Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was in as jovial a mood pregame as he has been in some time, perhaps because he knows, finally, that he won't have to concern himself with the team's motivation and focus for a while as the team has entered the toughest stretch of their schedule, with nine of eleven games against playoff teams from last season and the two exceptions being a pair of games against Anthony Davis and a Pelicans team that has already defeated them at the AT&T Center last month. It will be grueling, elite-level competition, and the Spurs have been at their best against the those teams so far this season.
The difficult part however, aside from the quality of the teams they're facing, is that the Spurs will be shorthanded in one form or another for all of the games. Patty Mills will be out, for sure, he's not expected back until mid-January (more on that below). Besides him though there is an open question about Tony Parker, who will miss his sixth game in seven with a hamstring strain; about Kawhi Leonard, who re-aggravated the injury to his right hand and will be out at least tonight against Memphis and perhaps longer than that; about Manu Ginobili, who's battling through all kinds of nagging things and of course Tiago Splitter, who's still working his way through a complicated calf issue. If all that wasn't enough, there's also three more back-to-backs thrown into the mix, which ensures that Tim Duncan and Ginobili will be rested for at least one if not more of those games. The constant shuffling of lineups, which both Splitter and Ginobili spoke about Wednesday morning during shoot-around, is making the game-to-game adjustments difficult on the team.
"Well it makes things less than ideal, that's for sure, but every team has to deal with that," Popovich cautioned. "We would rather know that this guy and this guy are each going to be out for ‘X' amount of time and be able to put your team together, but we haven't had those kind of injuries. It seems like it's been different every game, which I think makes it tough on the players, just to have a rhythm with each other. It's the way it is and we just have to deal with it, so tonight it's Tony and Kawhi and Tiago will be able to get a few more minutes. For the next amount of time, a couple of weeks or whatever it might be, as we have we'll have a different team on the court each night, and they'll do the best job they can."
When asked whether the adversity of having to depend on different guys and even skeleton crews at times during last year's mid-season injury epidemic steeled the team for a postseason run, Pop readily agreed.
"Absolutely, you just don't want to get too far in the hole in the process," he explained. "It's unfortunate that these are our toughest two months and this is the toughest month, and that these two weeks are the toughest two weeks of those two months. That's hurt us record-wise, but hopefully by the time it's important we'll have everybody not just healthy but with a good deal of minutes and more confident and able to go."
Last season the Spurs got off to a strong record, dominating inferior competition. By the time the schedule got harder on them, they had somewhat of a cushion, and some of the games that they lost were against really good teams that would've been difficult to beat anyway. This time around, the Spurs find themselves seventh in the West with a 17-8 record, and up just five games on hard-charging Oklahoma City in ninth.
Ginobili stressed that all he wants out of these next two weeks is for the Spurs to "maintain" their position in the standings. If they can get to January still nine or ten games above .500, the team feels it can then get on a roll and build some momentum, especially if they can ever get everyone healthy at once.
And that includes Patty Mills, who's been out all season rehabbing from surgery on his torn rotator cuff. He's still on schedule and doing a bit more every week.
"He's getting a little bit of contact now, they're bouncing on that shoulder a little bit, making sure he can handle some hits, that sort of thing, but he went through shoot-around today and he's shooting and all that kind of stuff, so I assume he's on track for mid-January," Popovich said.
Mills, from Australia, is just one of nine foreign Spurs so it's only appropriate that the team is staging an "International Night" for tonight's game against Memphis. As Pop explained, it's no coincidence that the Spurs have more foreign talent than any NBA team.
"We've been working at it for a long time," he said. "(General Manager) R.C. (Buford) and I felt that was important, that there were a lot of good players in the world a long time ago, and it was just something that was sort of in our DNA, that we enjoyed doing and feel committed to, and he and his staff have done a great job of ferreting guys out and bringing in guys that are not only good players but play the way we want to play and have that fiber that we're looking for."
Popovich also explained that in his view it's nonsensical for anyone to have more reservations in drafting a foreign player than an American collegian, because there's the same amount of risk and projection and fear of the unknown either way.
"You look at the draft every year and the top 15 or 20 guys, they didn't all do well," he said. "You know it could be a foreign person, it could be an American, you have to be careful to not use too wide a brush to look at that sort of thing. It's a very, very, individual sort of thing, and you can fail here in our country or fail in some other country without any doubt and it happens all the time. And actually, that's what's good about it. If there was a perfect formula than everybody would have it. The subjectivity of it makes it a little bit more of an art, actually."
When the Spurs are at their best, their play is a work of art itself. Against a Grizzlies team who take pride in winning ugly, and without Parker and Leonard, the Spurs will be happy to pin any kind of win on their collective fridges, even if the final product isn't so Picasso-worthy.