‘Spoon’ fed: Undrafted rookie leads Spurs past Houston

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By Jeff McDonald

HOUSTON – When Spurs coach Gregg Popovich first informed Wesley Witherspoon he’d be in the starting lineup for Sunday afternoon’s preseason matinee at Houston, the rookie from Memphis tried to stay stone-faced.

All the while, his stomach was performing a gymnastics routine straight out of the Summer Olympics.

“Somersaults, cartwheels and everything else,” Witherspoon said. “The emotions were definitely flying.”

One day, Witherspoon will be able to tell his grandchildren he not only started next to Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, but he also outscored them.

With Popovich opting to give his top two small forwards — Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson — the day off, Witherspoon pumped in a team-high 17 points in the Spurs’ 116-107 victory at the Toyota Center.

Gifted with his first extended playing time of the preseason, the 22-year-old undrafted free agent buried 6 of 9 shots — including a pair of 3-pointers — and hauled in four rebounds.

“The veteran guys tell us young guys to stay ready,” Witherspoon said. “You never know when your number’s going to be called. This was one of those cases.”

Aside from Witherspoon, Popovich used his regular starting lineup Sunday.

Duncan and Parker lasted a quarter, staking the Spurs to a 27-16 lead, before their coach gave them the rest of the afternoon off, too.

Returning from a two-game respite while dealing with a sore right heel, Manu Ginobili — the third leg of the Spurs’ Big Three — contributed 11 points and three assists off the bench. More importantly, he logged nearly 18 minutes of playing time and came out no worse for wear.

The Spurs — who also got 16 points out of DeJuan Blair and 15 from formerly slumping shooting guard Danny Green — led nearly wire to wire in handing the Rockets their first preseason loss.

“The good thing is, we really moved the ball well and got a lot of people involved,” Ginobili said. “Defensively, we’ve got a lot to do to get where we want to.”

The new-look Rockets, whose offseason makeover included the acquisition of point guard Jeremy Lin, big man Omer Asik and reserve guard Carlos Delfino, spent much of the first half in disarray.

Lin, last season’s Cinderella storyline, finished 1 of 10 with one assist in little more than 25 minutes. The Spurs held Houston to 43.2 percent shooting, and squeezed 21 points from 15 Rockets turnovers.

As an example of how he hopes the rebuilt Rockets will one day learn to play, Houston coach Kevin McHale pointed to the visitors in silver and black.

“The Spurs are a smart, disciplined team,” McHale said. “They know what they want to give you, and they know what they want to take away. We didn’t take what they gave us, and we attacked what they wanted to take away. That’s the worst-case scenario.”

Even as the Spurs improved to 3-1 in the preseason, Ginobili said the team remains a work in progress.

“We’ve just been working together for 10 days,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”

If Sunday was the end for Witherspoon, he at least went out in style.

The Spurs have only one roster spot available, and are well-stocked at Witherspoon’s position. Most likely, cut day is coming soon for Witherspoon. Deep down, he probably knows it.

But for one stunning Sunday afternoon in Houston, he was a rookie starting among NBA All-Stars. And if you squinted just right, it was difficult to tell which was which.

“I grew up watching those guys, watched them win championships,” Witherspoon said. “To be on the same team as them is a blessing.”

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

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