Tuesday night, the San Antonio Spurs destroyed the Los Angeles Lakers by a score of 112-91. Perhaps we should have seen it coming. The Lakers didn't have Kobe Bryant, and more importantly, the Spurs played their big three of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili over 25 minutes per game each for the first time in three games.
As odd as that sounds for the three best players on a team that is now in first in the Western Conference standings, this is nothing new for the 2011-12 Spurs and coach Gregg Popovich. The venerable coach has gone so far as to mark Duncan as "DND-OLD" and to keep the big three from even boarding the plane for San Antonio's April 9th game in Utah on the second night of a back-to-back.
The Spurs are playing for a championship this regular season, and their regular season success should terrify the rest of the league.
To state the obvious: teams play their best players as often as possible. LeBron James gets 37 minutes per game; Joel Anthony gets 21.
But teams have benches and rotations for a reason. Brian Scalabrine exists because Derrick Rose and Kevin Garnett can only play so many minutes before breaking down. Coach Popovich is fully aware of the age of his team: three key rotation players (Duncan, Ginobili, Matt Bonner) are age 31 or older, and a fourth, Parker, is in his 11th season as an NBA player.
As such, it shouldn't surprise us that Popovich's top three players have played by far the least relative to other playoff teams:
Only the Knicks, Bulls and Nuggets are close. Derrick Rose (included in the Bulls' trio) has played just 37 games. The Knicks are now without Amar'e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, moving Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert into their would-be big three. Danilo Gallinari has only recently returned from a thumb injury for Denver.
Every other team has played their top players in at least 62% of possible minutes, even including injuries. The Spurs? Just 47%, almost ten percentage points below the injury-riddled Bulls and Nuggets.
And even with such players as Danny Green, Richard Jefferson, Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson sapping these minutes, the Spurs are percentage points ahead of the Thunder—who get as much as they can out of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden—for the top seed in the West. They have a nearly identical efficiency differential as well.
Against the Lakers, we saw what the Spurs are capable in games when Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are unleashed, as they played a combined 92 out of a possible 144 minutes (64%) and enjoyed a wire-to-wire blowout. It was the 11th game in which the trio played at least 60% of the team's minutes.
Tuesday marked the 10th win in such games, and they're outscoring opponents by 7.5 points per game and 9.2 per 100 possessions. Both marks would be the best in the Western Conference and are nearly identical to the Bulls' league-leading marks overall.
The Spurs team with the big three in heavy tow is the one we'll be seeing in the playoffs. In last year's shocking first-round exit against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Spurs increased the minutes of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker by at least four per game from their regular season norms. We can probably expect the same at a minimum this season.
Judging by the usage of playoff teams last season, the Spurs big three will probably see an even bigger increase in their burn. No single playoff team last year used their top three players in fewer than two-thirds of their team's minutes:
Here's another look, including the proportion of regular season minutes for the top three as well (New York and Denver excluded due to the massive roster turnover resulting from the Carmelo Anthony trade):
The teams with the biggest and third biggest differences—Orlando and San Antonio—lost in the first round, but to teams with the second and fourth biggest, respectively, in Atlanta and Memphis, each of which went on to win two games against the top seeds in the next round.
Meanwhile, the bottom three in terms of increase had unremarkable playoff runs: the Blazers bowed out in six to the Mavericks; the Lakers were swept by the Mavericks in a series they were widely expected to win; and the 76ers managed just one win against the Heat.
But this year's Spurs squad is unique. Not only are the Spurs a playoff quality team with their three top players playing less than half the possible minutes, they're arguably the best team in their conference and among the top four teams in the league.
Last season, Parker, Ginobili and Duncan each played at least 35 minutes per game in the playoffs. There's little reason to believe they won't be there again this year.
Wednesday night, the Spurs dropped another opponent despite Parker and Ginobili combining for 42 minutes and Duncan not even touching the floor. This time, it was the Kings in Sacramento—a .500 team at home entering the game—by 25 points. Stephen Jackson—the same one with the 9.7 PER; the same one who couldn't find playing time on the Bucks—led the Spurs in minutes.
Just wait until they start trying.