LOS ANGELES -- This time last year, Aron Baynes was pining for a chance at the postseason.
Not the in the NBA. In the Greek League.
"I was finished," said Baynes, who spent last season, his fourth as a professional, with Ikaros Kallitheas B.C. "We finished pretty early. April 11th I think was our last game."
But here was Baynes, three months removed from signing with his first NBA team after spending the first half of the season in Slovenia, starting for an NBA Finals favorite in Game 4 of their first-round series, matched up against perhaps the league's best center in Dwight Howard at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
"It was a high," Baynes said. "But at the same time there was business in front of me. I had to go out there and focus on what I needed to do, play that game plan. That's what's gotten us to this point right now. That's what I wanted to go out there and focus on, and, yeah, keep it rolling."
It might as well be the mantra for the San Antonio Spurs. Players go down, others take their place, and the team keeps rolling.
Gregg Popvich, ever one to demur, will often downplay the personal brilliance needed to rattle off 16 straight playoff appearances, with only three ending after one round now that the Spurs are off to Round 2 after a 103-82 series-clinching victory against the seventh-seeded Lakers on Sunday. He was just smart enough to draft Tim Duncan, Pop will wryly snort.
But while it's critical to have Hall of Fame pillars like Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to build around, the Spurs don't achieve 14 straight seasons of 50 wins or more without the Spurs System. It takes a Duncan to win four titles. It takes an organization to put three different centers next to him to win those four titles.
This game, it was Baynes' turn. With Tiago Splitter sidelined with a sprained ankle, Popovich turned to the Aussie-bred 6-foot-10, 260-pounder with the piercing blue eyes. Baynes, all of 26 years old and still noticeably a bit jittery in postgame interviews, averaged 2.7 points and two rebounds in 8.8 minutes a game in the regular season, and had played six total minutes in the Spurs' previous three playoff victories.
The night certainly wasn't a breakthrough performance for Baynes, who finished with six points, two rebounds and plus-15 in 16 minutes. But he wasn't expected to have much of an impact this season anyway. Liking his potential after Baynes spent the summer playing for the Australian national team under Spurs assistant coach Brett Brown, Popovich signed the center in January, hoping to aid his development by bringing him into the program. "But his future would really be next year," Popovich admitted.
But against the Lakers' M*A*S*H unit, which became even thinner out front after Howard was ejected in the third quarter, Baynes held his own, particularly in the early going, when he scored four of the Spurs' first nine points. The other five came from Danny Green, a former second-round pick claimed off waivers from Cleveland who is now a two-year starter in San Antonio.
"It obviously wasn't a fair fight," Popovich said.
He was referring to the Lakers' injury-depleted lineup, but he might as well have been talking about the series before the losses of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace or Jodie Meeks. Or about the Spurs' chances against most other teams in the league on a regular-season night. The 18th-ranked defense against a Popovich attack? The Lakers were marching into a buzz saw either way.
But the final lineup for the Lakers surely wasn't pretty. Andrew Goudelock, cut in training camp, was called up from the D-League just before the postseason and ended up starting the final two playoff games. Darius Morris was re-discovered at the end of the bench and started two himself. Chris Duhon logged 43 minutes in Game 4. Jordan Hill, out for most of the season, played 15. After Howard was ejected, only Pau Gasol remained from the starting five that, in the summer, seemed set to surmount the world.
Although only down six to start the second quarter, the Lakers seemed doomed once they sent a lineup of Duhon, Gasol, Goudelock, Morris and Antawn Jamison out onto the court.
Only, across the court, the names the Spurs were sending out certainly weren't a murderer's row of names themselves. After Ginobili checked out about two minutes into the second, the Spurs' second unit was comprised of Green, Matt Bonner, Blair, Gary Neal and Cory Joseph. A second-rounder picked off waivers, a second-rounder for which the Spurs traded pennies, a second-round pick with no ACLs, an undrafted free agent brought over from the Spanish League, and the 29th pick in the 2011 draft.
The difference: The Lakers fielded their lineup out of desperation. The Spurs fielded theirs out of vision.
Blair finished with 13 points on 6-for-9 shooting in 19 minutes. Neal had 11 points in 21 minutes. Joseph was a plus-12, Green a plus-nine. Bonner, perhaps the most accomplished offensive player of the bunch, finished with just three.
"We've stretched the bench all year long," Popovich said. "The bench has been a big part of it. We've played 10, 11 guys all year, so that's nothing new."
The Lakers, though, have gone the opposite route, prioritizing star-heavy rosters and trades that raise expectations but gut the roster. Acquiring a franchise player like Howard this past offseason was a no-brainer; the NBA, they say, is a star-driven league. But the shallowness of their roster has loomed over this team the past two seasons. Even with Andrew Bynum in the middle and Ramon Sessions running the point, the Lakers were forced to wring major contributions out of the likes of Steve Blake, Troy Murphy and Josh McRoberts.
Draft picks are simply bargaining chips for a top-heavy club like the Lakers, who have made good on exactly one of their first-round picks in the past five years -- Toney Douglas, who was shipped to the New York Knicks that very night. For the Spurs, they're the lifeblood that keeps this aging core alive. (2011 first-round pick Kawhi Leonard had 13 points on 5-for-10 shooting on Sunday.)
The Miami Heat just swept the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 1 without Dwyane Wade for the series-clinching Game 4. LeBron James did the heavy lifting as usual, finishing with 30 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. But Ray Allen chipped in 16. Shane Battier and Mike Miller each played 23 minutes. Chris Andersen again provided a crucial interior presence.
As the Heat found out in 2011, riding your horses can only get you so far (and that was after squeezing Miller and Udonis Haslem in before the more draconian CBA). It's something the Spurs have lived by for a decade more.
"As much as you can, knowing it's a subjective thing -- you're dealing with human beings -- but you always look for a certain talent level, and we like to think about somebody's work ethic, what they've proven as far as what type of teammate they might be," Popovich said. "In our vernacular we talk about people who've gotten over themselves, [who] can cheer for teammates' success, as well as their own. When you find those kind of people, they're more interested in the group than they are themselves. That's a winning formula in most cases."
"From the first moment I landed and I met the guys, the staff, I definitely saw how professional this organization was," Baynes said. "Every day since I've been here, I start to understand it a little more.
"It filters all the way down from the top to young guys. I'm one of those young guys, and I definitely see how it is and I just want to emulate what these older guys and veteran guys are doing."