SAN ANTONIO – Spurs guard Patty Mills – who injured his shoulder in the offseason and was expected to return in 2015 – was quietly cleared two days ago.
“I’m not going to let him play,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said.
“I’m going to hold him off as long as I can,” Popovich said. “There will be a point where he won’t allow me to do that anymore, and that’s fine. But for right now, I’m winning the battle. At some point, I’ll lose it.”
Popovich doesn’t lose these battles very often.
The Spurs coach has instilled a culture of patience that he hopes will carry his team through this relatively difficult stretch, including a 114-106 loss to the Thunder today.
San Antonio 18-12, on pace for more than 49 wins. Most teams would be thrilled with that record.
But the Spurs have never won so few of their first 29 games since drafting Tim Duncan in 1997. They’ve lost seven of 10, a rare skid at any point in the era. In this loaded Western Conference, that has them just seventh in standings.
Not that Popovich checks those.
“Never have before. Might as well not now,” Popovich said. “If I look at them, they don’t change. It’s kind of like a referee’s call. You can moan and groan, but it doesn’t change. I can stare at the standings, and we still have, whatever, 11 losses. It doesn’t turn into nine if I look at it for a while. So, I don’t pay any attention to it.”
(To be fair, Popovich is not immune from moaning and groaning to referees. Far from it.)
Of course, Popovich’s most famous method of patience is resting his key players – Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili especially – during entire games. He’s concerned Duncan (whose 32.2 minutes per game entering today are his most in six seasons) and Ginobili (whose 25.5 are his most in four) are playing too much.
“I have to try to take care of that over time, so that we can be as energetic and fresh as we can possibly be,” Popovich said. “And we haven’t even made the playoffs yet. Aren’t we like eighth or ninth or seventh or whatever we are? I don’t know. It’s not like we’re automatically in. We have to play well enough to get in. There’s a lot of good teams out here.”
He’s not concerned about San Antonio’s defense, either. The Spurs rank fifth in points allowed per possession, down from third each of the last two seasons.
“When we get all the players back, then I’ll think about it,” Popovich said.
And that’s the one area – injuries – Popovich doesn’t always keep calm.
“I worry about it every day, really,” Popovich said.
But he overcomes that inclination.
Popovich is sitting Mills as long as possible, waiting for the guard to take more contact in practice.
Kawhi Leonard, who injured his hand, is another story. That’s not patience on Pop’s part. It’s reality.
“He can’t move his hand,” Popovich said. “He can’t catch and dribble and all that kind of stuff.”
In a similar vein, San Antonio’s Christmas opponent, the Thunder, were without Kevin Durant.
“He could not go if he wanted to go,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said.
Obviously, injuries have kept both teams from their traditional perches atop or near the top of the Western Conference. But Popovich won’t ask Santa Claus for healthier players – or anything else.
“Ever since we’ve drafted Timmy, I’ve asked for nothing,” Popovich said. “Anytime anything bad happens like injuries, I say, well, the scales are just evening is all they’re doing. We’ve had enough luck that anybody should ever ask for anything else is not fair. So, we never feel badly about anything bad that happens to us, because we were able to get Timmy. That’s the truth. Nothing will ever balance that.”
So, Popovich will patiently wait for his team to get healthy, for its defense to play better, for its record to improve.
Mills in particular likes that approach.
“The environment that you’re in, to have that peace of mind to know not to rush, make sure you look after yourself,” Mills said. “I think is the best thing.”
For himself and for the Spurs.