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Spurs 110, Suns 106: April 25, 2012
The Spurs’ Patty Mills (8) drives against the Suns’ Steve Nash (13) during the first half Wednesday, April 25, 2012, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York) (AP)
The Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard (2) dunks against the Suns during the first half Wednesday, April 25, 2012, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York) (AP)
The Spurs’ DeJuan Blair (45) has his shot blocked by the Suns’ Marcin Gortat (4) during the first half Wednesday, April 25, 2012, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York) (AP)
The Suns’ Shannon Brown, left, looks to pass as the Spurs’ Derrick Byars defends during the second half Wednesday, April 25, 2012, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York) (AP)
The Suns’ Steve Nash scores against the Spurs during the second half Wednesday, April 25, 2012, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York) (AP)
The Suns’ Steve Nash, right, shoots over the Spurs’ Danny Green during the first half Wednesday, April 25, 2012, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York) (AP)
The Suns’ Steve Nash (13) leaves the court for the final time of the 2011-2012 season during the second half against the Spurs on Wednesday, April 25, 2012, in Phoenix. This could be Nash’s final game for the Suns. The two-time MVP and eight-time All-Star will become a free agent this summer and is seeking a three-year deal. (AP Photo/Matt York) (AP)
The Suns’ Steve Nash leaves the court after Wednesday’s game against the Spurs in Phoenix. This could be Nash’s final game for the Suns. The two-time MVP and eight-time All-Star will become a free agent this summer and is seeking a three-year deal. (AP Photo/Matt York) (AP)
Phoenix Suns’ Steve Nash points to a teammate after scoring against the Spurs during the second half Wednesday, April 25, 2012, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York) (AP)
By Jeff McDonald
PHOENIX — The Spurs were taking no chances Wednesday night.
Not with the top seed in the Western Conference already locked up. Not with a relatively meaningless back-to-back against Phoenix and Golden State looming to close down the season.
Forget letting Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker on the floor for the penultimate game of the regular season in Phoenix. After lunchtime, Gregg Popovich made sure none his Big Three were even in the state.
Following a spirited 90-minute morning shootaround at the U.S Airways Center masquerading as a full-scale practice, Popovich put his top three scorers on a plane home to await the start of the playoffs, leaving it to a skeleton crew to extend the Spurs’ winning streak to nine games with a 110-106 victory over the Suns.
“There’s no reason for them to play,” coach Gregg Popovich said in the morning before he, too, hopped a plane for South Texas.
Popovich will also skip the final two games of the regular season, which concludes tonight at Golden State, for what the team termed “personal reasons.”
He had personal reasons for sending Duncan, Parker and Ginobili home, as well. As in, personally he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he let the Spurs squander another prime playoff opportunity with a late-season injury.
It was little more than a year ago, on the same floor, that Ginobili went down with a fractured elbow in a season-ending loss to the Suns, setting the stage for a first-round playoff loss to Memphis.
With similarly low stakes left this season — the top-seeded Spurs were locked in to a first-round matchup with Utah before tipoff — Popovich was determined to avoid the same fate.
Forget the chase for the NBA’s top overall record, for which the 49-16 Spurs remain tied with Chicago. Forget the pursuit of a 13th consecutive 50-win season, which remains remarkably in play even in a lockout truncated year.
“I opt for health,” Popovich said. “Our health’s more important than our final record.”
And so, Popovich left longtime assistant Mike Budenholzer to guide a roster that must have had the executives at ESPN reaching for the arsenic. Patrick Mills started at point guard for Parker. DeJuan Blair returned to the starting lineup for Duncan. James Anderson took many of Ginobili’s minutes.
To help fill out the bench, the Spurs recalled rookie point guard Cory Joseph from the Austin Toros — plucking him from the midst of the Development League Finals — and signed swingman Derrick Byars, of the D-League’s Bakersfield Jam.
Afforded more minutes and more opportunity that usual, Mills (27 points) and Tiago Splitter (26) each notched career scoring highs.
Mills, a backup point guard who arrived earlier this month after spending most of the season in China, said he was at first surprised to learn how short-handed the Spurs would be for the rest of the regular season.
“As crazy as it sounds, it makes a lot of sense,” said Mills, who took 23 shots, making nine. “For the main guys to go back and recharge their batteries for the playoffs, that gives other guys an opportunity.”
Joseph might have missed out on a chance to claim a D-League championship, but he wouldn’t trade that for the experience of Wednesday.
The former University of Texas standout scored five of his nine points in the fourth quarter, including a key 3-pointer, to cap a whirlwind 24 hours that began the night before in the locker room at the Cedar Park Center outside of Austin.
Joseph was commiserating with the rest of the Toros on a Game 1 that got away against the Los Angeles D-Fenders when the call came in, summoning him to Phoenix.
By 8 a.m. Wednesday, he was on a flight bound for Sky Harbor Airport. Upon landing, he hustled over to the U.S. Airways Center, arriving with his carryon bag in town.
“It was a wild day,” Joseph said. “You do what you’ve got to do, right?”
That’s the question Phoenix’s Steve Nash will spend an uneasy offseason asking himself.
Having lost a night earlier in Utah, eliminating themselves from playoff contention, the Suns were playing out the string in what might have been Nash’s last game with them. The 38-year-old two-time MVP becomes a free agent in July, and the home crowd treated Wednesday as his final hurrah.
Nash had eight points and seven assists, leaving the floor to a rock-show caliber roar in the fourth quarter. After the game, he talked in the past tense, like a player who knew his time with the team was done.
“It’s authentic, the relationship I thought we had,” Nash said. “It meant a lot for me to play in a city like this for as long as I have and to feel important to the fans and community. I just feel like a really lucky guy.”
While Nash contemplates moving on, the Spurs — his longtime foil and rival — are gearing up for another postseason run.
With his Big Three in line for at least four days off, Popovich took the extraordinary step of flying them out to Phoenix for what amounted to a practice. Instead of a light shootaround typical for a game day, Popovich put his full roster through what he called “a full-blown practice,” complete with a scrimmage.
“We worked harder than probably we would in a game,” Popovich said.
When it was over, the Spurs’ three most important players were hustled to the airport and placed on a plane, where nothing could hurt them but a rogue beverage cart.
If Popovich could have, he would have shipped his Big Three in a giant padded crate, filled with packing peanuts and sign stamped on top: “Do Not Open Until the Playoffs.”