. The magic number is five. OKC still has games at Phoenix, at the Clippers and at the Pacers, and three back-to-backs in their schedule as well. If they lose one game, the Spurs have to win just four. If they lose two, then the Spurs have to win just three, etc.
Third, I think the Spurs have more to lose from tonight's game than they have to gain. There's the risk of injury, certainly, but also they risk losing a mental edge if the Thunder beat them with a fully healthy team, even if it's the fifth in a week. Not only would it be a four game sweep for the season series, but what if, for example, Kevin Durant lights up Kawhi Leonard? That would have to be at least a little deflating for the team, and you can only use fatigue as a factor so much.
Yeah, a win would be pretty sweet, and it would all but wrap up home court advantage, reducing the magic number to three with six to go (but eight more for OKC), but they're probably going to get that anyway. Besides, if the Spurs win this game, under these circumstances, Pop would lose his mind. The team really might feel invincible and the media attention would go through the roof, with "Can anyone beat the Spurs?" columns. The last thing Pop wants is for the Spurs to win tonight. Well, the second-to-last thing, next to an injury of course. Either way the idea of a win tonight would be a nightmare for Pop.
No, Pop has to sit everyone tonight. He just has to. And that includes Leonard. There's no sense in sitting the big three but letting Durant get a look at Leonard. I'd rather save that bullet for the postseason. I'd sit Danny Green and Tiago Splitter too. I'd play Jeff Ayres and Cory Joseph 48 minutes. It's really horrible timing for Matt Bonner, Austin Daye and Aron Baynes all being hurt actually. Can you imagine if Pop decides to play his main guys just because his scrubs are hurt and then they get hurt? He'd never forgive Bonner for that. He might deactivate him in the playoffs out of spite. That'd be terrible.
Finally, I think Pop needs to sit everyone just for symbolic protest if for no other reason. It's simply asinine that in this crucial point of the season, with two marquee teams and home court advantage on the line, that one team gets to be off for three days in advance of the game (and having home games against Sacramento and Utah leading up to it) and the other having five games in seven nights. That's idiotic. There's no way the Spurs should be the league's dancing monkey.