One of those teams should be the San Antonio Spurs.
But coach Gregg Popovich is playing a different game.
Popovich, the silver-haired, long-tenured guru who is among the frontrunners for Coach of the Year Award, decided to sit out three of his top three players – Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – for the second time this season.
The result was the same as the last time the Spurs had an 11-game winning streak: They lost.
The last time, however, the Spurs weren’t in a dogfight for the best record in the conference, let alone a run at the best record in the league.
With a win against the Jazz, the Spurs could have stayed percentage points ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder and within one game of matching the Chicago Bulls for the best record in the league.
Perhaps home court isn’t an issue for Popovich, who lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs last season despite having home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs after a 61-win regular season.
But Pop’s plan to rest players — even his best three all at once — was hatched before the season even started, and it was a no-brainer for the man who has coached the team for the past 16 years.
From Mike Monroe of San Antonio Express-News: “Ninety minutes before tipoff of what became his team’s first loss in 23 days, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich answered the question everyone inside EnergySolutions Arena couldn’t wait to ask: Which great Spurs had not been on the passenger manifest for the team’s flight that followed a victory over the Jazz at the AT&T Center on Sunday? After all, hadn’t the Spurs coach shown his hand about perhaps holding some players out of Monday’s rematch with the Jazz when he held two regulars out of Sunday’s game? With some drama, Popovich ticked off names: George Gervin hadn’t been on the plane, he said. David Robinson hadn’t traveled to Utah, either, the coach informed, unable to suppress a grin. Ultimately, Popovich admitted he had ordered his Big Three All-Stars — Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker — to remain in San Antonio, perhaps to watch the telecast of the game with The Admiral and The Iceman. Without the Big Three, the Spurs fell to the Jazz 91-84 in a game long on physicality and bereft of artistry. The loss ended the Spurs’ stay atop the Western Conference after three days… Popovich blamed their absence Monday on a schedule that crammed too many games into the final few weeks of the season. “However you want to look at it, 13 games in 18 days or 16 games in 23 days or ending the season four in five nights, it’s just crazy,” Popovich said. “So I’ve got to do something about it. It just doesn’t make sense to have those guys playing four in five nights, anything like that.” The decision to go without the Big Three was made in December, not long after Popovich got his first look at the 66-game schedule the NBA decided to cram into 124 days after the end of the lockout. “It’s pretty much a no-brainer when you look at our schedule,” he said. “We tried to figure it out at the beginning of the season.” Popovich gave a hint that Monday’s back-to-back rematch would be the second game this season without the Big Three when he gave DeJuan Blair and Stephen Jackson the night off against the Jazz on Sunday. That meant 31 minutes for Duncan and Parker, 28 for Ginobili and banishment from the team flight.”
For the Jazz, who are fighting for their playoff lives as they trail the eighth-seeded Nuggets by 1 1/2 games, it was a much-needed and welcomed gift – even if some of the players wouldn’t admit to it.
From Steve Luhm of the Salt Lake Tribune: “The Jazz got a gift from San Antonio on Monday night, but they almost forgot to open it. Despite the fact Spurs’ stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were resting, Utah needed a fierce rally in the final nine minutes to score a 91-84 victory at EnergySolutions Arena. Devin Harris finished with 25 points, including 11 straight during the fourth-quarter comeback, to help the Jazz stay close in the Western Conference playoff race. “We were a little flat,” coach Tyrone Corbin said. “But we toughed it out when we needed to.” Paul Millsap scored 18 points for Utah, including two on a thunderous rebound dunk with 43.6 seconds left that gave the Jazz an 88-82 lead. Millsap, still recovering from a bout with the stomach flu, saw Al Jefferson’s 17-footer bounce off the rim and soared for the critical putback despite a diminishing energy level. “I jumped higher than I expected to,” he said. “I felt like I wasn’t going to make it at first. But I got there.” According to Millsap, the Jazz were motivated by San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich’s decision to play them without Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. None of Spurs’ Big Three even made the trip after their 114-104 win over Utah on Monday night in the first game of this home-and-home series. “It’s kind of a slap in our face that they aren’t playing three of their top guys,” Millsap said. “We recognized it and I think that was the motivation that got us over the hump. That got us through, just thinking about that.”
