The Spurs Are Ready To Get A Little Nasty

It was expected the Western Conference Finals would be a classic battle, so it was a surprise to see the San Antonio Spurs down nine heading into the fourth quarter of Game 1 at home.

During a TV timeout late in the game, sideline microphones picked up Gregg Popovich imploring his team to, “get a little nasty.”

After his veteran team had coughed the ball up 15 times in the first half – they were third in the NBA this season and only averaged 13.5 turnovers – something seemed to click for the San Antonio Spurs in the fourth quarter. They opened the quarter on a 33-18 run and finished with a 39-27 advantage.

If that’s not nasty, I don’t know what is.

But here’s the thing: the Spurs have been nasty all season. It’s not like they flipped the switch all of a sudden during the fourth quarter of the Conference Finals. They had the best record in the Western Conference, they are currently in the midst of a 19-game winning streak, Tony Parker was an MVP candidate and Tim Duncan has found the fountain of youth in the playoffs.

Still, fans and a large contingent of the media continue to sleep on the Spurs. Why? Because they aren’t flashy. They don’t have players popping up on TMZ for indiscretions off of the court and they aren’t seen yelling on ESPN or Sportsnet after dunks.

Heck, they don’t even have players showing up in commercials hawking shoes or soft drinks.

All they do is win.

“I heard we were dead,” Duncan recently joked with a reporter.

Not dead, but “old” like your coach joked when he submitted the official reason why you were sitting out a game back in March. And, for the current twenty-something generation, old means boring.

Still, despite being on his death bed, Duncan is dragging his “old” body up and down the court while averaging 17.4 points and 9.2 rebounds in the playoffs.

The other old guy on the roster, Manu Ginobili, is rocking a solar panel on the back of his head while taking the NBA’s current sixth man of the year, James Harden, to school.

Twitter exploded during Game 1 with jokes that Harden should lend Ginobili some hair from his beard for his bald spot, but the sneaky Euro got the last laugh as he exploded for 26 points in only 34 minutes off the bench.

Plus, Ginobili was a key part of San Antonio’s surge in the fourth quarter that put the dagger into the hearts of the Thunder.

Harden, meanwhile, had a brutal game as he went 7-17 from the field.

Parker, not to be ignored, is averaging 19.0 points and 7.0 assists. His biggest contribution has been on the defensive end as he has frustrated Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook.

The heart of the Spurs, Popovich, is putting his counterpart, Scott Brooks to shame. During a pivotal stretch to start the fourth quarter, San Antonio went on a 18-5 run, yet Brooks failed to call a single timeout during that run.

Popovich was in rare form calling out his players to be more nasty, getting timeouts at key moments and maximizing matchups on the court.

It’s a shame that fans don’t appreciate the greatness of this Spurs franchise over the past decade But, as Popovich begged his team to do, the Spurs are willing to get a little nasty and gritty on the court if it helps them win a Championship. Who cares if it’s not flashy? Not the Spurs, because they are content with the shine that comes from winning, not from the media glare.

And, along the way, the Spurs are showing that even old guys can get nasty once in awhile.

A Coaches Admiration For Popovich

I hope you had a chance to see the San Antonio Spurs close out the LA Clippers this weekend in Los Angeles.

I know, I know, if you are on the East coast, you could not stay up to finish it out, the game started at 10:30 and you had work the next day. But, if you missed it, you missed a clinic, once again.

Starting with their strongest link, Tim Duncan, who has shown everyone that he’s not about to hang up his grips just yet San Antonio goes ten deep.

Give the Clippers some credit though; they have added another strong NBA team to the city of Los Angeles.

As for the Spurs, they just keep on rolling winning their 18th straight game (eight straight in the playoffs). I came to a conclusion last night; Gregg Popovich has to be talked about (if he’s not already) when discussing the best NBA coaches of all-time.

I really do not like talking about the best this or the best that, but Pop’s name needs to be thrown in the conversation.

Taking over as coach of the Spurs in 1996, Popovich is the longest tenured coach in the NBA. On his watch, the Spurs have won four championships as head coach of the Spurs. Only four coaches in the history of the game have collected more rings (Phil Jackson 11, Red Auerbach 9, John Kundla 5, and Pat Riley with 5). Jackson is the only coach out of the four to have a higher regular season winning percentage than Pop. There’s a chance Pop might win his fifth ring in a couple of weeks.

