The Spurs have missed the playoffs only once under Popovich, who was the team's general manager when he fired head coach Bob Hill part way through the 1996-97 season to become San Antonio's bench boss. They have won four NBA championships in Popovich's 12 full seasons, and put together the league's second-best record last season before they were bounced in the first round by the Memphis Grizzlies.
And despite preseason concerns that their core of veterans, like the Celtics' cadre of eventual Hall of Famers, had aged beyond its former glory, the Spurs are doing it again.
With point guard Tony Parker having another strong season and Popovich closely monitoring the minutes of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs improved to 13-4 since the All-Star break with Tuesday's win over the Cavaliers. They enter Wednesday's game in Boston as the hottest team in the NBA, winners of eight straight games and nine of their last 10.
"Obviously they've got their big three in Ginobili, Parker, Duncan," Celtics forward Paul Pierce said. "They just seem like they're not going to go away for the last 10, 12 years. They're still a team to be reckoned with. They have one of the best records in the league right now and they're a team nobody's really talking about, but they're always going to be dangerous."
Much of the credit for the Spurs' success goes to Parker, who seems like he has been in the league since its inception but is still only 29 years old. Parker is one of the great point guards of the last 30 years, but his name is often overlooked in the conversation of the league's top floor generals.
Parker is having arguably his best season, averaging 19.3 points (the second-highest scoring average of his career) and a career-high 8.0 assists per game.
But Popovich himself plays no small role in the Spurs' consistency. Few coaches would have the stones or the rope from management to tell a star like Duncan that he will sit on certain nights of back-to-back games. In the words of Pierce, another star in his mid-30s, when asked if he would rest in the final month of the season, "They pay me to play in all the games, so that's my plan. I don't like to take days off."
Popovich apparently has managed to convince Duncan that taking an occasional seat benefits both the player and the team in the long run. Duncan played fewer than eight minutes in the second half against the Cavs as Popovich rested him for Wednesday's game. Duncan's minutes have trended downward in the last seven seasons to 28.5 minutes per game this season, but much like the Celtics' Kevin Garnett, Duncan appeared to be playing his best even as the Spurs entered a stretch of 16 games in 23 days.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers would like to have the luxury of resting players, but he may not have the chance. While the Spurs are entrenched at the No. 2 spot and climbing in the Western Conference, the Celtics are just trying to stay ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers in the Atlantic Division and keep pace with the Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers for a possible top-three seed in the East.
"The advantage they had is, they got off to that great start, so they had a cushion," Rivers said. "We did the exact opposite and we used our cushion up. It would have been great to get off to a start like that, and honestly I thought we would and that's where I was wrong. We didn't come in in great condition."
"Now we're trying to fight to move up the standings, so now it's a little harder," Rivers added.
The Spurs' success this year and in the previous lockout-shortened campaign of 1998-99 has led some to propose that well-run, veteran teams actually are better-served in condensed seasons than young, energetic teams. The Spurs' first championship team was also laden with veterans like David Robinson, Sean Elliot and Avery Johnson around Duncan, then in his second professional season. Young teams may have more juice, but they may burn it out quicker.
Rivers was less inclined to agree that veteran teams handle unorthodox schedules any better than younger teams.
"Veterans have a pace. There's no doubt about that," Rivers said. "They have a rhythm. [We] play at a better pace of late. I don't know if this season helps or not."
No matter the outcome of Wednesday's game, it is unlikely to stop the Spurs' roll. As long as Popovich is in charge and Duncan, Ginobili and Parker are in uniform, the Spurs will maintain their professional, gradual pace, blowing away their competition even if nobody notices.
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