San Antonio Spurs Road to Title Credibility Begins with Youth Growing Up Fast

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IJanuary 18, 2012

Gregg Popovich has plenty of reasons to fume and scratch his head after the Spurs blew a 14-point halftime lead in Miami and lost 120-98.
Gregg Popovich has plenty of reasons to fume and scratch his head after the Spurs blew a 14-point halftime lead in Miami and lost 120-98.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Danny Green shook LeBron James just long enough to drop in his third three-pointer to beat the end of second quarter buzzer.

From halfcourt.

His prayer afforded the Spurs a 63-49 halftime advantage and a superb chance to get off the schneid away from the AT&T Center.

San Antonio’s surprise 24-year-old reserve spark earlier beat the first-quarter horn with a straightaway triple.

Green led the losing Spurs in scoring Tuesday night with 20 points. He has become the latest example of R.C. Buford finding youthful exuberance in the bargain bin.

The brass knew Green could help as a spot defender. Gregg Popovich loved the North Carolina product’s hustle. Like many other fringe rotation, second-round selections shunned by the teams that drafted them, Green arrived in the Alamo City armed with something to prove.

Popovich canonizes players who use disrespect as circumstantial fuel. The rebuilding Cleveland Cavaliers did not think enough of Green to keep him around as the team copes with the departure of James, its former roster centerpiece.

Then Cavs GM Danny Ferry, now the president of basketball operations for the Spurs, relegated Green to the D-League and life as a future training camp invitee.

When Ferry re-emerged in San Antonio as an executive, he recommended that Popovich give the kid a look.

The forward did just enough to stay on the Spurs radar as a potential bench cog. With no July games in Las Vegas or a full training camp to conduct a thorough evaluation, Popovich and Buford gambled that Green could contribute.

Flash-forward to a home win versus the Nuggets two weeks ago, and Summer League find Gary Neal, now an NBA sophomore, teased Green with a text message.

“If I’d gone down to Austin for couple of games, I might never have seen the floor here again,” he quipped.

The team had planned to ease Neal back via a stint with the Austin Toros after he underwent an appendectomy just after training camp commenced. Manu Ginobili’s left hand fracture forced San Antonio to recall Neal before he saw any action in the Texas capital.

Green assaulted the Nuggets that Saturday night with a career-high 24 points, peppering Denver with three-pointers, drives to the basket and pull-up shots.

Welcome to the new reality in Spurland. The supporting cast Popovich once wisecracked was "older than dirt" is now younger than the latest Tweet about Justin Bieber.

The team’s latest starting 2 guard, Kawhi Leonard, was six when San Antonio selected Tim Duncan with the first pick in the 1997 draft.

Popovich envisions Leonard as the defensive pest at small forward the Spurs have lacked since Bruce Bowen retired. The coach, conservative in the praise he offers to both opposing players and his own, even suggested Leonard possesses similar defensive chops to the NBA All-Defense fixture.

Leonard switched from his reserve role when T.J. Ford’s injury necessitated that Neal back up Parker instead of start alongside him.

Whereas the franchise’s four championship squads were littered with 30-something veterans, a stunning abundance of jejunity marks this one.

That quality became a mammoth liability against the sizzling Heat in Tuesday’s 120-88 defeat. A 14-point halftime lead became a 22-point shellacking.

Popovich was far from the only one in Central Texas “embarrassed” by the second-half smashup in Miami.

LeBron James connected on long-distance call after long-distance call. Mike Miller, playing in his first game this season following a thumb ailment, drilled all six of his three-pointers.

The defending Eastern Conference champs outscored San Antonio 39-12 in the third frame.

“The way we started off the game is not how we play basketball,” James said of the Heat’s discombobulated first 24 minutes.

This cannot be how the Spurs play it, either, if they want to mimic the Dallas Mavericks as a sports phoenix.

The squad that handled the Portland Trail Blazers 99-83 last Friday demonstrated the mental toughness of a title contender. The one that hopped on a plane to Miami on Tuesday reminded us of last year’s Washington Wizards. That team, for those unfamiliar, flirted with a 0-41 road record.

The Spurs will not finish the year winless away from home. Upcoming dates at Houston, New Orleans and Minnesota should yield at least one victory. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker would also never allow such a disgraceful feat.

