Ask Gregg Popovich a straight question and the Spurs coach will give you a direct answer. So, Pop, do you have a unique strategy to handle this compacted, 66-game schedule? "No," says Popovich. O.K, well, in the 1999 lockout-shortened season you won a title; can you take anything from that? "No," says Popovich. Er, so how do you explain your surprising 24--10 start? "I can make something up if you want," says Popovich, "but we didn't change anything. We're still doing things the way we always have."
Not exactly. "Don't let him fool you, he has had to get creative," says one scout. Specifically, with the bench. Injuries to Manu Ginóbili and a desire to limit the minutes of 35-year-old Tim Duncan has forced Popovich to extend his bench—the Spurs are one of two teams with 10 players averaging at least 20 minutes per game. And he's not exactly using household names. There is Danny Green, a 2009 second-round pick; Gary Neal, a 27-year-old undrafted free agent; and Kawhi Leonard, the 15th overall pick in the '11 draft. Popovich hasn't just played them, he's empowered them: Last month, with the Spurs trailing Dallas 67--49 in the third quarter, Popovich yanked his starters. When the bench sparked a rally, Popovich kept his subs in the game the entire fourth quarter and overtime of a 101--100 defeat. "Knowing that he trusts you to play in the fourth quarter has given us confidence," says Green. "We're becoming comfortable in every situation."
Running the new rotation is Tony Parker, who has been recast in a lead role. Popovich has emphasized a quicker pace and pushed Parker to be more aggressive; Parker, 29, has responded with what Popovich calls "his most complete season," averaging 19.4 points and a career-best 8.1 assists. Says Popovich, "Offensively, he's doing everything better than he ever was."
Burying the Spurs has become en vogue, like planking or dating a Kardashian. They are a combined 4--2 against Oklahoma City, Dallas and the Clippers and are confident that a healthy Ginóbili—who is expected to return from a strained oblique muscle next week—will give them enough offensive firepower to match up with anyone. "We never go into a season saying, 'We want to win the division' or 'This is the year to get it done, boys,'" says Popovich. "It sounds juvenile, but we just want to get better every day, stay healthy, and when the playoffs come we'll see what happens."
ISSAC BALDIZON/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (GREEN)
CASTOFF CALL Waived by Cleveland two years ago, Green is now one of 10 Spurs averaging 20 minutes a game.