San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the best in the business. There's really no room for debate.
His puppeteering wizardry was on full display during his team's statement 105-93 victory over the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder. With his brightest stars sidelined (Tony Parker, sprained ankle) or flickering from prolonged use (36-year-old Tim Duncan and 35-year-old Manu Ginobili), "Pop" continued to pull all the right strings.
He didn't have the star power to contend with the talent-rich Thunder, led by three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant and matchup nightmare Russell Westbrook, but frankly, he didn't need it.
In fact, he's continually found success during his lone All-Star's absences this year:
The Spurs are now 6-2 this season without Tony Parker, 3-1 since his ankle sprain.— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) March 12, 2013
Take away the Spurs' most recent blunder—a 136-106 crushing at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers on Mar. 8—and the only game this Spurs team has lost without Parker was the costly five-point loss to the Miami Heat on Nov. 29.
That was the fateful night that Popovich decided to send Parker, Duncan, Ginobili and Danny Green home a day early from a six-game road trip, a move that eventually cost the Spurs $250,000 through a hefty fine from the commissioner's office.
The Spurs haven't leaned on a single player on Parker's absence, but rather Popovich's time-tested plug-and-play approach.
Popovich knows how to maximize his available talent. One night that may mean leaning on Green's perimeter stroke (43.5 three-point percentage on the year). The next night it could be a stat-sheet-stuffing performance from sophomore Kawhi Leonard (11.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game).
Against the Thunder, it was third-year big man Tiago Splitter's turn to assume control. He responded with a brilliant 21-point (9-of-11 from the field), 10-rebound effort in his first 20/10 performance of the year.
As long as Popovich can find the right complement for his two battle-tested horses (Duncan, 16.7 points and 9.7 rebounds, and Ginobili, 12.6 points and 4.6 assists), the 49-15 Spurs will continue to a be a threat for the Western Conference's top seed—which they now hold by a relatively comfortable two games.
Who will be crowned the 2013 Western Conference Champions?
The Spurs' ability to translate their regular-season success into playoff series victories will come down to Popovich's savvy handling of his roster. Players like Leonard and Green have bolstered the team's athleticism, but the Spurs' championship hopes sill rest on the experience of their aging core.
It's a fact clearly not lost on Popovich. That's why he's limited Duncan to under 30 minutes per night and kept the oft-injured Ginobili (23.5 minutes per game) on the bench more than on the floor.
Whether an offensive juggernaut like this year's bunch or the defensive powerhouse of yesteryear, Popovich has shown an ability to coach to his team's strengths unmatched in his profession.
The Spurs' drive to their fifth championship in franchise history is a long, winding road that may prove impossible to navigate.
But San Antonio's got the best possible man behind the wheel. And that, more than anything, keeps those championship hopes alive.