The mere fact that anyone can connect Flip Saunders’ woeful Wizards to Popovich’s well-oiled Spurs, though, should make fans in the Hill Country cringe.

Parker and his youthful teammates blitzed the Heat early. He drove for a fast-break lay-up.

DeJuan Blair dropped 12 early points around the basket. Leonard swished a left-handed hook shot.

Then, with the pressure ratcheted up and James ablaze, the Spurs unraveled in the third quarter.

They came apart in every way imaginable. Parker appeared far less confident on both ends. Chris Bosh abused Blair and discarded Duncan’s fruitless attempts to protect the rim.

James and Miller exploded like a lit match falling in a pool of gasoline.

Yes, San Antonio misses its best player, Manu Ginobili. Dwyane Wade’s absence evened the playing field as much as possible.

Yes, Parker and Duncan needed to produce more than a combined 26 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Add four turnovers to that unsalted mix. James and Bosh each surpassed the 30-point mark.

Yes, James and Miller drained some indefensible shots. The Heat scored just 34 points in the paint, highlighting the importance of 16 made treys.

Nothing can excuse the overall porous defense the Spurs play in unfriendly confines.

Miami shot 60 percent for much of the second half.

As much as Popovich is right to place more of the burden on Duncan and Parker while Ginobili recovers, he needs his young players to not fold like a card table.

Dreary news for the Spurs: the next chance to record that first road win comes tonight in Orlando, where San Antonio has lost three straight by a total of 60 points.

This truncated season is about digging deep. The Spurs must find a way to best the Magic, who will play for the third time in three nights.

That will require a continued, fast-paced maturation on the part of the adolescent cast surrounding Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Richard Jefferson and Matt Bonner.

Just four players remain from the 2007 championship team. Those four are listed in the previous sentence. It shows in San Antonio’s abysmal road turn since then.

Despite posting a laudable 26-15 mark last season, the Spurs have won a single significant playoff contest that was not hosted at the AT&T Center.

That triumph occurred in Dallas, when stealing Game 2 opened the door for the seventh seeded Spurs to oust the second seeded Mavericks.

The 2005 model still looks like the best one. Then, Robert Horry, Bowen and Brent Barry flanked a younger Duncan and Ginobili and an emerging Parker. Horry knew what to do when the outcomes counted most if his All-Star teammates needed assistance.

Now, Parker is the lone youngster in the trio, and the players around him asked to make colossal shots boast scant postseason experience.

Out with Barry; in with Green and Neal. James Anderson, the 22-year-old former Oklahoma State scoring standout, figures to get many looks during this campaign, despite not cracking Popovich’s rotation of late.

Tiago Splitter has been a glowing, borderline blinding bright spot in a Jekyll-and-Hyde campaign. His renewed confidence as a hard-hat, blue-collar post player and banger gives the Spurs frontline a necessary added dimension.

Beyond the obvious concerns about what the big men behind Duncan and Splitter, Bonner and Blair, can proffer on a consistent basis, age ranks as a chief reason for Popovich to feel the heebie-jeebies.

Just not in the way most think.

Malcom Thomas, the athletic forward called up from the D-League, is not ready for prime time.

That is the million-dollar question with these Spurs: can Green, Blair, Neal, Leonard and the others matriculate the corporate playoff knowledge that made a roll call heavy on perspicacity as lethal in the clutch as any?

Forget prime time. This San Antonio squad does not look ready to survive a late January game at Memphis, even with Zach Randolph sidelined.

The mandate sounds quite simple, yet seems out of reach. Either the Spurs start winning a lot on the road, or this season goes south quicker than an 18-wheeler whizzing down Interstate 35.

Green shook James and burned the Heat with a halfcourt heave. That would become one of the few moments the two-time MVP let anyone in a black uniform evade him.

James did all the torching in the second half, as helpless defenders became the jesters in a court fit for a self-proclaimed king.

A welcome end to Miami’s three-game losing streak became a familiar story for San Antonio.

It has come to this: Grow up or go home empty handed.

If Popovich’s squad cannot complete a script rewrite soon?

The next ending to a Spurs season will look a lot like the last one.


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