San Antonio Spurs: For The Love Of The Juice Unit

Dec 5, 2015; San Antonio, TX, USA; Boston Celtics center Kelly Olynyk (41) shoots over San Antonio Spurs point guard Patty Mills (8) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 5, 2015; San Antonio, TX, USA; Boston Celtics center Kelly Olynyk (41) shoots over San Antonio Spurs point guard Patty Mills (8) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

The second unit of the San Antonio Spurs has become the team’s lifeline.

It’s been a common sight since Oct. 28, 2015: The starting five gets off to a slow start. The opposing team scores — sometimes repeatedly in a row — and runs up a double-digit lead.

One too many turnovers happens, or the defense lapses and allows an easy bucket for the other team, head coach Gregg Popovich calls a timeout, then substitutions are made.

Then comes the “Juice Unit” to make things right.

The second unit of the Spurs ha been a lifesaver this season. Led by Manu Ginobili and including Patty Mills, Boris Diaw, Jonathon Simmons and David West, these players come off the bench and immediately infuse life into a stagnant game.

“The second unit, we’re the ‘Juice Unit’,”  explains Simmons on how he coined the moniker for this group. “We’re supposed to bring the juice.”

“The second unit, we’re the ‘Juice Unit’. We’re supposed to bring the juice.” — San Antonio Spurs guard Jonathon Simmons

As usual, this prowess was on display in the much-anticipated matchup against the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night. The Spurs’ starting five was lacking on offense, allowing the Cavs to open up a 12-4 lead before the first timeout was called by an irritated Popovich. There was almost a palpable sigh of relief when the Juice Unit was activated: the fans knew that they were about to make something happen, because they needed to make something happen. And they did.

The Juice Unit accounted for 33 of the team’s 99 points in the win against the Cavs and, with Kyle Anderson‘s two points, caused the Spurs bench to outscore the Cavs’ bench 35-12.

West scored 13 points, Ginobili had 10, and Mills, Simmons and Diaw were in single digits (six, two, and two points, respectively) as they helped the slow-adjusting Spurs get a 99-95 win over the formidable Cavs, snapping their eight-game winning streak while extending their own to 10 games and an improved record of 35-6.

The win also helped preserve their undefeated regular season home streak at 23-0. Fun fact: the Cavs were the last team to beat the Spurs during the regular season on Mar. 12, 2015.

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The starting unit of Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan and Danny Green didn’t do as well as a whole; Parker (24 points, four rebounds, two assists, one block, three steals) and Leonard (20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, two blocks, one steal ) carried the starters through what initially looked like an end to the franchise’s best start ever and the second-best start in the Western Conference.

If it weren’t for an improved team defensive effort in the second half and the spark plug second unit bringing the thunder, the rain and yes: the juice, the results could have easily gone the other way.

It wasn’t always like this. In seasons past, it had been the starting unit that has come out and made a statement, providing the team with a lead — no matter how slim — that got the team pumped and usually carried it to a win.

Even during the injury-riddled beginning of the 2014-15 season, the starting unit (then comprised of Parker, Ginobili, Leonard, Duncan, and Tiago Splitter, who was traded to the Atlanta Hawks in the offseason) made an effort to, in the oft-repeated words of retired Spur and current Fox Sports Southeast color commentator Sean Elliott, “set the table so everyone can feast.”

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Indeed, the crafty Duncan almost single-handedly kept the team in playoff contention while his teammates healed. Nowadays, if the Spurs had to rely solely on the starting five at the beginning of a game, they’d all go to bed hungry. The Spurs’ bench, which has long been one of its most potent assets, has taken on even more importance this season.

This has become the harsh reality of the new and improved Spurs as they make a run at a sixth championship. The current starters can’t be counted on to set the proper tone as they have in the past; against the Cavs, Duncan, Leonard, and Green combined for seven points in the first quarter.

Part of it is due to age and he resultant decline in ability (Duncan is 39, Parker 33).  Part of it is due to assimilation (Aldridge is one of the new kids on the block). Part of it is due to a cold streak (Green, the team’s 3-and-D specialist, has seen his three falter and has been forced to rely more on his D while Leonard’s normally reliable shot has been off the past two games).

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Scoring inroads have fallen to the Juice Unit as they are now the go-to group to start a run upon which their teammates can capitalize. According to HoopsStats this unit, in addition to the rest of the bench, now boasts the third-best record in the league for points contributed per game (40.4).

Long live the Juice Unit: freshly squeezed and available at a Spurs game near you.