AT&T CENTER – Prior to Sunday’s contest between the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz, the Spurs had announced LaMarcus Aldridge (left thumb sprain), Danny Green (left quad contusion), Manu Ginobili (rest), and Dejounte Murray (left groin) would all be out of the game.
However, once the game began and time started ticking toward the usual mark where the Spurs’ second unit enters the game, the rotation seemed to have changed. At the 5:13 mark in the first quarter, it wasn’t Tony Parker’s backup Patty Mills who checked in to relieve him, but instead, rookie Bryn Forbes. As the game progressed, Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich was only using a big man rotation of Dewayne Dedmon, Davis Bertans, and Pau Gasol. By the 6:11 mark of the second quarter, Joel Anthony subbed in for Bertans, making him the fourth big off the bench, rather than the Spurs’ usual big off the bench aside from Gasol, David Lee.
The Spurs went on to build a 17-point lead against the Jazz and though Utah fought back, San Antonio held on for the 109-103 victory despite six players from their 15-man roster being out.
After the game, Popovich revealed why Mills and Lee didn’t play, despite not being listed on the injury report the day before.
“I was sitting there and somebody told me David (Lee) got whacked in the last game a little bit, and if we needed him, he’d play,” said Popovich. “I decided I’d rather have him healthy for the playoffs. I thought we were playing really well. I thought it was a good experience for Bryn (Forbes), rather than overplaying Patty (Mills), because with Dejounte (Murray) hurt, he’s played a lot of minutes.”
Outside of Kawhi Leonard and Aldridge, Mills and Green have both logged the most minutes on the Spurs’ roster this season. Playing Forbes, Jonathon Simmons, and Anthony allowed the Spurs to not only rest some players who weren’t 100%, but also reduce the minutes of the others who did play.
“A lot of guys played a lot minutes that they haven’t played before, so it was a good experience for a lot of people,” said Popovich. “I think we got some rest for some guys, too.”
For the newcomer to the Spurs, Gasol, he might not be too familiar with how Popovich manages the roster toward the end of the season, once the Spurs’ playoff seed is essentially locked up, as he wasn’t aware prior to the game so many of his teammates would be out Sunday.
“I didn’t know half the team wasn’t going to play today,” said Gasol afterward. “I knew a couple of guys were going to be out, but I didn’t know it was going to be half the team. I guess we still got the job done. The players that were available to play played at a high level, competed and got a good win against a tough team.”
When looking back at the players Popovich either rests or puts on the Spurs’ injury report for the final six games of the season, there seems to be a common pattern of Popovich holding different core players out in different games to get them rested for the postseason run when the Spurs’ playoff seed is already decided. Outside of the 2015 season, when the Spurs finished sixth in the Western Conference, the Spurs have finished first or second in the West over the last five seasons, including this one.
Though the Spurs (59-17) are still in play to nab the one seed from the Golden State Warriors (63-14), that outcome looks more unlikely as the Warriors are currently on a league best 11-game winning streak. For the Spurs to take the one seed, one of the following two scenarios would have to take place.
Scenario 1) The Warriors would have to lose their last 5 games and the Spurs would have to finish the season 4-2.
Scenario 2) The Spurs would have to win their last 6 games in a row and the Warriors would have to finish the season 2-3.
Outside of 2015, in the last six games of the last five seasons, Popovich’s pattern shows that he’ll hold one to sometimes five core players out in those games as the playoffs approach. With the Spurs having to play six games in the last 10 days of the season, including two back-to-back sets, Popovich commented on how managing the roster down the stretch will be important.
“Well, I think we need to manage that,” said Popovich of the Spurs’ schedule to end the season. “That’s a lot of games, a lot of activity, for the end of the season, and then we have to end it by going all the way to Portland, so I think we need to manage it wisely.”
For Gasol, there’s a good chance he’ll be getting a rest game coming up in these last six games, and as Gasol knows, the goal isn’t the last six games of the season, but something further into the future.
“In a way you’ve got to do whatever is best for you and the team to be ready for the playoffs, to be at your best at that point, whether it is playing more, playing less,” said Gasol Sunday. “That is kind of up to not individuals, but up to the coaching staff to make that assessment. So, that is our mindset: you prepare yourself for the bigger dance.”