Denver's Mile-High Advantage: Why San Antonio Spurs Veterans Should Rest Tonight

Robert KleemanSenior Analyst IDecember 16, 2010

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 08:  Head coach Gregg Popovich and Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs talk to eachother during their game against the Charlotte Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena on November 8, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Leave it to me to tell a future Hall of Fame coach how to run his operation. Gregg Popovich would look so much smarter if he just listened to me and based all of his decisions on our one-sided conversations. Maybe he should wear an ear piece with a transmitter that allows me to whisper roster management tips to him.

I make these suggestions because I care.

While Popovich rightfully pays no mind to this glorified moron, perhaps he will think of this idea himself. It would not be the first time I stole it from him. San Antonio police officers should just handcuff me now. How can Popovich expect to contend for a title when a Bleacher Report writer pillages his intellectual property?

Stop laughing like a hyena and allow me to get to the point.

The Spurs blew an 18-point lead against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night and needed a Manu Ginobili stepback swish to escape the AT&T Center with a victory. Call it a premature hunch, but tonight's affair between the Spurs and Nuggets in Denver could get ugly fast for San Antonio.

What opposing team would not struggle in this situation? The Nuggets last played Tuesday night, when they hosted the Orlando Magic, and should enter the contest rested and ready to romp.

Strange things happen in the NBA. The Spurs might make me look dumber than ever and pound the Nuggets like a punching bag. But I am not going to hold my breath.

A nationally-televised date between the Spurs and Nuggets might seem like a progress report fit for TNT and the Kenny Smith-Charles Barkley treatment. This game should settle where both teams stand in the league's hierarchy, right?

Wrong. Sorry to break it to Nuggets fans, but the final score will mean something only if the Spurs win. Every NBA squad faces grueling back-to-back sets. Consider this more of a concession than a complaint.

Stopping the explosive Denver offense becomes more of a chore when the opponent must also fight some fatigue and the sudden altitude change. The same applies to an even greater degree when foes fly to Salt Lake City after playing the night before.

Given that, Popovich should consider telling Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Richard Jefferson or Antonio McDyess to park it on the bench and enjoy a one-night vacation. The Spurs, who enter the Pepsi Center with the league's best record at 21-3, have nothing to prove tonight.

Popovich lamented last season that a slow, turbulent start and a taxing fight to avoid the eighth seed did not allow him to rest Duncan as much as he would have liked. Well, Pop, here's your chance: stick it to George Karl again and make him out-coach you with an even bigger advantage.

A few years ago, the Spurs coach announced at the last minute that he planned to sit Parker, Duncan, Ginobili and Michael Finley, arguably his four best players, as his team faced the Nuggets on the second night of a back-to-back. Ginobili and Duncan nursed legitimate injuries; Parker and Finley were just prime for rest.

The Nuggets nipped the so-called "JV Spurs," and Karl lit into his squad afterwards about its lack of focus versus an opponent missing its engine. That night, Malik Hairston erupted in the second half and helped keep the score close with his energy and rebounding. A few folks, after witnessing that breakout performance, compared him to Carmelo Anthony.

Yes, that was a far-fetched and inaccurate read on one fantastic outing. Hairston will never approximate Anthony. The compliment, though, was a testament to how the Spurs responded with most of the team's firepower stowed away.

Would Karl's uneven squad avoid fracture and a loss of focus if Popovich angered those Denver spectators and sparked a national debate again by benching those most responsible for the 21-3 start? I would love to find out.

Denver has won 11 of its 12 home games, including Tuesday's fourth-quarter stomping of Orlando. San Antonio swept two back-to-back sets before succumbing to the L.A. Clippers one night after thrashing the Golden State Warriors. Odds are the team tied for the NBA's best road record will suffer its second defeat away from the AT&T Center, no matter what Popovich does.

Have the eldest regulars not earned a 48-minute respite, Wednesday's near-collapse notwithstanding? I suppose Popovich might trot out the usual suspects and demand that they fix what they broke in the third and fourth quarters against the Bucks.

Ginobili drained a tough shot—some, including Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles, say he traveled—to lift the Spurs to a 92-90 victory. Forget that Andrew Bogut, the league's top shot blocker, morphed into Bill Russell in the final frame, or that Drew Gooden unleashed an unacceptable array of scores on a former employer.

This is about body of work, and the Spurs' early résumé, to date, is mighty impressive. San Antonio has already matched its highest wins-to-losses ratio from last season and owns triumphs in Charlotte, Utah, and at home against Portland. All three of those games were letdowns in late 2009.

The Bobcats spanked the Spurs 92-76 in a December joust. The Trail Blazers, one night after shocking the Dallas Mavericks, did the same to the Spurs with half of the rotation sidelined. No Brandon Roy, no Greg Oden, no Joel Pryzbilla, no Rudy Fernandez, just Jerryd Bayless, who exploded for 31 points and carried Portland to a 94-90 victory.

The Jazz whipped the Spurs with a furious fourth quarter run at Energy Solutions Arena and then beat them at the AT&T Center for the first time ever.

Not this year. The Spurs' lengthy victims list also includes New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Atlanta and Chicago. Milwaukee, a team that once owned San Antonio in the regular season, made the playoffs a season ago.

The Spurs can afford to drop this game. They will survive a blowout, if as I predicted, it gets ugly. J.R. Smith and Anthony can get going in a hurry. Smith can drill five consecutive threes with the opponent flossing his teeth.

If he does that, how will the Spurs overcome tired legs and the altitude? Denver has advantages that will prove tough for San Antonio to overcome, so why not give the host squad a huge one and see how the combustible players handle it?

Will the Nuggets play as hard if they see Parker, Ginobili, Duncan and another veteran cackling on the bench? Why not afford Gary Neal, George Hill and the other youngsters a chance to show their defensive chops and understanding of the offense? If they get creamed, so be it: Popovich never planned to live and die with such a lineup. He can improvise for one night.

The coach has not said anything that suggests he will give the Big Three the night off, but then again, there were no indications he would until he did it a few years ago in this same building. Minor injuries to Tiago Splitter and Dejuan Blair could complicate matters but maybe not.

Consider this final score from the 2007-2008 campaign: Nuggets 109, Spurs 96. With all hands on deck, San Antonio could not overcome the exhaustion from playing the night before against Indiana.

A few nights later, the Spurs returned the favor at home with a 107-103 win. If they lose tonight, they get another shot at the Nuggets next Wednesday. That home game, which will come after a day off, is much more important.

Then, with both squads operating on at least a day's rest, the outcome will mean something, no matter who wins.