In Pop Duncan trusts
I’m going to start with a few facts and then go from there. Gregg Popovich sat Tim Duncan for the last 4:28 of the San Antonio Spurs’ 94-82 Game 6 win over the Golden State Warriors. The Spurs had a two point lead when Duncan sat down and won the game by 12. During the regular season, Duncan was seventh in MVP voting and second team All-Defense.
I think we as a audience usually give coaches too much credit and blame in sports. Few are the geniuses we make them out to be, nor are they at fault for every losing team. For the most part the NBA is a player’s league; it’s hard to win if you don’t have the talent.
“Players make shots or make plays that determine the outcome of games at this point, really,” Coach Pop said before the Spurs’ Game 5 win over the Warriors.
All that being said, what Gregg Popovich did at the end of Game 6, when the result was anything but assured, was remarkable. And how Duncan reacted to the situation was just as amazing. Popovich sat Duncan, who looked like he was dragging in the second half, at a time when most coaches wouldn’t have the job security or the stones to do it.
I’ve been more nervous about how people would react to jokes I send out over Twitter.
“I just made that choice,” Pop said after the game with regards to if there was anything physically wrong with the Fundamental, indicating that the decision was based solely on how Duncan was playing.
And Duncan accepted it, trusting that Pop’s decision was what was best for the team. I can’t imagine Duncan was happy with it, he’s so competitive that I’m sure he wanted to be out there, and was likely angry he wasn’t. But not liking a decision is a totally different matter than not accepting it. Duncan accepted it, and the Spurs were better for it.
As clichéd as it is to say, the only player-coach relationship in sports I can think of that is strong enough outside San Antonio to pull of a similar situation is Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in New England. Few players know their coaches well enough and trust their judgements to the degree that Duncan does with Pop. And as much as Pop deflects all the success he’s had over the years and credit it all to Duncan, even fewer coaches are able to make the decision he made on Thursday night
What Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan pulled off in Game 6 may be even more incredible than San Antonio’s Game 1 comeback.
The Spurs outscored the Warriors 17-7 over that Duncan-less stretch, holding Golden State to 2-of-10 shooting and outrebounding them 6-2.
The Spurs went small, employing Tiago Splitter at center and Kawhi Leonard as the smallball power forward, with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green as the guards. Parker (13 points on 3-of-16 shooting, eight assists), who couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn through three-and-a-half quarters, played off the ball down the stretch and let Ginobili handle the ball.
The result was that despite a poor shooting night himself (1-of-6 en route to five points), Ginobili made plays for his teammates, finding Parker for two corner 3s and Leonard for another. Leonard finished with 16 points and a game-high 10 rebounds, continuing to make plays on and off the ball for San Antonio.
Meanwhile, Splitter held down the fort inside in his best minutes of the series. It helped that Andrew Bogut was unavailable in the fourth quarter due to his ankle injury, but Splitter was solid inside. Tiago also did a good job running the pick-and-roll with Ginobili, something we’re not treated to often enough these days. The last two seasons had seen the pair develop an impressive chemistry, but Splitter’s move to the starting lineup this year had limited the minutes that partnership would have.
With Ginobili the primary ball handler down the stretch and Splitter the only big man in the game, the Spurs partied like it was 2011-12 on offense. The result was the hard rolls to the basket by Splitter that helped open up space on the perimeter for the San Antonio shooters.
And it was all possible thanks to one player’s ability to keep his ego in check, today and forever, and one coach’s confidence in his decision-making and his star player’s mental makeup. Gregg Popovich made a decision to bench his Hall of Fame player for the better of the team and that living legend accepted it. As a reward for their faith in each other, the Spurs are on their way to the Western Conference Finals again.
Play-by-play data courtesy of NBA.com/Stats