Spurs ‘Next Three’ ushering in next era in San Antonio

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It’s like that morning at the breakfast table when someone first notices that little brother’s shirt sleeves don’t reach all the way down to his wrists. Then you take a peek to find a pair of ankles showing at the bottom of his jeans.

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When did this happen?

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Healthy growth occurs quietly and steadily, until one day it is casting a long shadow.

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It’s not merely that the Spurs take a 29-6 record that equals the best start in franchise history into Monday’s game at Milwaukee (8 ET, League Pass) that is noteworthy. It is how they got there over the weekend with a 121-103 thumping of the Rockets and all it was missing.

That is, shots put into the basket by , and .

Rockets vs. Spurs

scores 24 points and grabs nine rebounds to lead the Spurs past the visiting Rockets, 121-103.

For 14 seasons now, they have been the foundation of the NBA’s most successful team, leading a rotating cast of supplementary characters to four championships and not a single season with fewer than 50 wins. Back on Nov. 1, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili passed Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale as the winningest trio ever in NBA history.

But on Saturday against a Houston team that had roughed them up on Christmas night, history of a completely different sort was made by the Spurs. It was the first time in 1,360 games of his Hall of Fame career that Duncan was held scoreless. Neither did Parker (two points) make a single field goal. When Ginobili took a feed from Patty Mills and dropped in a driving layup with 1:32 left in the third quarter, it was the first bucket of the game made by anybody named Tim, Tony or Manu. And it put the Spurs up by 19.

This is exactly the picture general manager R.C. Buford began drawing up three or four years ago as he first thought ahead to the inevitable end of an era. The idea was not to ride the Big Three off a cliff then pick up the pieces to start over, but make the steady transition to a new era while never taking the team out of contention for a championship.

Big Three, meet the Next Three: , LaMarcus Aldridge and , head of the Spurs’ free agent class of 2015.

Aldridge, the prize of last summer when the Spurs signed him to a four-year, $80 million deal, shot 10-for-16 against the Rockets for 24 points. Green, who had struggled all season after re-signing for four years and $45 million, broke out of a shooting slump by making 6-for-8 on 3-pointers. Leonard, whose $94 million deal signed in July is the largest contract ever given to one Spurs player, kept motoring along in what is a season worthy of MVP consideration with 22 points.

“We had a lot of guys stepping up and playing great,” Ginobili said. “When we have so many players performing well, it makes everything easy.”

It also charts the intended course for the Spurs, who still insist they’re working things out, to be at their peak by the time the playoffs roll around and the games really matter.

While it’s always easy to think of the Big Three as the default position of the Spurs, coach Gregg Popovich continues to keep steadily cutting back on their minutes. The 39-year-old Duncan, 38-year-old Ginobili and 33-year-old Parker are all averaging the fewest minutes per game of their 14 seasons together, and not coincidentally their fewest points.

Yet the Spurs have been able to stay within arm’s length of the sizzling defending champion Warriors with their share-ball offense that is rated third-best in the league and the NBA’s No. 1 rated defense. In fact, their astounding net rating of 14.5 is better than the Warriors.

“Obviously, it’s a different year and a different team,” Green said. “We’re all still getting used to each other. We wanted it to happen right after preseason but sometimes it takes a little longer than we like it to. But now we’re starting to build a rhythm. Guys are still feeling each other out and finding the spots where they’re getting looks nike wholesale china and feeling confident and shooting them.”

More than just shoot the ball, the Next Three have been playing the rest of the game as well. Popovich has admitted to being a bit surprised that Aldridge has fit most comfortably into the lineup with his effort at the defensive end. Leonard is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and the kind of lock-down vise that can put the squeeze on any player at any position the court. However, that was Green who sank his teeth into Houston’s James Harden, limiting the potent scorer to a single second half point that came on a technical free throw.

Aldridge is 30, Green 28 and Leonard 24. This was the plan, a transition so seamless you could hardly be blamed if you didn’t notice. And it allows Duncan, Parker and Ginobili to lay in the weeds for the playoffs.

“They were the Spurs like the Spurs always play,” Houston’s Corey Brewer said.

Big Three, Next Three. Growth.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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