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The Popovich Mindset: Thoughts on Miamigate

Want to know why Gregg Popovich does the things he does? Take a peek behind the facade with a guided tour through the brain of the Spurs' coach, led by a devoted Popovich-watcher.

I'll give you one more chance, David, and then things are going to get real.
I'll give you one more chance, David, and then things are going to get real.

Hey, Miami Heat, we respect you, but we don't fear you. Like the long index finger of George Hill wagging in Kobe Bryant's indignant face, Popovich is saying, you are just another team, those are just other players, this is just another game. The game is the game. There's a ball, there are two baskets, there's the court. You five guys, go play those five guys, and do your best to beat them. Amen.

The thing is, nobody watching that game could argue that the players and staff for the Spurs were not taking the game seriously, and doing their best to win. He coached it just like any other game, calling timeouts, making substitutions, devising adjustments, exploiting matchups, drawing up situational plays. The Heat had to bring their best to beat that Spurs team, and they finally did bring their best in the fourth quarter. Complaining that the Heat had to "get up" for playing against a star-less Spurs team is a little like complaining that Shaquille O'Neal has to bother with shooting pesky free throws with his cruelly huge hands. Neither position makes any sense to me at all. I guarantee it doesn't make much sense to Gregg Popovich.

I am rather disappointed the game was covered by the trio of Barkley, Miller and Harlan. It deserved better. Between Charles Barkley's dripping expressions of awe over LeBron's body and skills and his many chummy comments on Wade, we were treated to bland trivialities of the good old days from Reggie Miller, punctuated by the occasional orgasmic explosion from the always-on-the-verge Kevin Harlan. This was actually a pretty good basketball game. Some nice offensive schemes and crisp passing were getting the Spurs an awful lot of open shots. It would have been nice to have it narrated by Hubie Brown or Mike Fratello, somebody who could actually diagram a play or perhaps explain how the Spurs bench was able to keep the game so competitive aside from the boredom of the Heat's Big Three. But then, that's why God created the mute button, right? And anyway, the TNT broadcast is yet one more shimmery, unnecessary object that Gregg Popovich unceremoniously punctured Thursday night.

It's pretty funny to hear people lament about the fans being cheated. A whole lot of NBA fans who turn in to TNT on a typical Thursday night would see that the Spurs are playing and just switch over to watch the Falcons wrestle the Saints, or perhaps Vampire Diaries. The Spurs are boring, remember? Ratings killers. Most people who tuned into that game did so to watch LeBron James, and they got plenty of LeBron James. They even got a good game, with some James/Allen heroics down the stretch. Are we supposed to cry about this?

For me, Popovich just stepped onto a higher plane. If he was already considered by many to be the best coach in the league, he somehow has managed to rise even higher. Nobody else in the league would have the cojones to simultaneously stick it to TNT, Charles Barkley, David Stern, the entire city of Miami, LeBron James, that little kid crying in the stands--everybody. Equal opportunity middle finger. Hey, Mr. Stern, you want to know why Pop made this move? Easy. For basketball reasons. I'm sure you'll understand.

I don't mean to suggest that Popovich would go out of his way to confront David Stern. For Gregg Popovich, the main antagonist here is not Stern. Nor is it Barkley or reporters or garish sport coats or television crews. Gregg Popovich really just has a low tolerance for one thing that all of these various folks happen to have in heavy supply: namely, Gregg Popovich can't abide BS. It annoys him to have to deal with all the extra trappings of the game that just don't matter. He deals with the BS because he has to; he tolerates it as far as he is required to do, and no further. That's Popovich. And really, this is why we love him, or at least it's why I do. I have a pretty touchy BS-meter myself. For all of us little people out there who can't stand all the extra glitzy layer of truthiness that you almost always have to cut through to figure out what the heck is really going on, Gregg Popovich has become a kind of living, breathing patron saint. There are plenty of dead ones: George Orwell, J. D. Salinger. Socrates. Some people are relentless at seeing what's in front of one's nose, seeing past the phony. We need these folks around. In his own way, Popovich is one of those guys. He is good at what he does. He has a great deal of creativity and enthusiasm. He is humble. He is principled. He demands a lot from himself and those around him, yet shows generosity and fatherly concern for others. But mostly he is, let's just say it: honest. That blunt honesty, with anyone and everyone, may have as much to do with his success as an NBA coach, as do any of his other attributes, of which there are many.

This game was good for Miami, and will probably make them a better team. If they are wise, they will follow Ray Allen's lead. I am not personally fond of Ray, but he is a professional. Allen showed up to play, like he does every night, regardless of opponent. LeBron still switches it off and on, still has some emotional growing up to do. Surprisingly, Dwayne Wade can also be a bit childish, even at this stage of his career. Last night the Spurs' bottom nine players gave the Heat a little lesson in professionalism, in respecting the game and the opponent, in playing with consistency. There's a lot Coach Spoelstra can use here.

Aside from the obvious benefit of resting the core players, let's lastly not overlook how meaningful this game was for the Spurs who played it. Just like last season's near comeback versus the Mavericks, this game was invaluable for the Spurs' role players. Pop has demonstrated faith in them, against anyone. Execute the plan with maximum effort, and we have the opportunity to compete with anyone on any night. Saying it is one thing; but there is no replacement for doing. And they just did it. There will be big moments this season when guys who were on the floor last night will be the ones making the plays, be it a defensive stop, a rebound, or a made basket, that will win games in the spring and summer. Trust, in themselves and in their coach, can pay huge dividends when the stakes are much higher than TNT's November 29 ratings. Those are good basketball reasons. Those are really the only ones worth bothering with if you are Gregg Popovich.