Pop has a formula; a philosophy that players buy into. If you don’t like it, you can hit the exit. Matter of fact, you may not even make it into camp.

The Spurs have been known to do their homework on players due to their great staff behind the scenes. He has a special talent on how to develop role players; to get guys to play for the team, not-self.

Someone who knows about the Spurs organization once told me, “Pop is the best at dealing with people.”

As for his X’s and O’s, just watch a Spurs game; keep an eye on what they do out of a timeout (that’s a sign of a very good coach). I watched them execute a splendid play for a basket out of a timeout last night at a crucial part of the game. They do it often.

Pop has a system, it’s a process and he holds people accountable to both. His past success provides credibility and most of all, his best players allow for all of it to happen.

I recall reading a quote from Pop a few years ago that sums it all up: “I don’t want to come to practice every day and have to coach jerks.”

To conclude, the Spurs are 29-2 in their last 31 games. And not one expert picked them to win it all?

The Year Of The Coach

Last fall, once the lockout was settled and the shortened, 66-game schedule was set into motion, much analysis hinged on the nature of the schedule and its effects. Would young teams hold a distinct edge? How prevalent would injuries become? What damage would the dreaded back-to-back-to-back sets do?

While the slate was certainly grueling and claimed its fair share of casualties, it also brought out the best among the NBA’s coaching fraternity, rewarding those who best managed their roster through the trials and tribulations of 66 games in 120 days.

It’s no surprise, then, that Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs and Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls reigned atop their respective Western and Eastern Conferences at season’s end and earned No. 1 seeds in the postseason. Popovich, who earned his second career Red Auerbach Trophy on Tuesday as the 2011-12 Coach of the Year, masterfully controlled Tim Duncan’s minutes and incorporated a slew of no-name role players, while Thibodeau, the previous Auerbach recipient, kept his Bulls committed even as Derrick Rose suffered through an injury-marred campaign.

Pops helped his aging star stay fresh and survive the grind by keeping Duncan to a career-low 28.2 minutes per game while resting him through eight contests (including being tagged with a “DNP-Old” in March). In his place, DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner and, most recently, Boris Diaw filled the void up front. While Popovich was managing Duncan’s minutes, he also eased the burden on Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli by successfully incorporating under-rated assets like Danny Green, Gary Neal, James Anderson and Kawhi Leonard. Through two postseason games vs. Utah, only Parker has averaged more than 30 minutes, while nine other Spurs have played 13.5 or more minutes per game.

In Chicago, Thibodeau has been facing the music after leaving Rose in the game in the final minutes of a Game 1 blowout over Philly, a decision which led to the reigning MVP’s season-ending ACL tear. However, the second-year coach also oversaw a 50-win Bulls team that led the league in both opposing points per game (88.17), as well as their own rebounds per game (46.67).  That being said, the club’s first Rose-less playoff effort was underwhelming and ‘Thibs’ will be critical in helping Chicago bounce back as the series shifts to Philadelphia.

Beyond the Conference leaders, coaches have wielded – and will continue to wield – significant influence in the play of their club. The Spurs are up against the Jazz and head coach Tyrone Corbin, who has quickly transitioned past Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan on the strength of a front line that includes Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and building blocks Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, as well as the play of a re-energized Devin Harris. The Bulls, meanwhile, are deadlocked through two games at 1-1, with Doug Collins serving as the opposing Sixers’ emotional impetus. Since taking over from Eddie Jordan after Philly suffered through a 27-win campaign, Collins has led the club to consecutive playoff appearances.

Popovich and Thibodeau finished 1-2 in Coach of the Year voting, but it wasn’t for a lack of other worthy candidates. Frank Vogel engineered a balanced, cohesive (albeit star-less) group of Pacers to their best record since 2004-05. Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy navigated his team through the Dwight Howard saga (of which he was centrally involved) and has kept them believing in themselves without Howard in tow. Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and OKC’s Scotty Brooks continued to massage the egos of their respective superstar talents and helped boost them by incorporating an improved group of supporting players. Even Rick Carlisle, who didn’t exactly get his Dallas Mavericks off to the type of title defense they had hoped for, helped establish a team-oriented defensive identity that (somewhat) made up for the loss of newly-named Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler.

In a season that challenged coaches to balance their rotations and navigate their key players through a demanding grind, it’s fitting that some of the league’s best withstood the challenges. If you’re looking to examine the best coaching minds in the NBA, you could do worse than starting with Popovich and Thibodeau.