Manu, Pop ponder loss to Rockets

By Mike Monroe

The long NBA lockout, which began in midsummer and stretched deep into the fall, allowed Manu Ginobili to spend quality time in Argentina, where he is one of the most popular personalities in his native land.

For the civic-minded Spurs guard, this interlude included a lot of personal appearances on behalf of many causes, including promoting a new book authored by mathematics professor Adrián Paenza.

Ginobili explained to his countrymen that he is hooked on math, so it seemed natural Thursday night when he turned to the most logical of disciplines to explain how the Spurs laid an egg in a 105-85 loss to the Rockets in Houston in their third game of the season.

Taking note of how surprised he had been at the excellence the Spurs had displayed in their first two games, both victories over talented teams, the two-time All-Star said a subpar performance probably should have been expected.

“My way of thinking now is that this is a typical case of regression to the mean,” he said. “We played an extremely good first two games, over the expectations, and today we were below. So it happens.”

Of course, the goal for the Spurs every season is to play far above the mean. They will try to ? get back on a better-than-average track tonight when they play the Utah Jazz at the ATT Center to close out the blink-of-an-eye 2011 portion of the 66-game 2011-12 season.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — no stranger to higher math himself — seemed to agree with Ginobili that Thursday’s performance could be explained by something approaching science.

There was no postgame rant about lack of effort or poor execution. Rather, Popovich also applied an analytical approach to the game, going deep into his bench early and getting some on-the-job training for rookies Kawhi Leonard and Cory Joseph and second-year players Tiago Splitter and James Anderson. He kept team captain Tim Duncan, the team’s oldest player, on the bench throughout the second half.

Popovich regards Splitter and Anderson as virtual rookies because injuries cost them so much court time last season. He considers their early development vital to his team’s ability to cope with the grind of the compressed schedule.

“We’ve got some players that we had last year but weren’t available,” he said. “Tiago Splitter and James Anderson are like two new draft picks coming in, so we’re a deeper team that’s more prepared.”

Splitter admitted he was surprised when Popovich told him to take the court to start the second half in Duncan’s spot.

“Pop changed his mind so he could rest ‘TD’ for the next game,” he said. “I just think, ‘Well, just keep working out there and try to play good.’?”

Popovich said he was encouraged by Splitter’s performance. The Brazilian center logged nearly 25 minutes, scoring 10 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.

“Tiago is a professional,” he said. “Last year he was hurt, so he couldn’t play. He’s been a great competitor and been on a lot of great teams in Europe, just like Luis (Scola) was before he came over.

“Tiago just knows how to play, and he’s the ultimate pro. He plays defense, he rebounds, he runs the floor, he’s unselfish. He’s just a blue-collar guy who works his butt off.”

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