Meanwhile, the Thunder took back sole possession of first place in the Western Conference while hurting the Bucks’ chances of making the postseason, as they now trail the Knicks and the Sixers by 1 1/2 games.
From Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: “The Thunder thumped Milwaukee, 109-89, inside the Bradley Center behind a total team effort that saw everyone play their role to near perfection and result in an almost flawlessly executed game plan… Size was the difference-maker. Oklahoma City’s length was simply too much for Milwaukee, as (Serge) Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins bullied the undersized Bucks on the boards at both ends while helping the Thunder block six shots in the opening frame. Ibaka and Perkins combined for 21 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and six blocked shots. “The first unit did a great job,” said James Harden. The work the big men did on the inside was complemented by rock-solid guard play from Sefolosha and Russell Westbrook. Sefolosha in particular gave the Bucks fits. He helped hold recently acquired Bucks guard Monta Ellis to nine points and seven assists on 3-for-12 shooting. It was Ellis who scored 48 points against the Thunder on Feb. 7 while still with Golden State. Sefolosha was forced to sit out that last meeting with Ellis as he nursed a foot injury that cost him 23 games. But the Thunder’s defensive stopper said he vividly remembers watching helplessly as Ellis lit up the scoreboard against his teammates. This time, Sefolosha was a pest with both on-ball pressure and in the passing lanes. He recorded a career-high seven steals to go along with 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting while adding five rebounds and three assists. “Thabo was all over,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He basically was like a one-man wrecking crew. He caused havoc on the entire defensive end of the floor.” Westbrook scored a game-high 26 points with seven rebounds and three assists, while dominating his individual matchup with Jennings (13 points on 12 shots) for much of the night. Kevin Durant, meanwhile, scored 19 points and handed out eight assists.
The last time these two teams met, they were both going through the toughest stretch of their respective seasons.
The Clippers had lost nine of 14 games while the Grizzlies had lost six of eight.
Since then, both teams have gone on to win eight of their next 10 games. On Monday night, the Grizzlies showed they may be the hotter of the two teams.
From Broderick Turner of Los Angeles Times: “Chris Paul sat in his chair with ice packs on both knees and a towel wrapped around his body, lamenting his poor shooting and the Clippers’ lack of physical play when he grabbed his right arm, which began to shake. The pain registered on Paul’s face as he held the same elbow that he bruised six games ago, and yet he insisted, “I’ll be all right.”… The Clippers own the tiebreaker over Memphis because they won the season series, 2-1, but the defeat cut their lead to half a game over the Grizzlies for the fourth seeding in the Western Conference. And if the playoffs started now, the Clippers would face the physical Grizzlies in a first-round series that would begin at Staples Center. Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro was asked if his team would rather avoid Memphis in the opening round. “I’m not looking at that right now,” Del Negro said. “We’ve got a lot of basketball left and things are going to change almost on a daily basis. So to worry about all that stuff right now … we’ve got to get in the playoffs. We’ve got to stay focused on what we can do and then all that stuff will take care of itself.” It seemed as if the Clippers could have avoided waiting until late in the game to exert the effort and energy they displayed when they got down big. “They probably were a little more aggressive than us,” said Paul, who had 21 points on seven-for-17 shooting, one for four on three-pointers. “It was a physical game and if you’re physical from the jump ball like they were, then refs let it go.”
From Nikki Boertman of The Commercial Appeal: “Zach Randolph couldn’t make it to shootaround Monday morning because someone rammed into the back of his Dodge Challenger on Bill Morris Parkway. The Grizzlies’ power forward complained of minor back soreness but wasn’t seriously injured. That’s more than he could say for that Challenger given its rear end was smashed and all but detached. So Randolph cranked up a different set of wheels in order to make the Grizzlies’ 94-85 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers before 17,219 in FedExForum. “I drove my Rolls,” Randolph said, referring to his Rolls-Royce. Randolph’s mode of transportation almost seems symbolic of the way the Griz are playing these days. They enjoyed another smooth ride to victory with the luxury of balanced scoring and a defensive effort that put the brakes on the Clippers’ offense. Randolph notched his third straight double-double (10 points, 12 rebounds) as six Grizzlies scored in double figures. Center Marc Gasol’s 18 points led Memphis to its third straight win overall, and fifth in a row at home. The Griz shot 50 percent but set the tone early by playing physical defense, crowding Clippers forward Blake Griffin and not allowing Chris Paul to freely toss a bunch of lob passes for easy scores. “It seemed like our crowd was waiting for something to happen,” Griz forward Rudy Gay said. “We knew if you let Chris get into a rhythm and throw alley oops its hard to stop them. But we punched first.””
