Popovich: No practices hurts

MILWAUKEE — Ask Spurs coach Gregg Popovich if he recalls the last time he was able to schedule a full practice, and it’s like asking him to calculate the square root of 1,247,211 in his head.

He racks his brain for a second before giving up.

“I do not,” Popovich said.

One of the many side effects of the post-lockout NBA schedule is a nearly complete lack of practice time. With games scheduled almost every day, coaches tend to choose rest over a morning in the practice gym.

The Spurs have not had a full practice session since the start of the regular season. Popovich might not be able to squeeze one in until after a Feb. 8 game at Philadelphia, after which the Spurs finally enjoy back-to-back days without a game for the first time this season.

“All year long, all of us are going to have to figure out ways to review things and go over things — the mental rehearsal part — without practices,” Popovich said. “It ends up being shootaround time and film time. It’s difficult for everyone.”

The Spurs remained in Oklahoma City after Sunday’s game, but did not practice. Tonight’s game at Milwaukee will be their fifth in seven days.

For a team like the Spurs, who feature only two new rotation players — rookie forward Kawhi Leonard and backup point guard T.J. Ford — the lack of practice time isn’t as big of a problem.

For teams with new coaches and new players, no time to practice can be especially detrimental. It’s a sure reason quality of play seems down across the league.

“I think the whole product will be better in about another month or so,” Popovich said. “You see a lot of games now where you want to cover your eyes.”

Spurs players certainly aren’t bemoaning the lack of practice time, even if they understand their head coach might feel differently.

“Every player probably prefers to play the game,” guard Gary Neal said. “If you ask Coach Pop, I’m sure he’d rather have time to practice.”

Neal shaping up: When Popovich inserted Neal to play point guard late in Sunday’s lopsided loss at Oklahoma City, it was with a distinct purpose in mind. It beat having Neal run conditioning sprints after the game.

“We put him back in so he could get his butt in shape,” Popovich said.

Neal missed all but the first day of training camp after having an appendectomy and has played in just four games since his return. He started the past three in place of injured All-Star Manu Ginobili.

After logging a season-high 28 minutes against the Thunder, and scoring a season-high 18 points, Neal said he’s not quite back to normal, conditioning-wise.

“If I compare it to last year, there were times I was able to pressure the ball full-court and still make shots,” Neal said. “I don’t think I’m there yet.”

Popovich would like Neal, a first-team All-Rookie selection last season, to play a larger role with Ginobili out for at least the next five weeks with a broken hand.

“With Manu out, he’s got to get in shape for us,” Popovich said. “It will take some time.”

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