Despite aging stars, Spurs are hanging tough

Despite aging stars, Spurs are hanging tough
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, a five-time NBA champion, talks strategy with point guard Tony Parker, a four-time champion and 2007 NBA Finals MVP. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)

Coach Gregg Popovich understands that the San Antonio Spurs might be lacking a bit of energy and focus this season as they deal with the defense of their NBA title and the grind of another 82-game season.

It was different last season, when the Spurs were seeking redemption after a Game 7 defeat to the Miami Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals. And it worked, as the beat the Heat in five games in June to win the championship.

But after a 2-3 start this season, the Spurs seemed to be going through a malaise, with injuries taking their toll, and the age of their stars being a factor.

"I don't let that worry me because I know it's true," Popovich said last recently. "And some guys might still be enjoying the championship today. And I think that's totally reasonable, totally logical because they're human beings. So to try to fight that is kind of a waste of time. It'll take care of itself as we move along."


Stability is a key for the Spurs. Their championship roster returned intact, with the only addition being rookie forward Kyle Anderson, from UCLA, who has played sparingly.

Having Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker helps.

Last week they became the second threesome in NBA history to win at least 500 games together, trailing only Boston's Hall of Fame trio of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, who won 540 games.

Duncan, 38, has won five NBA championships in 17 seasons with the Spurs, Parker, 32, has won four in 13 seasons and Ginobili, 37, has four titles in 12 seasons. And the only coach they have played for is Popovich.

"It's all about managing the season because the Spurs know they just want to go into the playoffs healthy," said former Clippers and Chicago Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro, now an analyst for NBA TV. "Eventually they are going to go on their run sometime during the year and they know that."

San Antonio not only had the best record (62-20) in the NBA last season, but it had one of the league's most efficient offenses that ranked sixth in points per game (105.4), and a top-notch defense that also ranked sixth in points given up (97.6).

"So if we could duplicate that, I would do it. And it's either good enough or it isn't," Popovich said. "But I don't think we can do it any better. We're getting older every year. Same group. We can't do it any better than we did last year. So the goal is to not skip steps and try to get to that same level. That's really the approach."

The Spurs have been playing without key reserves Tiago Splitter (right calf tightness), Marco Belinelli (mild groin strain) and Patty Mills (right shoulder surgery).

Their best young player, Finals most valuable player Kawhi Leonard, 23, has been dealing with an eye infection and blurred vision. Still, Leonard matched his career high with 26 points Monday against the Clippers.

And as Popovich has done in previous seasons, he has rested Duncan and Ginobili rather than play them in games on consecutive days.

Slowly, the Spurs began to find their groove last week, with impressive road victories on consecutive nights against the Clippers and Golden State, and Duncan and Ginobili played in both games.

"I don't think you can ever judge them by a couple of bad games, because there is always a method to their madness. That's what makes them so great," said Alvin Gentry, Golden State's associated head coach.

"I compare the Spurs to Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. Brett Favre … will try to throw it between two defenders. The Spurs are like Peyton Manning. They look at the first option and say it's not there. They look at the second option and say it's not there," Gentry said.

"Then Peyton throws the ball to a guy in the flat for like eight or nine yards. And that's what makes [the Spurs] so good. They don't hold onto the ball, they move it on to the next guy and they end up getting easy baskets. They are by far the best-executing team in this league."

Despite all the success the Spurs have had in winning five NBA championships since 1999, they have never won consecutive titles. Last season was the first time the Spurs reached the Finals in consecutive years.

"Pop makes sure that he's a [pest] to make us stay hungry," Ginobili said. "We push each other, he pushes us, we push him and that's how we try to stay on top."