MIAMI -- Now that the San Antonio Spurs are in the NBA Finals, we’re seeing the side benefit of Gregg Popovich’s strategic star-resting program: It has the backups well prepared for this moment.
While the Miami Heat seem to falter whenever LeBron James grabs a seat, the Spurs consistently hang in games while Tony Parker or Tim Duncan are out. That’s due in part to the number of times the San Antonio reserves were asked to fill in for them.
“It was huge,” said backup point guard Gary Neal, who wound up starting 17 games this season. “Just to be able to come out and play, be able to have good games, it kind of instills confidence.”
They didn’t just play; they won. The Spurs went 11-5 without Parker this season.
Throughout the playoffs, I’ve marveled at how Popovich never seems to get caught when he’s resting his main players. Not only have the Spurs survived those stretches, but they have outscored playoff opponents by 54 points while Parker is off the court.
Part of it is Popovich knowing just how much rest Parker and Duncan require, a touch that’s come from so many playoff series together.
“And also it’s the game situation,” Popovich said. “Did the other team just make an eight-point run? Or do we have the game under control to some degree and they need more time?
“It’s all those sorts of things put together. It’s just a feel.”
So what allows the second unit to be so productive?
“I just think, the system,” Neal said. “When Tony and Tim are in the game, the system works a whole lot better. When they’re not in the game, we still follow the system. We still follow the same principles of ball movement, not holding the ball, playing with the pick-and-roll and swinging the ball, going from good [shots] to great [shots]. When those guys aren’t in the game, you have to play the system to make it work. I think the second unit does a pretty good job of it.”
One of their signature performances of the playoffs came with little fanfare near the end of the third quarter in Game 1.
With 4:15 remaining, Danny Green entered for Parker. With 3:53 remaining, Neal replaced Boris Diaw. The Spurs were going small, with Green, Neal, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Duncan. More significantly, they were going without Parker for a critical stretch. The Heat had their Big Three of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the floor, joined by Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller.
Miami led by two points at the time. When the quarter ended, it led by three -- a gain of one point that really was a net win for the Spurs. San Antonio remained within one long basket of Miami, and Parker was recharged and ready to play the entire fourth quarter, which he dominated by scoring 10 points.
We remember Parker’s brilliance in the fourth, particularly the wild scrambling play that led to his final shot. Don’t forget what came before it. Note the play of the reserves in the third quarter, or even in the first Spurs-Heat game of the season, when the Spurs starters went home, the team was hit with a $250,000 fine, and the second unit pushed the Heat to the limit. It’s all providing a payoff now.