If you're anything like me -- and let's hope for your sake you're not -- you let out a visible sigh of relief last Thursday, after a whole summer of wondering if perhaps you were a crazy person whose priorities were all out of whack. Well, here's good news. It turns out you're not an insane obsessive. At least, no more than Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is, and Pop has always struck me as a coach who has kept life in perspective so that his high-profile job wouldn't consume him like it has for some of his contemporaries, such as Pat Riley or Doug Collins.
In an illuminating column by Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express News, Pop admitted that he still thinks about Game 6 of the NBA Finals -- particularly the way the final 30 seconds of regulation went down -- every single day. All that has come after, including the do-or-die Game 7, has been a blur to him.
And when asked if something as aggressive as boxing is a way to release anxiety held over from the 2013 NBA Finals, Popovich doesn't pull punches. "Nothing is a release," he said.
Game 7 is a fog to him. "Was there one?" he asked. Game 6 is another matter.
Though I strongly doubt Pop would ever concede this on or off the record, I believe that subconsciously he understood that Game 6 was, for all intents and purposes, the real Game 7 for the Spurs. They absolutely had to win, especially because they were leading virtually the entire game. No matter what we might think, the fact of the matter is they were underdogs playing the defending champions on the road. As Harvey's article mentions, the Spurs, Pop included, have once again been using boxing workouts with trainer "Jesse" James Leija, so a boxing metaphor would seem appropriate in explaining the plight of the 2012-13 Spurs: You only get one shot to knock out the champ.
Or, I can go all Jason Whitlock on you and use an analogy from The Wire: "When you come at The King, you best not miss."
The Spurs came for LeBron James' head in Game 6. They almost had him. They just missed. In Game 7 he went all Keyser Soze on 'em.
Statistically speaking, winning a road Game 7 in an NBA Finals has been all but impossible. It hasn't been done since 1978, when the Washington Bullets turned the trick against the Seattle Supersonics. I'm not the basketball historian Bill Simmons is, but I'm almost positive the Sonics did not have an all-time great player (and a total alien) like James.
It would've been hard enough to pull off under normal circumstances, like say, if the Spurs lost Game 6 in a straightforward 100-90 loss. But to lose it the way they did, at the very end, with a massive emotional toll? (Remember, Manu Ginobili said after the loss that he was "completely devastated," and that he had to take sleeping pills to get some rest after the game.) To think that would have no effect on the players for Game 7 is to think they're robots. Contrary to the popular wisdom, I don't believe Tim Duncan (or any other Spur) is a robot.
Remember how gracious Pop was in congratulating James and Dwyane Wade immediately after Game 7, seconds after his team officially lost the Finals? Yes, it was classy of him. Hell, I think he even kissed those dudes on the cheek, and he genuinely seemed happy for them. It was nauseating as heck to me and something I couldn't imagine myself doing in a million years. I think the reason he was so magnanimous immediately following that bitter disappointment was that on some level, conscious or subconscious, he realized in the aftermath of Game 6 that, "Dammit, we lost the Finals." Whatever sadness and rage he felt about that he compartmentalized in some dark corner of his brain to ruminate on later when it was confirmed and appropriate.
However certain the outcome was, there was still a game to prepare for, and no matter how badly the odds, both physical and psychological, were stacked against them, stranger things have happened. They were, in the end, a couple of bounces here and there from winning Game 7. Mathematically, they had a much better chance with 50 seconds to in Game 7, down two and with the ball, than the Heat had down five and with the ball and 30 seconds left in Game 6. It was, all things considered, a heroic effort by all involved. (Admittedly I'm only guessing at that since I haven't watched the game yet. I will though, I swear.)
And that effort certainly includes Pop, who went above and beyond to do all he could to help his team recover mentally and physically, to steel themselves for the ultimate test of adversity. Another column from Harvey artfully explained Pop's genius far beyond the rote X's and O's and showed just why the team, particularly the stalwart veterans, unquestionably trust him regardless of what play he calls, who he benches when, or which players he orders to board a plane two days before the rest of the team finishes their road trip.
Enter Popovich, ever trying to figure out what his team needs. After Game 6, he went from player to player with locker-room psychology, often with a message made for each.
His staff marvels at his ability to dig into the souls of his guys. It also marvels how authentic he is even though the exercise is tactical.
It's why Duncan can be benched in the closing seconds of Game 6, seconds away from his fifth title, and accept the order without blinking. There's no way any other all-time superstar would've handled the tactical maneuver in such a fashion, especially in this day and age where petulance and defiance of authority is the norm in our entitled culture. The relationship Pop has fostered with his stars goes beyond trust to something else entirely. They're family to one another. They can't imagine a reality without each other. In Duncan's case in particular, his relationships with Pop, Ginobili and Tony Parker might seem as solid and unshakable as any in his life right now, though that's unfair speculation on my part.
Still, it's this part of the column that interested me the most:
Popovich doesn't second-guess himself. The same coach who often preaches that the game is simple doesn't regret benching his best defender and rebounder when the Spurs needed defense and rebounding.
He needed to defend the 3-point line, and other Spurs are better at that than Tim Duncan. This also is how the Spurs played these end-of-game situations about 20 times last season.
Still, because it was Duncan, and because Duncan had done so much to get in position to win another title, does Popovich ever wish he'd given Duncan a chance to defend the lead he had helped build?
"No," he said. "You do what you do to win the game."
If strategy doesn't haunt him, everything else does. "I think about Game 6 every day," Popovich said. "Without exception. I think about every play. I can see LeBron's first shot, and the rebound, and the second ..."
Naturally, you expect nothing else from Pop. He's a stubborn old coot and he's never gonna change, not for you, me, or anybody else. I'm not going to rehash this stuff again, I've already made my case.
Personally, I think Pop is living in denial. Maybe he just can't fathom living with the weight, the responsibility for being culpable in the Finals loss with his faulty decision-making down the stretch. After all, he canceled a scheduled interview with Dan LeBatard of ESPN and The Miami Herald because, in his words, he couldn't "live with himself" if he wound up being a distraction in any way to his players. Maybe subconsciously he thinks such a truth would crush him, like he was a motorist responsible for a fatality or something equally morbid, so his brain blocks out the possibility of pilot error.
The column concludes with Pop telling Harvey that his daughter telling him to "get over yourself" (one of his own trademark lines) was the beginning of his path to recovery. If Pop really wants to recover, he needs to get over himself and admit he messed up. It's fine. It's normal. There is no such thing as a perfect coach just as there is no such thing as a perfect basketball player or perfect anything else. Everyone makes mistakes, including Hall-of-Fame basketball coaches.
Just admit you screwed up, Pop. You don't owe it to the fans or the media, but you certainly owe it to your players. You've always been honest with them about their shortcomings, so be honest with yours. Mostly, you just need to admit it to yourself and realize it's okay. Life goes on. Otherwise, you're always going to be haunted by Game 6, and you'll never understand why, just like the rest of us, you can't let it go.