If there’s a team in the league that makes a bigger deal of playing a game on the second night of a back-to-back than the Spurs, feel free to point me in that direction.
It just doesn’t seem possible, especially considering what we’ve seen and heard from Gregg Popovich about it so far this season.
Popovich famously sent four of his starters home to rest, instead of having them play in a nationally televised contest against the defending champion Miami Heat. The fact that his bench players competed and nearly won the game wasn’t the point, and the league agreed, fining the Spurs $250,000 for gaming the system in this way.
In their loss in Denver on Tuesday after getting blown out in Oklahoma City the night before, the Spurs again were very aware of the potential fatigue factor late in the third quarter when trailing the Nuggets.
Popovich went to the “Hack-a-[blank]” strategy of intentionally fouling a poor free throw shooter on the opposing team, stopping the clock in hopes that this player would miss the foul shots, thus giving the Spurs a strategic chance of cutting into the lead.
Denver was up by 13 points at 82-69 when the Spurs began intentionally fouling JaVale McGee — a career 57.8 percent free throw shooter. But the reasons for implementing this strategy were different than the usual ones on this night.
“They [Nuggets] were scoring every time. And were were running out of gas, running out of energy. So we figured if we could go up-and-down a few times and not even have to play any defense it might put some fuel back in the tank and it did,” Popovich said. “During that period we couldn’t knock down a couple of threes and it [the lead] stayed 9, 10, or 11 or whatever. We couldn’t get below it [double digit lead] because we couldn’t make a shot, but it gave us a little bit of rest and helped us stay in it.”
McGee hit just two of his eight free throw attempts during the stretch that Pop intentionally sent him to the line, but as he noted afterward, his team simply couldn’t make a shot, so Denver actually extended the lead to 90-75 at the end of three quarters.
It was interesting to hear Popovich say that his reasoning for going to the strategy was to get his team some rest; playing Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili 40 and 30 minutes respectively in the twilight of their careers certainly warrants that, at least to a certain extent.
But beyond Duncan and Ginobili, the Spurs aren’t an old team at all. The rest of the key players are 30 years of age or younger, and while back-to-backs are tough for every team, it seems that Popovich’s consternation surrounding them is something that’s needlessly being emphasized.