Strong rodeo road trip should propel Spurs down stretch

Tim Duncan, right, Tony Parker and the Spurs closed their annual rodeo road trip with a 7-1 record. They head back to the AT&T Center -- where they hold a 28-0 record -- on Wednesday for the first time since Feb. 6. Russ Isabella/USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan walked out of the Toyota Center in Houston on Saturday having tacked on a couple more milestones to a storied career by becoming the fifth player in NBA history to reach 3,000 blocks, and also moving past Karl Malone in career rebounds.

But for Duncan, the fact the Spurs prevented their bullish annual rodeo road trip from bucking them off course trumped individual accolades, as the club plans to use its latest 19-day stretch of eight games as a springboard toward the postseason.

"That’s the way we wanted the trip to go," Duncan said.

San Antonio crushed the Houston Rockets 104-94 on Saturday to close out the rodeo road trip with a 7-1 record; a mark bettered by just two teams (the 2003 and 2012 teams finished 8-1) since the annual tradition began during the 2002-03 season, when the Spurs moved from the Alamodome to the AT&T Center. Each year, the AT&T Center hosts the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo in February, which forces the Spurs to hit the road for the majority of the month.

"Definitely 7-1, that’s pretty impressive," point guard Tony Parker said. "We just have to keep it going. It’s been a while I think [since] we did that good on the road trip; not even just the wins, but the way we played defensively and stuff like that. Last year was bad. But, you know, we used it as motivation. And I think this year, all those games, we [didn’t] want to leave any games. Last year, there were so many games on the road that we could have won. It cost us for the playoffs. So I think this year, the mindset is very different, and we focused on those games."

The victory at Houston moved San Antonio to 82-35 overall on its annual rodeo road trip. The Spurs head back home to the AT&T Center -- where they hold a 28-0 record -- on Wednesday for the first time since Feb. 6 to host the Detroit Pistons.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he was pleased with the team’s "great effort" on the trip, and believes it accomplished all it set out to since leaving San Antonio on Feb. 9 to start the annual journey. Popovich and the players relish the camaraderie typically built on the trip, which makes the Spurs stronger for the stretch run and the playoffs.

Popovich typically uses the early portion of the schedule to gain a better feel for personnel and lineups. But by the time the rodeo road trip arrives, he’s ready to start capitalizing on what the team does well in order to put together a plan for optimal performance at the end of the regular season and the postseason.

"Camaraderie is always a big thing, especially with new players getting used to each other," Popovich said. "[We] break bread and find out about each other’s families. It helps you want to play together. So that’s usually the big thing. Obviously, you want to improve, and I think we got a little bit better."

The team got a little bit different, too.

Assistant general manager Sean Marks departed during the rodeo road trip to take on a GM position with the Brooklyn Nets, and the Spurs signed Andre Miller from Minnesota, forcing them to waive Ray McCallum to create the necessary roster space. Miller’s former teammate Kevin Martin is also in the mix, as the Spurs have emerged as contenders to sign the veteran guard, should he secure a buyout from the Timberwolves.

ESPN’s Marc Stein reported the Spurs have made the strongest pitch among the playoff contenders vying for Martin’s services. But Martin would need to part ways with the Timberwolves by midnight ET Tuesday in order for the guard to be playoff-eligible for his next team. If the Spurs were able to sign Martin, they would be forced to part ways with another player on the roster.

The team’s recent moves indicate the Spurs aren’t confident in the recovery time frame for guard Manu Ginobili, who is working to return from testicular surgery after collapsing to the floor from a violent collision that involved a Ryan Anderson knee to the groin. Popovich indicated as much Saturday in Houston, saying the veteran is coming along "slowly, but surely."

"[There’s] a little less pain each day," Popovich said. "But [it’s] a slow process. He’s just been able to walk out on to a court and shoot a ball very gingerly and carefully so it doesn’t bounce back at him. That would be bad."

The Spurs need Ginobili’s leadership and ability to score in bunches, not to mention the veteran’s undervalued penchant for establishing the pinpoint timing necessary for the second unit to operate at peak efficiency.

The road trip provided the opportunity for the Spurs to tinker with Ginobili-less lineups, and for the most part, the team was pleased with the results. At the same time, San Antonio isn’t leaving anything to chance, which is why it set its sights on Miller and Martin.

"It was a great trip for us and I think we got better on this trip as a road team and matured a little bit," Duncan said. "Obviously, our lineups are changing a little bit with our guys’ injuries. Just all around, guys stepped up and we kept our focus. All in all, a great trip for us."

Kawhi Leonard can attest. Leonard capped the team’s road trip with a game-high tying 27 points in the win against the Rockets. During the rodeo road trip, Leonard averaged 24.4 points on 55.6 percent shooting.

"We did a good job buying into our concepts, playing together and getting wins," Leonard said. "I think we did a great job of closing the rodeo road trip out, and just being so focused and knowing that we have another three days off if we just put all of our energy into this game. I feel like we’ve still got a way to go. We still want to get better as a unit on both ends of the floor and just be a little bit more consistent."

In his first season as a Spur, LaMarcus Aldridge just completed his first rodeo road trip, but isn’t sure about the notion of whether the team’s performance during its annual sojourn serves as a springboard for the postseason.

"It was a long trip, but I thought guys played well, stayed locked in the whole trip," Aldridge said. "We have to wait and see."