San Antonio Spurs end rodeo trip with a big win

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CLEVELAND — Veins in his forearms and neck bulging, Patty Mills flexed like a bodybuilder to emphasize his point.

Even though the San Antonio Spurs had just closed out the most brutal rodeo road trip in team history with a 110-94 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, the club actually benefited as much this season as it had in the previous 15 years from its annual trek, as it continues to learn how to succeed without star forward Kawhi Leonard.

“It hasn’t been all that bad the last four games,” Mills said. “Yes, it resulted in losses. But there’s been a lot of positives that have been taken out. I think that all just comes down to the passion that we were playing with tonight. Everyone, 1 through 15, and even guys on the bench, behind the bench, the feeling throughout the group was the passion that we needed to want to be the last team standing. It’s hard to do game in and game out, but I thought that was the real difference-maker from my point of view; just the passion that we showed to want to win this game.”

The Spurs finished the rodeo road trip with a 2-4 record, halting a four-game skid with a masterful, complete, full team performance which featured seven double-figure scorers, led by LaMarcus Aldridge (27 points), and their usual starting shooting guard Danny Green (22 points) coming off the bench.

Rookie point guard Dejounte Murray finished with 13 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks. The only other Spur in franchise history to produce that identical line in a single game is David Robinson. Murray is now the only point guard in the NBA this season to nab four steals and three blocks in a single game.

“It’s always a great feeling when you get a win, no matter who you play,” Murray said. “We lost four in a row. To get back on track with a win is always a good thing, especially heading back into home. At the end of the day, we’re all pros. When you come into the league, you have to have that mentality of next man up. Anything can happen on any given night. We’ve always got to approach the game where if our opportunity is called, we have to take advantage. I think guys have been stepping up. Even the games we lost, dudes were stepping up. But it’s always great to get a win.”

San Antonio’s four-game losing streak marked the first time since February 2015 it had four consecutive losses, all on the road. Had the Spurs fallen at Cleveland, they would have dropped five in a row on one road trip for the first time since March 1992.

“It’s definitely a good feeling we’re making steps in the right direction, that progress,” Green said. “That’s why we had different lineup changes, so we had a group they feel they can trust and have experience down the stretch.”

The Spurs held out veteran guard Manu Ginobili, as he suffered a bruised sternum in Friday’s loss at Denver, and tipped off with Aldridge, Kyle Anderson, Pau Gasol, Murray and Mills as the starters. Aldridge had missed two games during the rodeo trip just before the All-Star break to receive treatment on a sore knee. Green sat out of Friday’s game in Denver after coming down with food poisoning from room service spaghetti, while veteran Rudy Gay finally made his return against the Nuggets after missing the previous 23 games due to heel bursitis.

In all, the Spurs have missed 148 games due to injury (168 total). That has led to exhaustive tinkering with the lineups and rotations.

Since Leonard’s NBA debut in 2011, the Spurs own a winning percentage of .764 (311-96) in the games he has played, compared to a .600 percentage (78-52) in the games he has missed, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. Leonard’s personal winning percentage is the highest in NBA history (minimum 150 games).

So with Leonard out of commission, the Spurs wanted someone capable of generating more offense and tempo with the starting group. So they elected to replace Green in the starting lineup with Mills, which might actually help to balance out both the No. 1 group and the second unit.

Green has come off the bench just twice since 2013.

Popovich declined to divulge specifics or whether the move is permanent.

“We had a discussion and decided to do that,” Popovich joked. “As soon as we meet again as coaches, I’ll make sure I give you a call and let you know. And I’ll tell you why we made the decision, what factors went into it, how many glasses of wine I had.”

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In his return from food poisoning, Danny Green shares how his mindset changed coming off the bench instead of his usual starting position. Green says that for a reason as to why he came off the bench, you’ll have to talk to coach.

Before the Spurs concluded their 16th rodeo trip at 2-4 in Cleveland, the worst record the team had posted on a rodeo trip was 4-5 during the 2014-15 season. Still, Popovich, who uses the team’s annual trip to build camaraderie, believes he’s accomplishing that goal over the 6,546 miles the Spurs have traveled.

Popovich mentioned on Friday that “it doesn’t do any good to be wishing” that someone will “save the day” for the Spurs, which is why the team is conducting business on the floor as if Leonard won’t return this season.

“You can’t help but come together a little bit when you’re on the road for that amount of time,” Popovich said.

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LaMarcus Aldridge says that without a doubt he and the entire team want Kawhi Leonard to return but know that they have to concentrate on the moment.

Now the Spurs need to figure out how to hold things together over these past 22 games, as they remain virtually tied with Minnesota for third in the Western Conference; San Antonio (36-25, .590) is mere percentage points better than Minnesota (37-26, .587). San Antonio has lost six of its past 10 outings, but return home Feb. 28 to play three games at the AT&T Center, before hitting the road for a brutal three-game stretch at Golden State, Oklahoma City and, finally, Houston.

“We definitely don’t ever want to lose four in a row,” Aldridge said. “Tonight, it was a good team that has a new group out there that is playing more confidently, and playing more freely. So to come in here tonight after having a tough loss the other night, it’s good for us. Hopefully, it will carry over for us. You’ve got to be in the moment. We all want Kawhi back. We know that with him, we go to the next level. But we have to kind of take what’s here. And this is the group that we have right now, and guys have to step up and keep producing. As of now, we’ve got to make it happen with these guys here.”

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