Who to trust in the clutch? Popovich as the answer to the Heat-les

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A little more than a week ago, with the Miami Heat coming off an embarrassing loss to the same San Antonio Spurs they will face at home tonight, the Heat faced a last second situation against the Chicago Bulls with predictable results.

Gathered around a television set in the media room in the AT&T Center, beat reporters and internet columnists jokingly began a pool during the Miami Heat’s final timeout—how many seconds would LeBron James dribble away from the top of the key before launching an ill-advised shot. Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News won, the Heat lost.

The Heat have been able to turn thing around in the week since, but tonight still presents a measuring stick of sorts. Because as Tim Varner pointed out earlier, if the Spurs excel at one thing the Heat desperately wish for, it’s in execution.

For all the debate about clutch, execution, and who to trust in the final two minutes, the answer really isn’t about a player (no matter how many hours he shoots after losses). For all the talent the Heat boast, what they lack is what can separate the Spurs from the rest of the NBA: a closer. Because with the game on the line is there really anyone in the NBA you can trust more than Gregg Popovich?

If LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh are some combination of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, then Popovich as George Gershwin, stands as their equal.

These San Antonio Spurs have talent to be sure, but in a seven-game series against one of the elite teams in the NBA, or in a game like tonight against the Heat, they will not be fielding the all-important best player on the floor. Unless you take into account their head coach.

Over the course of the season the Spurs have piled up an impressive number of wins in often less-than-spectacular fashion. If analysts have found trouble buying into this team it’s because the measure of their success has been hard to quantify or define.

When defining keys to success, NBA analysts often like to point to key statistical markers. When Lamar Odom scores X number of points or Andrew Bynum blocks x number of shots…when the Boston Celtics hold Team X under 100 points…

Just pick an arbitrary statistic, find a cutoff at which a team record trends greater than average when accomplished, and less than stellar when not.

But at 54-12 you can pull almost any statistical key out of the Spurs season you wish; it’s still going to produce a great record. There is no specific indicator of success. Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker have each taken turns turning in terrible games; the team has found itself giving up over 100 points on good percentages, and the role players have been held quiet. And yet, the Spurs still win. A lot.

If there is one constant, it’s in their defeats. If you want to win against the Spurs the best course of action is to beat the hell out of them early enough to the point that Popovich loses interest. Otherwise, as the Rockets and Kings can attest to: if the Spurs get into a fourth quarter they are going to out execute you.

NBA Playbook is a fantastic site, and Sebastian Pruiti does as good a job as anyone at the TrueHoop Network, but at times it can come off as Gregg Popovich’s greatest hits. Now, the Spurs do not hit every shot or make every proper read (as was the case in Boston when Ginobili missed an open McDyess cutting to the rim), but the Spurs are going to get a look, a better look, than what another team isolating their star player would.

With the Spurs leaning less and less on Tim Duncan, Popovich has slowly stepped forward as the franchise. And the lastest Popovich model for success has little to do with a specific formula.

Much like DeJuan Blair or George Hill, who have no defined position or skill set, this team simply knows how to play.

In the past I’ve talked about elite players merely needing functional athleticism to get the job done. That is, they need to have enough athletic ability to gain an advantage slight enough that the rest of their brilliance can shine through.

In this roster, Popovich has functional athleticism. The roster is good enough, finally, to carry out his schemes. And though LeBron James might be far and away the most talented player on the floor tonight, should the game find itself tight in the closing minutes, who do you trust more: LeBron or Popovich?

  • drew

    and this is why popovich deserves coach of the year. sorry thibodeau.

    great article

  • NYC

    Whoa whoa whoa. TWO music-to-sports analogies in one day? It’s too much!

  • NYC

    @ Jesse

    Gershwin, eh? Why Gershwin? Why not, say, Mozart? Is it because Gershwin plays jazz?

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Jesse Blanchard

    Jazz would be correct.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Jesse Blanchard

    And Varner is much better at musical references than I am.

  • Greyberger

    It’s strange that Pop will be one half of a Coach of the Year Dilemma, and that he’ll represent the offensive option in that popularity contest. Thibodeau stands for all things defense in the choice between the two.

  • http://www.bpifanconnect.com Alix Babaie

    I know Thibs has put Chicago on the map in a big way but Pops has to be COY….team with the best record, when NOBODY expected it trumps defensive coach working with a ton of lottery talent and high priced FAs!

  • Tim in Surrey

    Nice, guys. I love the music references. And hey, why not? I like to use basketball references when I teach music. (Although now that I’m in England it usually just draws blank stares. This is, after all, a basketball wasteland by European standards…)

    About CoY, this may be heresy but I really think Nate McMillan deserves it. Look at what he lost due to injuries this year and yet that is STILL a very good team. Pop deserves CoD, though (which can stand for either “Coach of the Decade” or “Cash on Delivery”, take your choice).

