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Ball Don't Lie

Gregg Popovich hates all this winning, ‘scared to death’ as Spurs advance

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

The San Antonio Spurs eliminated the Utah Jazz on Monday night, finishing off a four-game sweep that pushed them one step closer to making Al Jefferson look like a prophet. As Kelly Dwyer wrote after the game, the Spurs are on a hellacious run right now, having won 14 straight games stretching back to April 12, and 25 of their last 27 going back to March 21, with 17 of those wins coming by double figures. It actually goes even deeper, as SB Nation's Mike Prada wrote Tuesday morning — they're 28-4 since March 9 and a whopping 30-5 since March 1.

It's not like they've just been knocking over tomato cans, either; while all five San Antonio losses in the last two-plus months have come against playoff teams (one each to the Jazz, Nuggets, Clippers, Mavericks and Lakers), so have 15 of the wins (one each on the Knicks, Magic, Thunder, Mavs, 76ers, Pacers, Celtics and Grizzlies, two over the Lakers and, of course, five against the Jazz). That run of form, plus the go-go offensive system and 10-deep crew that have fueled it, have some thinking that the steady-as-she-goes Spurs are the team to beat in this chaotic postseason. And that idea really, really bothers Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, as you can see in his response to the final question of his postgame press conference in the clip above.

"How confident are you going into the next round and, potentially, winning a championship?" the reporter asked.

"As usual, scared to death," Popovich replied.

The newly minted Coach of the Year is probably engaging in a little bit of one-downsmanship as he pumps up the competition, but he's also not wrong to pump the brakes on the victory parade. To this point, all San Antonio has done is comfortably dispatch a huge underdog in pretty much exactly the fashion we all expected. The heavy lifting lies ahead, especially if the Clippers can finish out their first-round series with the Grizzlies. Tony Parker was sensational in his domination of the opening set, but getting pressured by Eric Bledsoe's a very different experience than being "defended" by Jamaal Tinsley, and I think we can all agree that Devin Harris damn sure ain't Chris Paul.

Steel sharpens steel, and with the Spurs facing a potential matchup against as savvy a samurai as the league has to offer, all these easy wins have been making Popovich antsy. That's why Monday's late-game stumble, which saw the Jazz rip off a 19-2 run to get within four points with 21 seconds left on the clock before the Spurs pulled away, was actually something of a godsend for Pop, according to Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News:

[...] what happened Monday, when the Spurs coughed and sputtered toward a sweep, gave him hope. Popovich can treat the latest win like a loss, and he will take the Spurs into the film room to see a few things.

Or, as Stephen Jackson put it with a smile, "Pop's got something to teach on."

[...] coaches aren't programmed to see the best in a situation, and Popovich doesn't now. Asked after the game if getting some time off will help, he said flatly, "I don't think it will."

The Spurs might not play again for a week. That's a lot of time to worry.

And that worry isn't baseless. As KD noted in Behind the Box Score, the particular brand of ball these Spurs play — so predicated on ball and player movement, on having the feel for when to make the extra pass or attack an opening in Pop's motion sets — is heavily dependent on rhythm and execution, two frequent casualties of long postseason layoffs.

Forcing a team this in sync, this in step, to take its foot off the gas and just jog in place while the rest of the bracket settles itself could wreck what the Spurs have spent the last two-plus months (and, really, the last three years of remaking the team after their '08-'09 first-round exit to the Mavs) developing. It's a thought that justifiably scares Popovich, prompting him to continue to teach and tweak, to refine and revamp, to study and scout. And as The Basketball Jones' Tas Melas noted Monday night, that's a thought that should scare whoever winds up drawing San Antonio next.

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