Why I Love Popovich

[Editor's Note: I think it's safe to say that of all the fanposts I've enthusiastically moved to the front page, this is the only time I've promoted something that was the user's very first writing of any kind on SBNation. I know that Spurs fans everywhere will enjoy this, and I look forward to reading more from Earth soon. -jrw ]

My girlfriend was astounded last night as I sat and concentrated distant stares at our fishtank for extended periods of time, only varying my apparent focus over several hours by eventually switching to gazing at our bedroom ceiling fan as the night wore on. I have the NBA League Pass, and (apparently because both god and the NBA don't want me to be too disturbed by watching what I can only imagine was a horrible atrocity to the idea of the game of basketball) I had the audio-only version of the game hosted by a pretty darned good play-by-play man for San Antonio [Bill Schoening]. The game was apparently only available to me as a current Chicagoan on NBA-TV, which usually makes me angry as it seems like the least the NBA could do for those of us who shelled out the cash for League Pass is to give us the games that we can't find anywhere else but on the one channel the NBA controls. But I digress.

My girlfriend comes from a baseball family. Her father has a pennant from every Cardinals championship in his den and an autographed baseball from one of the greatest shortstops to ever play the game, Ozzie Smith, mounted on his wall. When we took a photo at the family reunion, I was told to bring a baseball shirt for the pictures, and I had the odd-man-out experience of being the guy in a Cubs jersey surrounded by a sea of red and a photographer who told me to tuck my chin down because it made a better picture if the only non-Cardinals fan looked humbled.

All that is to say that my girlfriend knows sports, knows sports fandom, and knows sports radio broadcasts in a way that I think is best epitomized by her familiar mental image of a man down to his last strike facing an opposing pitcher whose preparatory speed can be accurately captured by the time it takes to say, "and the windup." What she doesn't know is how I follow along with the mental image of a game best described last night by the broadcaster saying something like, "Neal dribbles left at the top of the key, passes it to Leonard; drives right and finds an open Bonner. Three point shot off the front of the rim; rebound Wallace. Wallace races up the left side, passes to Felton. Three point shot...good."

While I imagine that watching the game on television would have made me want to either change the channel to a re-run of something that would put me in a happy place or give in to watching the game only to gauge what we might be losing in James Anderson or gaining from a San Antonio native in his first game, listening to the radio broadcast gave me a chance to think about what a great coach the league has taken largely for granted and Spurs fans everywhere have learned to respect and love. In one swift move, Pop has made the Spurs the most enigmatic team in the NBA by doing nothing more than resting our most important starters. As someone who follows this team in every outlet I can find, these are the outcomes I see from this game:

