When I was coaching college basketball, with about five minutes left in every close game, the coaches had a variation of the same conversation: “Are these the five players we want on the floor to finish the game?”
For some teams, the answer to the question generally stays about the same. For instance, for the Spurs in years past, the team the coaches wanted on the floor almost always consisted of four of the starters and My Man Manu. Manu often replaced the starting center, who had allowed the Great Duncan to start the game as power forward.
For this year’s Spurs team, the answer changed from game to game. Although I have not gone through the box score for every single game of the season, I am fairly certain that, in games that came down to the wire, the Spurs “Last Five Minutes of the Game” team included five of twelve different players: Tony Parker, Patty Mills, Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Kyle Anderson, Kawhi Leonard, Rudy Gay, Davis Bertans, Pau Gasol and (for every game he was active) LaMarcus Aldridge.
This concept came to mind at the end of Tuesday’s game against the Warriors, when I saw the Last Five Minutes of the Game team chosen by Coach Messina to play the Last Five Minutes of the Season. This team did not include two of the three Spurs future Hall of Famers (the Oui Frenchman and Pau). It also did not include three players who started most of the season (Dejounte, DannyGreen! and Slo-Mo). Instead, the coaching staff chose to rest the fate of the season on Manu, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, LMA – and Davis Bertans.
Interestingly, of that closing team, Bertans was on the floor the longest. He came into the game at the 10 minute mark with Spurs down 81-67, and played the rest of the way.
Gay was the last of the closing five to come in, entering the game with just over 5 minutes left and the score 89 -77. Over the next 4 plus minutes the Spurs outscored the Warriors 14 – 4, cutting the Warriors lead to 2 when LMA made two free throws with 57 seconds left. Unfortunately, Kevin Durant remembered that he was Kevin Durant and scored the next four points, and the Spurs didn’t score again. A valiant effort, but not enough on this night.
One could argue that Bertans was in the game replacing Danny Green, who had his worst game of the series. One could even argue that, as much as this might have been Manu’s last game (please no, please no), it also might have been Green’s last game with the Spurs. For the series, he shot only 25% from three (5 for 20), and 27% overall. Much as I am a big DannyGreen! fan, and hope he returns (and rediscovers his shot), these are deeply ugly numbers from the team’s long-time “shooting guard”.
One could also argue that Bertans replaced starting point guard Dejounte Murray. While Murray may be a future all-star, he is not one yet. For one thing, he does not yet exhibit the ability to make his teammates better. Indeed, he averaged less than 2 assists per game in the playoffs, and had none in Game Five.
Patty Mills, the other starting guard, who otherwise finished the playoffs playing well (and generally played at the end of games) also had zero assists in Game Five. It is truly remarkable that the Spurs came close to winning, on the road, against a team as good as the Warriors without a single assist from either starting guard. Of course, Manu was out there dropping his 7 dimes in 25 minutes.
Or perhaps Bertans played down the stretch not simply to replace someone, but because the coaches thought, on this night, he gave the team the best chance to win. He is long enough, and cares enough, to contest either Klay Thompson or Durant when they shoot. When Bertans is shooting well, he is a threat to cut into a big lead like the one the Warriors had when Bertans entered with 10 minutes left. And while Bertans made only one three-pointer, he did in fact defend well, and the Spurs eventually cut into that big lead. Credit should go to Coach Messina for going with a player who didn’t make the Last Five Minutes of the Game team very often this season.
I also need to acknowledge one other line-up the Spurs rolled out in these playoffs, including in Game Five: Manu, Parker, Aldridge, Gasol and Anderson. The youngest player of that five-man team (by a lot) is someone legitimately nicknamed Slo-Mo, and the most athletic player is 40 years old. That, my friends, is a team you can picture in your mind while trying to fall asleep some night this summer. More effective than counting sheep, who move much too fast.