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Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs has already established himself as one of the top coaches in NBA history. In addition to his five championships and 15 straight 50-win seasons, Popovich has guided the team through several periods of player and core turnover (with Tim Duncan as the one constant) over his tenure. There is virtually nothing in his career that suggests a deficiency in how he has led the Spurs, and the only arguments against him involve mentioning such names as Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson. Pop has risen to the top of his profession, even if he hasn't always seemed to enjoy it along the way.
Put simply, Gregg Popovich does not need to hit various career milestones to cement his legacy. Nevertheless, it's pretty cool and rare any time a coach hits 1,000 career wins, a number reached by only eight men in NBA history before Monday night. With a 95-93 win over the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Popovich became the ninth coach to hit that mark.
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The historic victory required a bit of work. The Spurs trailed 79-65 after a woeful third quarter and only got back into the game with a run over the first stretch of the final period. With the game tied at 93-93 and 21 seconds on the clock (with roughly three seconds between shot and game clocks), Popovich allowed Kawhi Leonard to create San Antonio's final shot out of a timeout. The reigning NBA Finals MVP took his time, dribbled to the basket and found Marco Belinelli for an open jumper. Take a look:
Former Spur George Hill, the player traded for Leonard in a draft-night deal in June 2011, missed a straight-on three-pointer at the buzzer to ensure the milestone win. Naturally, Popovich looked thrilled to join the likes of former boss Don Nelson and Pat Riley in this exclusive club:
His post-game quotes were typically self-effacing, with most of the credit for the accomplishment going to the luck of coaching very good players:
As noted by the NBA.com stats team on Twitter, Popovich is the third-fastest to 1000 wins:
It remains to be seen where Popovich ends up on the all-time list of winningest head coaches. He is 335 victories behind Nelson for the most ever, which would seem to require at least five more seasons of coaching at a minimum. He also turned 66 years old in late January and may opt to leave the bench for a life of wine-making and glaring at anyone who dares to ask him a question in the middle of his grocery shopping.
Historical context aside, Monday's winning basket points to several of Popovich's strengths as a coach. Throughout his career, Pop has proven adept at turning players who had disappointed with other teams into quality role players as Spurs. Before joining San Antonio in the 2013 offseason, Belinelli had struggled with four teams in six seasons and looked to be headed for his final NBA opportunity. He has since become a very strong bench scorer with improving skills in other areas.
It was also striking that Popovich called on Leonard to facilitate the final shot given that longtime star Tony Parker was also on the floor. Handing that responsibility to Leonard is largely a function of the player's incredible improvement over the past few seasons, but it also shows how Popovich has not been afraid to eschew conventional wisdom and pursue new avenues to success as the Spurs' strengths and weaknesses change over time. Despite earning a reputation for using players like mindless automatons back when Duncan and David Robinson served as the centerpieces of the San Antonio offense, Popovich has always played to his team's strengths instead of forcing guys into preconceived roles. He empowered Leonard and Belinelli to make these plays themselves.
Duncan was fittingly the team's top performer on the night with 15 points, eight rebounds, and five blocks in 30 minutes. Monday's game was the second of nine in San Antonio's annual Rodeo Road Trip, typically one of the most successful periods of the season for the franchise.
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