  • Spurs lose to the Trailblazers. The most basic result of the game is right there. In the grand scheme of things this has potential importance later on in only one scenario: the Spurs and Blazers meet in the playoffs and Ernie Johnson mentions the series spread in the regular season. Unfortunately for the Blazers, there is absolutely nothing they can take from this game, not even a sense that they destroyed the Spurs second team, because they didn't. They beat the second team minus its best player in Tiago Splitter. I don't think I am going out on a limb by saying that most of us believe this would have been a watchable matchup if Splitter had been playing. Some of us (at least I do) probably reminisce about the Dallas game and imagine that we could have come out of Portland with a win without Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili as long as that fab-five group from the second-half of the Mavericks game could have been together in this one to find a groove. Result: Pop gives away nothing.
  • Spurs end the eleven game winning streak. The moment we've all been waiting for is the moment that was taken from us. Somewhere under the buzz created by Jeremy Lin, and the media storm caused by the Heat going on a rather impressive streak of their own, was the Spurs putting together the most remarkable run of the season without the benefit of national fanfare, or their best player. In that stretch, our defense came together to be one of the best in the league, while our offense was near unstoppable. Durant pounded his head against the backboard pillar. Chris Paul grimaced in confusion and defeat, and the Raptors and the Pistons just took it because that's what the Raptors and Pistons do. As a standard hypocritical Spurs fan, I was both irate with the lack of respect we were getting by the national press and proud of the Spurs franchise for making it that way. (Unfortunately, being a Spurs fan is analogous to being a fan of a fantastic band that you wish would make it big, while at the same time hoping that no one else discovers the secret of how great they are.) By ending it this way, Popovich managed to remove the Spurs from the limelight, take away the pressure of maintaining the streak, and do it all without giving the opposing team a chance to feel too good about being the stopper. The game in Denver is now just a game in Denver, not a race for number 13. Anyone who has ever played a team sport on a winning streak understands that the difference is not really a negative one, but one in which the focus is now on preventing a Harrington three-pointer rather than preventing a Spurs loss. Result: Pop gives away nothing and gains team focus.
  • Spurs starters get some rest. Result: Spurs starters get some rest. Go Pop.
  • Spurs evaluate and teach younger players. Even only listening to the game and imagining the failed dunk attempts, I don't want to talk about James Anderson's trade audition, although it is ironic how much time he got to prove himself in this one. I want to talk about Popovich, coaching without practices, how the Spurs staff looks to put players in unique situational experiences, and Gary Neal; and as I have no idea what was learned about or taught in this game particularly, I want to talk about the last one. As Neal has steadied himself in his role in his second year, he may not be the best example of evaluating an unknown player, but he is a great example of teaching younger players. After Neal's missed game-clinching free-throws in overtime of the Clippers game, there is Pop again running a play to get the ball to Neal for game-clinching free-throws in the Utah game. Is he out best free-throw option in those scenarios? I sure as hell hope not. Is Pop trying to create a sure fire closer by creating pressure situations now thrust upon a player that already seems to be able to do it naturally as long as he has less than five seconds to think about it? Apparently. And hell, at least against the Jazz he hit one of two. What I'm saying is that every moment someone other than a Spurs veteran is on the floor, we're winning, either by giving PATFO a chance to evaluate or by giving the player a chance to learn. (For the record, I think Pop will have taught Neal to be even cognitively clutch by the end of the year.) Result: Pop gets a videotape of the game, and a San Antonio native named Dawson gets to have his mom host a proud event for the neighbors. Hopefully, there was food.
  • Stats go out the window. Somewhere along the line I started paying attention to league statistical rankings, efficiency percentages, and advanced metrics that are not as apparent as win-loss records. It was how, Ginobili's injury notwithstanding, I knew we were more of a house of cards than an elite contender last year, despite our season record. The most intriguing of these calculations to me are ESPN's Hollinger's rankings, and the most praised by me are those that show advancement in defensive efficiency. In one swift move, those mean nothing now unless they are calculated with reference to this Portland anomaly. What they said before this game was that our defense was becoming elite, at least over the past month, and that our offense was outstanding. Afterwards, we are again built of straw, maybe sticks, but certainly nothing as strong as bricks. A 40-point loss will do that. Fortunately, that means nothing now in the grand scheme of things. Throw a starter or two (or three) that will start in the playoffs back in the mix, along with a backup (or two) that will backup, and we are still approaching an elite defensive level along to go along with our potent offense. I just hope there is at least one Moneyball scout amongst the teams we face in the playoffs who looks at the metrics in the wrong way. At the moment, the only accurate judge of our progression is PATFO, fans who watch every game, and I guess anyone with a calculator who is willing to negate this game and/or construct a formula that eliminated statistical deviance. Whatever the case...Result: Pop gives away nothing, and I have to break out the TI-85 if I ever go to Hollinger's page again.
  • Spurs drop a game in the competitive Western Conference. Every day I look again at the standings, and every day I wish we would have gained another game on the Thunder. Result: Seriously, the Thunder have only lost seven games? But they're only 7-3 in their last ten? Why haven't we caught them yet? Come on, Pop, did we really need to throw this one?

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