It’s not uncommon for Gregg Popovich to be outspoken about matters around the NBA, but this season saw his own tactics roundly criticised through March and April as the veteran coach repeatedly rested aging veterans Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker during the closing weeks of the season.
The acquisitions of Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills at and around the trade deadline greatly strengthened San Antonio’s roster, arguably the deepest in the league right now, and gave Popovich even more options in reserve. On one or two occasions, including one at first-round opponents Utah, he was therefore able to rest Duncan, Ginobili and Parker – but thanks to the new arrivals and the hot form of Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter, and the steady play of DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner, the Spurs just kept winning.
Fine him, they said. Choose the games that the stars sit out, if he wants to rest them. But the league office stayed mostly silent – apart from commissioner David Stern admitting that he was no fan of the tactic – and Popovich remained resolute in his cause. “My job is to get this team in the best position possible to win a title,” he pointed out on several occasions. And no amount of pressure from his peers was going to make him change his mind.
Fast-forward to the second weekend of the Playoffs, and with his team firmly in control of their first-round series with the Jazz, Popovich continues unabated. The NBA TV spot “Wired for Sound” caught a conversation between Popovich and Parker in the third quarter of game 2 that went as follows:
Popovich: “If you play the whole quarter, that’ll be 29 minutes [played so far].”
Parker: “Pop, I’m fine! Serious! I’m 29 years old!”
Yet it is undeniable that the four-time champion has worked wonders in coaxing his unfancied squad through its early-season struggles and into a streak of unstoppable form towards the end of the regular season (13-game winning streak since April 12th win vs Memphis) which is rolling into the post-season. Completing a sweep of the hapless Jazz on Monday, as San Antonio almost surely will, gives Popovich a few days to relax and plan for either the Spurs’ desired rematch with the Grizzlies, or a meeting with the Clippers – two teams which pose very different problems for San Antonio.
Last year, Memphis – without Rudy Gay, no less – took full advantage of Ginobili’s injured wrist and the poor play of San Antonio’s bench to will themselves past the #1 seeds for a first ever playoff series victory. Now, fully staffed and with a deeper squad than last season, the Spurs would surely fancy their chances at knocking off the blue-collar Grizzlies.
The Clippers, meanwhile, bring a level of athleticism that is beyond anything that Duncan, in particular, can deal with at this stage of his career. The run-and-gun offense of Vinny Del Negro, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin would require a change in tack from San Antonio, perhaps looking to break away from their new, faster style and return to a more defensive mindset after the fashion of Spurs teams of the mid-2000s.
Either challenger, however, will face a very stern test to get on terms with San Antonio. The Texan giants entered the postseason as the NBA’s form team and that has yet to be altered. Popovich, named Coach of the Year for the second time last Tuesday, is setting his team up for one more “last run” at an NBA title.
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