- With Kobe Bryant missing his second straight game due to a shin injury, the Lakers rallied to beat the Hornets 93-91. Pau Gasol led all scorers with 25 points along with nine rebounds and four assists, Andrew Bynum added 18 points and 11 rebounds, and Ramon Sessions had 17 points, six rebounds and six assists. Sessions had a highlight dunk over Chris Kaman and delivered the game-clinching 3-pointer in the victory. Eric Gordon missed the game due to lower back tightness and Jarrett Jack will reportedly miss the remainder of the season due to a stress fracture of the right foot. Carl Landry and Marco Belinelli scored 20 points apiece.
- Announced player of the week, Goran Dragic — a soon to be unrestricted free agent — showed what the Blazers may be missing as he helped the Rockets defeat Portland 94-89. Dragic led the team with 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting and seven assists while Chase Budinger added 15 points off the bench. Kyle Lowry scored 13 points and came off the bench for the second straight game but played alongside Dragic for much of the fourth quarter. LaMarcus Aldridge led the Blazers with 20 points. Houston won its fourth consecutive game, all on the road, and took sole possession of the sixth seed by moving a full game ahead of the Mavericks and the Nuggets.
- Playing without Dwight Howard due to back spasms, the Magic easily dispatched the Pistons 119-89 for their second consecutive victory and avoided a season series sweep. The win kept them within one game of the third-seeded Pacers in the Eastern Conference. Jason Richardson led all five starters in double figures with 22 points including six 3-pointers, J.J. Redick added 20 points and four 3-pointers, and Glen Davis had another superb game as the starting center with 16 points, 16 rebounds and five assists. Tayshaun Prince had 21 points and eight rebounds in the losing cause.
- The Suns continued to fight for a playoff berth as they routed the reeling Timberwolves 114-90 for their fifth win in six games. The bench outscored the starters as Markieff Morris led the way with 21 points and Sebastian Telfair added 14 points and seven assists. Steve Nash had 14 points and five assists while Shannon Brown added 17 points and seven rebounds. Phoenix sits one game behind the Nuggets for the eighth seed of the Western Conference. Kevin Love had 25 points and 13 rebounds, but his team lost for the sixth straight time.
- George Hill replaced Darren Collison, who missed the game due to a groin injury, and helped the Pacers hang on to beat the Raptors 103-98 for their fourth win in the last five games. Hill had 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists, Danny Granger added 18 points, and Paul George had 15 points. Toronto lost for the third straight game and played without Andrea Bargnani, who may be shut down for the season.
- After suffering an embarrassing defeat to the Warriors two nights before, the Nuggets redeemed themselves with the most lopsided victory of the season as they beat Golden State 123-84. After having his worst game of the season as a starter with one point and four rebounds, rookie Kenneth Faried dominated with 27 points on 12-of-18 shooting and 17 rebounds while limiting David Lee to 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting and a season-low three rebounds. Danilo Gallinari returned from a 10-game absence and had 15 points, five rebounds and six assists while Arron Afflalo added 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
- Despite being the second-worst team in the league, the Wizards proved they are still a class above the worst team in the league by beating the Bobcats 113-85, sweeping the season series. Jordan Crawford had 20 points and Roger Mason added 17 points, but it was a couple of 10-day contract players in James Singleton and Cartier Martin that helped put the game out of reach. Singleton – not to be confused with rookie Chris Singleton – had 18 points and 12 rebounds while Martin added 19 points, showing a new level of ineptitude of the Bobcats. Washington snapped a five-game losing streak and won for just the second time in 12 games. Charlotte has lost 12 consecutive games, inching closer to the worst winning percentage of all time.
James Park is a regular contributor to Sheridanhoops.com. Follow him on twitter @nbatupark.