DALLAS — Standing at a corner of the court inside the American Airlines Center, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich paused a tick to ponder the question Tuesday of how his squad remains competitive in the face of losing MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard.
“I think a team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich said. “Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody still wants to whip you.”
Certainly, the Dallas Mavericks harbored such desires. Yet Popovich walked out of American Airlines Center as the third coach in NBA history, per Elias Sports Bureau, to capture 500 road wins by virtue of San Antonio’s 97-91 triumph over the Mavericks.
Popovich joins a distinguished list that includes Pat Riley (520 road wins) and Don Nelson (517).
The Spurs snared three of Popovich’s road wins on the season without what the coach calls the team’s best scorer and defender (Leonard) or its top pick-and-roll player and leader (Tony Parker).
“It doesn’t do much good to do the ‘poor me’ thing or keep wondering when he’s gonna be back, or what are we gonna do?” Popovich said when asked about Leonard. “It’s we have to play now, other people have to pick up those minutes, and we have to figure out who to go to; win in a different way. You just move on as you might suspect.”
San Antonio made the announcement that Leonard would miss time with quadriceps tendinopathy on Sept. 30, yet the star forward hasn’t been able to participate in any of the team’s games this season. Popovich provided an update on Leonard last week, saying he was “just coming along more slowly” than expected in rehabilitation.
The Spurs won’t allow Leonard to return to action until he completes a step-by-step progression from individual work to 2-on-2 drills, 3-on-3 and 5-on-5 before full clearance for practice. Leonard has participated in some steps of the progression, but hasn’t yet been able to practice with the team. The Spurs refuse to place a timeline on Leonard’s recovery due in part to the nature of quadriceps tendinopathy, as every player’s body responds differently to treatment.
Leonard hasn’t taken the court for San Antonio since Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, a series he missed with an ankle injury.
Parker, meanwhile, is close to returning to action since recovering from offseason surgery to repair a ruptured left quadriceps tendon. Parker took on two rehabilitation assignments with the team’s G League affiliate and is shooting for a return in late November, although it’s more likely Popovich sits him until December.
“We haven’t even all practiced together yet,” forward Rudy Gay told ESPN.com. “It’s going to be fun to see what it will look like when we’re all together.”
In the meantime, the Spurs continue to conduct business as if Leonard doesn’t exist, as Popovich mentioned. San Antonio replaced Leonard in the starting lineup with fourth-year pro Kyle Anderson, who entered Tuesday averaging career highs in points (8.3), rebounds (6.5), assists (2.5) and blocks (.92), having started all 14 games this season.
In the backcourt, the Spurs replaced Parker by utilizing a combination of veteran sharpshooter Patty Mills (six starts), who torched the Mavericks for 13 points in the first half on 5-of-7 shooting before finishing the game with 19 points, and second-year man Dejounte Murray (seven starts), who has contributed 10 points or more on six occasions and finished with 10-plus rebounds twice.
Veteran power forward LaMarcus Aldridge also kicked up his game a notch and leads the team in points, rebounds and minutes per game. He finished as the Spurs’ top scorer in 11 outings, including Tuesday’s victory in which he notched his second 30-point game of the season (32 points), after producing just one such game all of last season.
Popovich calls Aldridge “our most consistent player,” adding, “he’s been a leader for us, helping all the other guys understand the system — all the new guys, the young guys.”
Pau Gasol, meanwhile, entered Tuesday’s game leading the Spurs in assists (3.8) and blocks (1.46) and recorded four assists against the Mavericks to go with 10 rebounds.
“I think they’ve done a great job. They’ve kept us above water,” Popovich said. “It’s something that every team deals with from time to time during a season. But I think Dejounte, Bryn and Brandon have been wonderful in that regard. Kyle didn’t get a whole lot of minutes his first few years here, and he’s stepped into that starting role with Kawhi out very well. LaMarcus and Pau are starting to figure each other out pretty good in Pau’s second year. So it’s gone well. Joffrey [Lauvergne] was playing well before he got hurt.”
The Spurs lost four in a row from Oct. 27 to Nov. 2, and Mills said during that skid the team needed to learn how to play without the security blanket of Leonard finishing games or pulling the Spurs out of jams.
“That was the adjustment we made from the three or four losses that we had previously, which was pleasing to see,” Mills said.
Equally satisfying for San Antonio thus far has been its ability to hold everything together, a testament to the depth of the roster.
“Injuries happen in this league and you want all your guys healthy, but guys have to be ready to play,” Aldridge said. “I think the guys have come in ready. The guys have just been ready to go.”
The Spurs reeled off four consecutive wins to start the season, then had the four-game slide before going on to capture victories in five of their next six outings. San Antonio hits the road again Wednesday to face the Minnesota Timberwolves before finishing off the week Friday at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“It’s a good group. We’ll win a few, lose a few,” Popovich said. “But hopefully we get them all back and can become a pretty good team.”