Spurs set for a grueling slate?

By Mike Monroe

After playing his fourth game in as many nights at the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament in Argentina in September, Manu Ginobili, the Spurs guard from Bahia Blanca, Argentina, acknowledged utter exhaustion.

“Can you imagine,” he said, “what Pop would say about having to play back-to-back-to-back-to-back?”

Ginobili and his Spurs teammates probably won’t have to speculate about coach Gregg Popovich’s opinion of back-to-back-to-back games, which will be part of the new schedule for a 2011-12 NBA season scheduled to begin Dec. 25.

Final details of a new, lockout-ending collective bargaining agreement still must be settled by negotiators and approved by both sides, but a new schedule is expected this week. Some details have been released, including the fact each team will play at least one set of three straight games.

Some may play as many as three sets of three in a row. There will be many more sets of back-to-backs.

For a team like the Spurs, with aging veterans among its key players, the grind will be especially difficult. Perennial All-Star and two-time Most Valuable Player Tim Duncan is 35, Ginobili 34. Richard Jefferson and Matt Bonner are 31. Point guard Tony Parker is just 29, but has been playing professionally since he was 15.

Popovich has been limiting Duncan’s and Ginobili’s playing time for several seasons. One expert on Popovich’s approach expects even more vigilance.

Mike Brungardt announced his retirement in July, after 17 seasons as the only strength and conditioning coach in franchise history. He was with Popovich in the 50-game lockout season of 1998-99, when the Spurs played three straight on one occasion and back-to-backs 10 more times.

“It’s going to be a situation where he has to monitor their minutes closely and probably be even more conscious of it,” Brungardt said. “Pop’s really good about sticking to a game plan with minutes for each player, adjusting as he goes. He’s got a great feel for players, always questioning, always staying on top of it. I know he’ll go into the season with a plan for exactly how he wants to approach every scenario.

“You always have to adjust on the fly. Things change. People get hurt. Some games become more important than others. But he will stay with his plan for the most part. He’s as experienced as anyone at dealing with a situation like this. He’s always done well in these types of scenarios.”

The schedule also will mean Matt Herring, who replaced Brungardt, will have to adapt his approach to keeping players at peak strength.

“When you compress that many games into that short a period of time, it’s going to be important not to overtrain guys,” Brungardt said. “I would assume that most teams will probably practice much less than in the past, simply because of the schedule. And even when they do practice, most practices won’t be as intense or as long.”

Brungardt is convinced most Spurs will be in good condition when camp opens. So is former Spur Bruce Bowen, who warns that players who neglected conditioning during the lockout will pay when camps open.

“Once they start playing, there’s going to be a lot of injuries,” said Bowen, 40, now an NBA analyst for ESPN. “I saw it last time. Some guys, especially young guys, just don’t stay in shape. They don’t know what’s about to hit them.”

Most of the Spurs have been diligent about staying in shape, according to Brungardt.

“I know Timmy is in great shape, and Manu and quite a few of the others,” he said.

Duncan has organized local workouts for many of his teammates during the lockout. Participants have included Ginobili, Parker, Tiago Splitter, James Anderson, Gary Neal, Danny Green, Da’Sean Butler and Kawhi Leonard.

“With a guy like him (Duncan) leading the way, those guys will be ahead of the curve,” said Bowen. “When the greatest power forward of all time is out there in the heat working, it’s hard for other guys to slack off.”

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