Five quick takes: Why deep bench should have Spurs surging for playoffs

As he watched Gregg Popovich alternate his players Wednesday night almost like a grandmaster would play a chess board, Spurs television analyst Sean Elliott couldn’t keep from raving about the Spurs’ deep bench.

Popovich used Wednesday’s 117-112 victory almost like a laboratory, utilizing 11 players in the first quarter alone.

Elliott raved at one point that the Spurs’ bench could be better than the team’s starters. And while that bit of hyperbole might be a little exaggerated, deadline trades and free agent-signings have placed this team in a better position heading into the latter part of the season and the playoffs than in recent memory.

Spurs captain Tim Duncan agreed he’s never had a supporting cast throughout his team like this one.

“This is as deep as I’ve ever had a team here,” Duncan told reporters after the Spurs’ victory in Sacramento. “We’re using everybody possible. And that’s been great, especially in the condensed season.”

For the first time since the trade deadline, Popovich had a complete roster at his disposal. And he got contributions from throughout his bench, which outscored Sacramento 55-20 in Wednesday’s game.

Manu Ginobili came off the bench to score a team-high 20 points in his first back-to-back game since recovering from a hip flexor. Tiago Splitter produced seven points and six rebounds, all coming in a productive stint in the first quarter. Gary Neal shot his way out of a recent slump by hitting all four shots in the second half for 13 points after missing his first four shots. Stephen Jackson scored six points in 16 minutes in the second half when he received most of the playing time. And Boris Diaw didn’t score, but he grabbed four rebounds,dished off two assists and was a pest defensively.

“I really trust that unit,” Ginobili told FOX Sports Southwest. “We’re going to hustle and we’re versatile, we’re long and we can switch a lot. I think whenever we get used to playing with each other, we have a very special unit.”

That development could be the best part of this late-season transformation. The Spurs’ depth should make them more ready to withstand injuries like Ginobili’s late broken arm that helped derail the team’s playoff chances last season. If a starter goes down with an injury this season, the Spurs are better able to overcome the absence.

“I’m really excited about how we’re playing now,” Ginobili said. “I think we’re going to make things happen.”

The transformation will continue over the final 17 games of the regular season as the Spurs prepare for the playoffs. It should have them more ready than in any season since their last championship in 2007.

Here’s a look at a few other takes from a game where the Spurs’ offensive production bailed them out in the second half for a tough victory against the pesky Kings.

  • Patty Mills gave a strong demonstration of what he can bring coming off the bench as a backup to Tony Parker. Mills hit a deep corner three and was determined to push the pace when he was out there. He’ll be a useful part of the rotation very soon.
  • DeMarcus Cousins has the kind of talent that had Duncan raving after the young Sacramento center challenged him with 25 points and 11 rebounds. But as far as complaining and scowling, it looks that Cousins has taken the honor of the NBA’s surliest big man that has been vacant since Rasheed Wallace retired.
  • The early development of Kawhi Leonard has been greater than the Spurs could have ever imagined during his rookie season. And his 18-point, nine-rebound effort Wednesday might have been one of his best games of the season. He was disruptive on defense, more comfortable and controlled on fast breaks and confident shooting when he had his opportunities. And after he gets a chance to work with the team this summer and a full training camp, he could get scary good very quickly.
  • We run a weekly survey of power rankings from the NBA writers around the nation each week to gauge what the national perception of the Spurs is. I’m curious to see what they have to say after five victories in the last six nights, including the first back-to-back-to-back sweep for the team in 34 years. The Spurs don’t have the NBA’s best record at this point of the season. But they are playing the best basketball in the league. It will be interesting to see if that is reflected in anybody’s rankings early next week.

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