NEW ORLEANS – Gregg Popovich walked out of the victorious locker room late Monday and into the King of Scotland. His San Antonio Spurs had just punched their ticket to Hollywood, and there was Popovich standing in a tunnel in New Orleans Arena embracing indie film star Forest Whitaker. In addition to collecting fine wine, Popovich counts art-house movies among his interests. He wasn’t going to pass on a chance to meet an Academy Award winner.
“You’re the best,” Popovich gushed as Whitaker stuck out his hand.
Whitaker thanked him. As Popovich turned to leave, one of Whitaker’s acquaintances called out to the Spurs coach.
“I love your work.”
For more than a decade now, Popovich has been content to leave the big-ticket roles to others. Among coaches, he is the critically acclaimed indie actor. He doesn’t do how-to books, commercials or $3,000 suits, yet everyone within his industry knows he ranks as one of the best.
On Monday, Popovich added another hit to his bio, guiding these Spurs through their first Game 7 victory on the road. He changed defenses and changed the pace, and when the Spurs were done, Chris Paul and David West trudged off the court and into vacation, not even stopping to shake their opponents’ hands.
Asked if he felt bad for his good friend, Paul, Parker shook his head. “No,” he said. “Not right now.”
That’s the way it’s gone for Popovich and the Spurs in these playoffs. They’ve taken down a box-office giant in Shaquille O’Neal and erased the Hornets, the league’s feel-good story, one series at a time, caring not whether they make enemies along the way. Now they’re back in the Western Conference finals, ready to take on the NBA’s marquee attraction, the Los Angeles Lakers.
Somewhere in New York David Stern is likely cursing to himself. A few years ago, the NBA’s commissioner was asked for his dream championship matchup, and he answered without pause: “Lakers versus Lakers.” With the Lakers and Boston Celtics both enjoying a renaissance this season, Stern is two series victories away from seeing his two most famed franchises return to the league’s biggest stage, and yet Popovich and the Spurs are again standing in the way.
Under Popovich, the Spurs have operated as one of the NBA’s model franchises for more than a decade now, but that counts for only so much with Stern. Larry Brown has told friends that Popovich didn’t get the Olympic coaching job because Stern didn’t like him, and while that’s a stretch this much is true: Few teams rankle the commissioner the way these Spurs do, and it’s not just because they kill TV ratings.
Popovich has long valued his team over his standing in the league. If Tim Duncan doesn’t like the dress code, then Popovich has a problem with it. If the NBA’s czar of discipline, Stu Jackson, warns Bruce Bowen about his feet without first notifying Spurs officials, then Popovich will criticize the league. If the Spurs have too short of a turnaround between playoff series then Popovich won’t hesitate to blow off the mandated media session and eat the fine so his players don’t have to come to the gym on their day off.
Stern realizes the Spurs’ value to the league, but they exhaust him just the same. When two of Popovich’s understudies, Danny Ferry and Sam Presti, left San Antonio to head their own franchises in Cleveland and Seattle, Stern delivered the same message to both: Pop has been doing this too long for me to change him, but I can change you.
The Spurs can live with Popovich the way he is. Few coaches are more empathetic to their players and few have built a stronger sense of community within their team. As for the fire and brimstone?
"He treats everybody the same," Robert Horry said. "If you yell at one guy, you need to be able to yell at everybody on the team. If you treat one guy special, you need to treat everybody special."
Suns GM Steve Kerr saw as much when he played under Popovich. He let his own coach walk this month in part because Mike D'Antoni didn’t prioritize defense the way the Spurs do or hold his young star, Amare Stoudemire, accountable. In his search for a replacement, Kerr recently phoned the Spurs to ask permission to speak with Popovich’s lead assistant, Mike Budenholzer.
With a number of high-profile coaching jobs opening within the past month, Spurs officials jokingly asked Popovich if he wanted to test his own market value. He doesn’t. He won’t leave Duncan, and that’s why this month he quietly signed a contract extension that will keep him coach until the summer of 2012. True to form, he didn’t want any announcement made.
These Spurs have tested Popovich in more ways than some of his previous teams, and that’s why he’s worked every angle in these playoffs. He’s long hated Hack-A-Shaq, but he used it to disrupt the Phoenix Suns in the first round. He rarely mentions the officiating publicly, let alone complain about it, yet he did so after this series’ Game 5 loss.
Then came Monday. Only two weeks ago, the Spurs seemed to have no answer for the younger, faster Hornets. Paul had splintered them for two games, and when the Spurs recovered with two victories of their own only to be routed here again in Game 5, the champs’ reign again seemed destined to end.
The Spurs followed with their typical bounce-back victory, but it was what came next that changed the series. Given three days to plan, Popovich and his staff adjusted. For too long, Popovich thought, the Spurs had been at Paul’s mercy. If the Hornets’ young point guard wasn’t bulling through them on his way to the basket, he was beating them with his playmaking.
So late in Monday’s first quarter, Popovich changed his pick-and-roll defense. Then he changed it again. This would go on for the rest of the game. Every three or four minutes, the Spurs changed. Sometimes they pushed the Hornets’ screen-and-roll. Sometimes they blitzed Paul. Sometimes they double-teamed him as he started to turn the corner.
The Spurs gave Paul one look after another. The theory: If they couldn’t stop Paul, they might as well make him react to them. Paul still finished with 18 points and 14 assists, but this was classic Spurs. Gritty, sometimes ugly, basketball.
Horry, having caught scent of a Game 7, threw in two three-pointers. Michael Finley, despite watching his role diminish as the series progressed, did the same. Kurt Thomas came off the bench to take five offensive rebounds. Fabricio Oberto had what Spurs GM RC Buford called “the greatest four-point game ever,” rotating into the Hornets’ lanes. Manu Ginobili overcame his shaky start by knocking down a trio of three-pointers late in the first half. Tony Parker made, in Popovich’s words, “the shot of the game,” sticking an 18-footer with less than a minute left after the Hornets had closed within three.
“They just had a few guys who each made a couple of back-breaking plays,” West said.
These were battle-tested vets, and they played like it. The Spurs’ newest role player, Ime Udoka, made a couple of three-pointers himself, and finished with eight points, four rebounds and a couple of steals. When the Spurs went looking for a backup wing last summer, Budenholzer pushed the team’s management to sign Udoka. His reason: “He’s a Pop guy.”
Budenholzer saw Udoka as tough-minded and willing to defend, two characteristics Popovich values highly. That’s why Popovich marveled at Paul and the Hornets throughout this series. “I don’t think there’s any doubt,” he said, “their time will come.”
For now, though, the Spurs move on. Never in their three previous efforts to repeat as champions have they advanced this far. Next up are the Lakers and Phil Jackson. Popovich and his staff will have barely a day to prepare.
David Stern doesn’t care. He’s still sweating.