Conventional wisdom holds that coaches are supposed to shorten their rotations for the postseason. Fewer minutes for the second unit. More minutes for the starters. With games of this magnitude on the line, the playoffs are no time to spread the love around.
But conventional wisdom needs some rethinking from time to time.
The San Antonio Spurs continue to make the most of their bench, deploying reserves early and often according to head coach Gregg Popovich's master plan. His rotation hasn't remained entirely unchanged, but he's still finding opportunities for the guys who got his team this far.
Patty Mills. Marco Belinelli. Boris Diaw. Even Aron Baynes, who you've probably never heard of.
More on them later.
Notions that starters alone can carry a team during the postseason are becoming increasingly antiquated. Those starters are playing in the wake of a grueling 82-game season. Many of them then go on to endure protracted first-round series. By this point in the postseason, a little extra rest certainly isn't going to hurt anyone.
In this instance, however, the logic goes beyond securing rest for the starters. Popovich's bench is a strategic tool. It's a means to secure advantageous matchups, a way to inject energy into games, a mechanism that forces opposing defenses to make adjustments.
If nothing else, this particular set of reserves is just too good not to get some minutes. After a relatively quiet first round, they've emerged to give the Portland Trail Blazers all they can handle.
.@Spurs bench has outscored that of the Trail Blazers, 100-37, over Games 1 & 2. SAS reserves ranked 1st in Bench PPG this season (45.1)— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) May 9, 2014
So much for a shortened rotation.
Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney framed the Spurs advantage with telling numbers:
Gregg Popovich again set himself apart in Game 1 by relying on a hefty cast of contributors: 10 Spurs logged six minutes or more in the first half on Tuesday to just six Blazers, and by game’s end three San Antonio reserves — none of them Manu Ginobili — had scored in double figures.
The Spurs are deep, and it's no less obvious in the postseason.
The Sixth Man
Exhibit A is Manu Ginobili. Exhibit A has long been Manu Ginobili.
He is the quintessential sixth man, one of the pioneers who popularized the notion that some starting-caliber players do their best work coming off the bench.
And the 36-year-old still has it.
Popovich recently admitted that he's long felt some measure of guilt for bringing one of his best players off the bench, but said, "I do it anyways" (per Project Spurs' Jesse Blanchard). That's in equal parts a testament to Ginobili's value to the bench and the extent to which that bench is instrumental to San Antonio's success.
When Manu comes into the game, he gives the Spurs another slasher, a second weapon to run the pick-and-roll and a dynamic playmaker who can create his own shot or open up opportunities for others. He's a jack-of-all-trades even now, still one of San Antonio's best bets to provide a jolt when needed.
Broadly speaking, this team's bench wasn't at its best in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks.
The same can't be said for Ginobili. He averaged 17.7 points and 4.6 assists against Dallas. His only subpar performance came in Game 6 when he shot just 1-for-8 from the field. Otherwise he was as impactful as ever.
Ginobili had another rough night in Game 1 against the Portland Trail Blazers, scoring just two points and going 0-for-6 from the field. But even in his most forgettable performance of the postseason, Ginobili still contributed five assists in just 18 minutes.
We'd be remiss to overlook his defensive contributions. Though he struggles to stay in front of quicker scorers, Ginobili is still a master of coming up with loose balls and playing passing lanes. He averaged 2.3 steals against the Mavs, coming up with six in the all-important Game 7. In Game 2 against the Trail Blazers, he snagged three steals.
The Spurs will need continued All-Star-like play from Ginobili going forward. Excepting emerging star Kawhi Leonard, the Argentine is the closest thing San Antonio has to a third scoring option. Though this team is ultimately replete with scoring options, Ginobili is the kind offensive force who can single-handedly change the flow of a game.
If the Spurs advance beyond the second round, they'll face one of two teams capable of dropping 110 or more points on any given night. Ginobili could find himself becoming a counterpunch to the Los Angeles Clippers' Jamal Crawford. He could find himself serving as a pivotal difference-maker against an Oklahoma City team that boasts the best one-two scoring punch in the game.
Either way, he'll spearhead the deepest bench in the league when it's needed most.
Important as Tiago Splitter has been in defending Dirk Nowitzki and now LaMarcus Aldridge, we shouldn't underestimate the role played by Boris Diaw. He had 17 points in San Antonio's 93-89 Game 4 win over the Mavericks. He hit timely three-pointers in the first round, making nearly 42 percent of his attempts.