  • SA_Ray

    “If you want to win against the Spurs the best course of action is to beat the hell out of them early enough to the point that Popovich loses interest. ”
    I almost did a spit take when I read this. It’s funny, because it’s true.

  • DorieStreet

    I have to remember this line:

    “If you want to win against the Spurs the best course of action is to beat the hell out of them early enough to the point that POPOVICH loses interest.”

    An addendum: “..or he wants to win the next game more than the current one…”

  • SpurredOn

    Answer: Pop.

    And yes, he deserves COY in a slight nod over Thibs (then Collins, Monty and Nate filling out the top five). Pop’s team was seen as descending while the Chicago team as ascending. The Bulls have a young great player who has yet to reach his peak, and added new key players in the off-season. Pop had to actually put in the coaching during the off-season with a vet player (RJ) and a rookie guard from overseas. He’s also had to change the focal point of the offense, team pace, and manage minutes more than any other coach. The added boost over Thibs is that Pop coaches in the West, and the toughest division in the NBA.

  • superflat

    more like george martin, the fifth beatle (even if the spurs really only have a big three).

  • JustinFL

    Great article! It’s been interesting watching these Spurs this year. They’ve been such an anomaly from years past. Alot of people have freaked out over the fact we barely win some of these games unlike before when our defense would suffocate.
    All of this has been apart of this year’s playing the same system in a faster more efficient way. This style makes us more than 1 dimensional. We all know we can dump it into Timmy like back in the day and watch him go to work or make the pass. My personal feeling is he’s going to prove something in the postseason. Don’t be surprised if he lights it up a couple times. The argument I’ve seen post about this team being too offensive and it can’t win a championship is weak to me because none of those offensive teams they mention have never been to the promise land. Oh yea, and they didn’t have Coach Pop.

  • cheyenne harty

    So the Heat are like rock stars, and the Spurs are like musicals and show tunes? Good article, anyway.

  • Dr. Love

    Popovich is Duke Ellington, not George Gershwin.

  • http://espn.com spur original fan

    I grew up in San Antonio and remember when the Dallas Chapparalls moved to town. Wow we finally had something to root for. I was pissed when Pop was the general manager and fired Bob Hill ( if i recall). I thought that son of a gun is taking on to my. Well shall I say he sure has PROVED me wrong. I think POP should win the COY as stated before we were washed up, Has Beens, old boring and slow.
    Now look at us, we just kick ass (except the beating by LA). Are team is dynamic, they can execute to percision. We still own the fourth quarter in most games and it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s defense or offensive. This is a real team, not alot of I in Spurs. That my friends is do to Pop and not settling for less. We may not win it all but we sure are good and fun to watch.

  • mg20td21

    Popovich is Duke Ellington, not George Gershwin.

    agreed. although, maybe he is more like miles davis, the way pop has changed his style to suit the team.

  • Kintaro

    Gosh guys, with all this Heat coverage, howbout for today we rename the site 48minutesofheat?

    Just kidding. I’m anxious to see the Heat heap large amounts of generic praise on our team, our coach, our organization, etc.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Len

    The Heat are beatin up on our beloved Spurs.

    I am concerned.

  • The Truth Fairy

    The Heat have leveled up.

    The Spurs haven’t grown over the course of the season. They came in with a different style (because our rotation is about shooting, not defense), and it worked really, really well (see Bonner, Neal, Hill and RJ’s three point numbers/the W-L record). But now everyone knows what the Spurs do really well (pass) and they’ve kind’ve figured out how to stop it, and the Spurs haven’t evolved at all.

    The Lakers now have a working Bynum, OKC has Perkins, Portland has Wallace, and the Grizzlies have a bench full of young guys.

    Tiago was supposed to be our next part, since we thought he’d be polished, and he’s tall, but it’s obvious that he won’t play in the playoffs. Given the useful parts we do have, how can Pop arrange them differently to play a different game? Can Manu play point off the bench? Can we sign ‘Sheed? RJ at shooting guard?

  • DBAGuy

    Spurs 5th may just not be!!!

  • DorieStreet

    @ The Truth Fairy

    Our defense- as individuals -is not good enough for our leading scorer & 2nd best driver to the rim to come off the bench now, especially with his proposed replacement- Hill – regressing every week (to me) since his injury.

    15 games left—the FO ain’t signing up anyone now. This is how they’ll roll come April.

    Besides not having all of the Spurs be stone-cold in shooting in the same game (the whole game through), the team needs to play better individual defense–to much sagging to help when players need to hustle and move better like the Heat guys do. Chalmers, Miller, etc. –they are that much better than our guys individually?

  • Titletown99030507d

    Neither.