Improved bench has Spurs ready to ride in watered-down West

It's tough to write an obituary for a team that wins 61 games during the NBA's regular season but that didn't stop a number of my peers from declaring the aging San Antonio Spurs dead on arrival after they were exposed by a younger, far more athletic Memphis bunch in last season's Western Conference quarterfinals.

In fact, many believed the window had officially slammed shut on the Tim Duncan-era in the River City, at least when it comes to championships.

Fast forward to Wednesday night and the Spurs looked anything but done. Tony Parker was brilliant, exploding for 37 points to go along with eight assists as San Antonio held off the much-improved 76ers, 100-90.

"Tony Parker was amazing tonight to say the least," Sixers coach Doug Collins said after watching the French star torch his team. "He had that ball on a string, and we were just trying to do our best to keep him corralled, make him shoot jump shots and we just never could get him under control."

Duncan added a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds for San Antonio but it was Gregg Popovich's bench that really shined. Gary Neal made all four of his three-pointers and netted 18 points, while the emerging Tiago Splitter tortured Philadelphia inside, shooting 7-for-10 for 15 points.

In fact the Spurs' bench, lightly regarded before the season started, more than held it's own against the vaunted Sixers reserves that include two Sixth Men of the Year candidates -- Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young.

"Our history here is really bad so it's a huge win for us, Parker said. "We are going in the right direction. The young guys are improving. They are playing better on the road. They are playing with confidence."

It wasn't like the Spurs were going to turn into a lottery team overnight as long as Duncan and his long-time supporting cast of Parker and Manu Ginobili were still around. But, a lockout-shortened 66-game season short on off-days and practice time didn't figure to be the friend of any veteran group with significant mileage on its legs.

That said, here we are in the second week of February and San Antonio is at the top of the Southwest Division and among the top seeds in the conference after winning six straight and starting their annual Rodeo Road Trip at 2-0. And it's all been done without Ginobili, who has been gone for a little over a month with a broken left hand.

It's not often that losing an All-Star can help in the long run but Ginobili's absence along with Duncan's age has almost forced Popovich to integrate new blood into his lineup, most notably Splitter, Neal and rookie Kawhi Leonard.

"We felt [building a bench was necessary] with our guys getting a little older," Popovich said "We have shown confidence in them from the get-go, throw them out on the floor and let them see what it's like, and let them make mistakes. Get on them when necessary and love them when necessary."

Splitter, the former Euroleague star, has seen his numbers increase in every statistical category from his pedestrian rookie season. Through 27 games, the Brazilian is averaging 9.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, while shooting a team-best 62.3 percent from the field.

"He didn't develop anything with us," Popovich said when asked about Splitter's improvement. "He's always had it, he just didn't play last year. He's been doing what you saw tonight for I don't know, the last seven or eight years. That's who his is. He's just a blue-collar kind of guy that a coach loves. Fundamentally sound and balanced. He doesn't have a lot of skills but his basketball IQ is off the charts."

Leonard wasn't much in Philly on Wednesday but has more often that not provided the type of athleticism that has been lacking at times in San Antonio. Neal, meanwhile, helps space the floor with a sweet stroke.

"This is a world championship team and organization," Collins said. "Pop is a great coach. They string you out. They get you in pick-and-roll and put three- point shooters on the floor. Neal came in and really hurt us tonight."

The Spurs have now officially weathered the storm minus Ginobili, compiling a 15-7 mark without the Argentine star as he prepares to return to the lineup, perhaps this weekend in New Jersey.

"Before you know it, we will get Manu back and we can start rolling," Parker said.

The team's current trip could have been the type of roadblock to derail the season considering how the Spurs started away from the AT&T Center. But, after getting out of the gates at 0-5 as the visitor, San Antonio has now won five of seven away from South Texas.

Before the trip ends the Spurs will have visited nine different cities and traveled nearly 8,000 miles. When they arrive back in the Alamo City on Feb. 29, we should all know if the club is still a serious contender in what is shaping up as a watered-down West.

My guess is the Spurs have improved their depth enough to have one last rodeo in them come playoff time.

"Tony and Tim have been great in this stretch," Popovich said. "The bench has surprised us all. Those guys are playing really well for us and that's what is allowing us opportunities to win."