He was also instrumental in San Antonio's 41-point second quarter in Game 2 on Thursday, scoring a quick seven points en route to 12 on the night.
Diaw's biggest contributions have been on the defensive end, though. He may not be known as much of a rim-protector, but he's been pretty steady against Nowitzki and Aldridge whenever Splitter takes a seat. Diaw has used his bulk and decent length to keep those guys away from the basket and firing away from the perimeter.
Not bad for a guy who was discarded from the Charlotte Bobcats back when the Bobcats were by far the worst team in the league. Diaw is emblematic of how effectively the Spurs system can turn virtually anyone into a meaningful part of the puzzle.
So is Aron Baynes.
The Oregonian's Mike Richman recaps Baynes' impact on Game 1 against the Blazers:
Baynes came off the bench to score 10 points and grab seven rebounds in 15 minutes, nearly tripling his output from the Spurs' opening-round series where he played less than six total minutes. He was inactive for the first two games of the series against Dallas and only played in the final 5:48 of Game 7, entering the game after the Spurs had built a 30-point lead.
If you've followed the Spurs closely this season, then you know what Baynes is capable of. The surprising thing is that the sparingly used center was used at all in a key playoff game, especially in the second quarter, which is when he did his damage, rather than in garbage time.
Baynes is illustrative of San Antonio's professionalism. All of these guys are ready to step in and contribute. They've been prepared to do just that all season long. And like a true Spur, Baynes didn't overreact to the rare opportunity.
Spurs Nation's Dan McCarney detailed how Baynes handled the crowd's praise:
Baynes did not soak in the standing ovation that rained down after his energetic shift in the first half of Tuesday’s Game 1 victory. Rather, he was processing any possible areas of improvement despite having just stunned the Blazers with eight points and five rebounds in seven teeth-rattling minutes. 'I heard it got pretty loud,' Baynes said, 'but I was just thinking about what I should have done better. Always trying to strive for perfection.'
Baynes is certainly more of a big body than big name, but that's precisely what makes San Antonio's depth so dangerous. This isn't a hodgepodge conglomeration of ring-chasers, has-beens or overpaid, would-be difference-makers.
These are solid players who benefit from a culture in which there's no hero worship. The next guy is just as valuable as the first. They all have roles to play. They all have jobs to do.
And when it's time to do them, they answer the call.
There are other teams that arguably have more pure talent on their benches, the Clippers among them. But the Spurs' ability to get the most out of their bench is unique. It says more about chemistry and synergy than individual talent, and the results speak for themselves.
Marco Belinelli averaged just 3.1 points in 13.4 minutes per contest during the first round. You could justifiably have been lulled into thinking this bench's luck had, to some degree, run out. Belinelli averaged 11.4 points per game during the regular season and had come to replace Gary Neal as San Antonio's principal long-range threat off the bench.
The prospect of him disappearing would have been problematic. While Ginobili and starter Danny Green can carry the load at shooting guard pretty adequately, Belinelli is the kind of guy who can bust games wide open.
That's exactly what he's done so far against Portland. In 50 minutes of action through the first two games of the series, the Italian has scored 32 points. He's made 5-of-8 three pointers and 11-of-14 field-goal attempts overall in the two games combined.
Project Spurs' Paul Garcia details how Belinelli found himself open for so many good lucks:
The way Belinelli got free was by watching his defenders and waiting to move off the ball into scoring positions when his defender would lose sight of him for just a second. Belinelli’s off the ball movement is how he scored most of his points during the regular season, as he ranks 16thin Spot-Ups, 29th Off-Screens, and 67th in both transition and hand-off scoring possessions amongst the entire NBA per Synergy.
Patty Mills has similarly proven a valuable reserve. He doesn't always see many minutes playing behind Tony Parker, but he's already cracked double digits three times in these playoffs. His ability to hit the three-ball makes him an appropriate alternative to Tony Parker, who usually shies away from deep shots.
No shot is too deep for Mills.
We usually don't think of second units making a team more versatile, but that's exactly what guys like Mills do. They give Popovich options. In Mills' case, one of those options is to team him with Parker to form a smaller, quicker backcourt than you'd find with a traditional shooting guard in the lineup.
The Spurs' biggest tests are still ahead. Portland's supporting cast will be better back at home, and the Western Conference Finals will be a battle one way or the other, should the Spurs advance that far. The big question going forward is whether guys like Belinelli and Mills will shrink before or rise to the challenge.
There are no guarantees in this business, but it wouldn't be wise to bet against them. They've got playoff experience on which to rely, and their finest performances may still be ahead.