Christmas is coming a week early for the Warriors. And Santa Claus? He goes by the name of Gregg Popovich.
Pop, with the Spurs in town tonight to face the Warriors (on TNT!), has decided to keep noted senior citizens Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili out of the lineup to give them rest on the tail end of a back-to-back after beating the Suns last night in Phoenix. The list of Spurs absences doesn’t end there, as Tony Parker, who has a shin bruise, has also been ruled out. Already down one star, Popovich would rather not gamble, seeing this as an opportunity, with the season still young, to give his other two stars a valuable break from the NBA’s grueling schedule.
If you think this sounds awfully familiar, you are correct. Popovich notoriously pulled a similar stunt last year before another nationally televised contest on the road on the end of a back-to-back against the Heat early in the season. Only then, Parker, Duncan and Giniboli weren’t even in the building in Miami, having been sent back to San Antonio to chillax at home. Will they be in Oracle for tonight’s game? You’ll have to tune in to find out, but if they are, I bet you Duncan won’t be wearing a tie.
Popovich’s middle finger to the NBA’s schedule maker last season did not please David Stern very much. In a stunning display of “hey, thatz not kool,” Stern fined Pop $250,000 (250 THOUSAND dollars) for merely doing something that Pop thought would help his own team in the long run (hey, they made the Finals!). Stern wasn’t having it. Sorry, Pop, gotta protect those TV ratings! It’ll be fun to see whether Popvich gets a lump of coal in his stocking from Santa Stern again. Perhaps this time Stern should wait and see if the Spurs actually get embarrassed on national TV before waging war against Popovich’s bank account.
So, the Spurs will be without their three best players tonight, but if you think this is now just going to be a cake walk for the Warriors, you’re potentially setting yourself up for disappointment. When the Spurs pulled their big three (plus Danny Green) against the Heat last season, leaving them with a DAUNTING starting five of Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner, Nando de Colo and Boris Diaw (Kawhi Leonard, one of the league’s most underrated players, was out injured), they still took the Heat to the wire, which made the whole Stern fine that much more ridiculous. The Heat escaped with a W, thanks to a Ray Allen three in the final 30 seconds, but that the Spurs still nearly trolled the defending champion Heat, the rest of the league and especially Stern with what was their JV squad is a testament to how brilliant of a basketball coach Popovich is. He squeezes every last bit of talent out of players like he’s trying to get ketchup out of the bottom of a ketchup bottle and makes the most of it. He’s pretty good at this whole basketball coaching thing.
So even while he trots out a potential starting five tonight of Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter, you should expect a fight. Unless Steph gets in one of his Stephen-Curry-heat-checks-from-30-feet zones and the Oracle crowd reaches electric levels. In that case, just forget everything I said.