Mike Monroe: Health is more vital than top seed

There’s panic in South Texas.

With key players battling injuries, the Spurs have lost four straight games.

First place in the Western Conference no longer seems certain.

Suddenly sizzling, the Lakers are in hot pursuit, a once-daunting gap narrowing.

Should the Spurs drop into second place in the West, a segment of their fans will blame Gregg Popovich for being too cautious with players nursing aches and pains when Monday’s game against the Trail Blazers arrived.

Second-guessers insist Tony Parker and Antonio McDyess would have guaranteed victory in that game. After all, a lineup that included deep reserves Danny Green, Chris Quinn and Steve Novak nearly pulled out a victory.

This is a fan’s logic and ignores reality.

Would George Hill have been as aggressive at the offensive end had Parker played Monday?

Would McDyess have defended LaMarcus Aldridge more effectively than Tiago Splitter?

Would the full lineup have defended more ferociously than the outfit Popovich had on the court in the third quarter, when Portland scored only nine points?

The more important question: Is one victory in late March worth risking further damage to aggravating injuries that need to heal by mid-April?

Ask Popovich about the importance of the No. 1 seed, and the response never varies: Nobody would turn down home-court advantage, but it’s not as important as being healthy.

History proves this. The Rockets were a No. 6 seed in 1995, when Hakeem Olajuwon missed 10 games and Clyde Drexler joined the team after a Valentine’s Day trade and had to work through some nagging injuries of his own before gaining traction with his new team.

No dyed-in-the-wool Spurs fan has forgotten how little home-court advantage meant in the conference finals, when the Rockets won three times at the Alamodome and eliminated the Spurs in six games.

A No. 1 seed nearly guarantees advancement past the first round, but not always. Since the league adopted a 16-team postseason format, beginning with the 1983-84 playoffs, No. 1 seeds are 51-3 in the first round.

No. 2 seeds have been nearly as successful in the first round. Only five No. 2 seeds have failed to advance.

It’s more important to examine the rate of success for No. 1 seeds in conference finals. The home-court advantage has been important, but hardly vital.

Since the 16-team format was adopted, 16 No. 1 seeds have emerged from 27 Western finals; 16 from 27 Eastern finals.

That’s hardly the sort of empirical evidence that would persuade a coach to throw caution to the wind in pursuit of a 59.3 percent edge.

In their four championship runs, the Spurs twice had the No. 1 seed in the West — in 1999 and 2003. Phoenix was the West’s No. 1 seed in 2005, Dallas in 2007.

A Spurs lead once seen as insurmountable at the top of the West seems precarious with eight games left, their magic number stuck on six.

The biggest problem with the magic number?

The Spurs can’t wave a wand and make the Lakers lose.

Los Angeles is 15-1 since the All-Star break. There is no good reason to believe the Lakers can’t close out the regular season with nine more victories.

To preserve the top seed, the Spurs will have to do the heavy lifting on their own, possibly needing to win six of their final eight.

Isn’t that how Popovich would prefer they get it?


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