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Stampler's Take: Pop bears the blame for the Game 6 loss

Situations in which it's a good idea to sit your best player up five in a deciding game of the Finals when he's healthy, playing well and wants to be out there: N/A.


This may shock you, because normally I'm such a milquetoast personality who rarely ever gets into arguments with anyone (ahem), so I hope you're sitting down. Are you ready? I hope you're ready.

I disagree with J.R. Wilco about something.

(Here's a glass of water and a cold towel -- for any of you who fainted.)

Anyway, in JRW's recent post, he basically defended Gregg Popovich's decisions at the end of the infamous Game 6 of The Finals against the Heat. You know the one. Now I covered most of this ground already, but I think our faithful leader is nuts. That's not to say the Spurs not winning the title was all Pop's fault, it was mostly fate and bad luck. Still, it didn't help matters any that Pop coached like someone had unscrewed the top of his head, scooped out his gelatinous, pulsating brain and replaced said brain with a couple handfuls of Purina brand dog good, the official dog food of the basketball apocalypse.

Before we even get to the final minute, can we please stop pretending that Pop was pitching a perfect game for the first 47? The Spurs won Game 5 largely by going to an iso offense (as ugly and un-Spurs-like as it is) and killing Mike Miller and Ray Allen off the dribble repeatedly. For whatever reason, they didn't do that at all in Game 6. It was pretty much just post-ups to Tim Duncan, who was destroying Chris Bosh, and then random hustle plays from Kawhi Leonard. Even in the second half, once the Heat started fronting and swarming Duncan, the Spurs didn't iso. It was just a whole lot of bricks from Tony Parker and Danny Green and the occasional Manu Ginobili turnover, just to mix it up.

Secondly, Pop trotted out a lineup of Tiago Splitter-Boris Diaw-Green-Ginobili-Gary Neal to start the fourth quarter, up ten. I mean, think of how poorly conceived that was for a second. You know the Heat just had a long commercial break, LeBron James had a chance to catch his breath after shooting like crap (3-of-12 FGs) for three quarters, Miami was going to be desperate with their season on the line, and here's Pop not only sitting the only two guys who had done anything for the Spurs up to that point in Duncan and Leonard (NOTE: also their two best defenders), but also their best creator in Parker and pretty much the only Spur who can make James work on defense.

At some point doesn't Pop have to get dinged for not staggering Parker and Duncan's rest periods? Or Duncan and Leonard's? You're sitting your three best players at the same time? Really? REALLY? And we don't blame him at all for this?

Forget offense for a second, even though the only conceivable way that lineup was gonna score was through Ginobili pick-and-rolls to Splitter through a thicket of Heat arms and legs. The bigger question was how that quintet was supposed to stop anybody? The answer, of course, was that they weren't. The Heat scored on all four of their possessions (10 points) before Duncan checked back in at the 9:22 mark. Splitter scored two hoops in that time for us, so it was a quick -6 for that lineup.

So, let's fast forward to the final minute...

Oh, that's right, they didn't call a flagrant in that situation because only a terrible refereeing crew would do that.

Ginobili sinks both freebies, Spurs up four.

28.2 seconds remaining

Here's the sneaky play I keep reliving over and over. Ginobili comes up with the loose ball and Allen quickly bears down on him. But man, you know he's got supernatural court vision. Didn't he see Green streaking out of the corner of his eye. Maybe Pop would've had a heart attack but the pass was there. Breakaway dunk and it's a six point game, plus more time would've been off the clock. Dammit. Manu makes one of two, his first attempt an awful brick off the side.

Okay, this is where Pop takes out Duncan in favor of Boris Diaw, to counteract the Heat lineup of James-Allen-Miller-Mario Chalmers-Dwyane Wade. Yes, I understand that no bigs were on the floor for the Heat. Yes, I understand they want to switch everything. It was still a stupid decision.

1. The Heat did not have five three-point shooters on the floor. They had four plus Wade. Look at his game log. Scroll down to the Finals. Wade did not attempt a single three the whole series. He was petrified to shoot outside of 15 feet. Pop should've put Duncan on Wade and just sagged back and dared him to shoot. Wade would've either hot-potatoed the ball or hesitantly launched one after three pump fakes.

2. The basketball Gods punished Pop for sitting one of the seven or eight greatest players of all time, and the likely Finals MVP, for Boris freakin' Diaw. The same Diaw who was stiff after sitting for about eight minutes of actual time, instead of Duncan who was actively engaged in the game, had his blood pumping, was smelling the crowning achievement of his career (literally) and who had played an integral part in snuffing the previous three Heat possessions. How on Earth does that make a lick of sense? Subbing Duncan for Diaw, a guy who might be three percent more mobile there but isn't a third of the rebounder that Duncan is. Under no circumstance is this remotely defensible.

3. If you are just switching everything and matching smalls, then why Diaw instead of Neal? I mean, if switching is your whole objective? See, that's where Pop's decision making falls apart for me. If you want to go tiny, go tiny. If you're gonna keep a big, you might as well keep your best one.

4. Finally, and this is the most important point: Pop totally out-thought himself here. Look, the situation is the Heat are down five in an elimination game with 30 seconds to go. James' legacy, at least to the point where he's going to be compared historically between Duncan and Kobe Bryant, is one the line. He's not going to spend the whole summer listening to why he let Mario Chalmers shoot the most important shot of the season, okay? Make it or miss it, he's the guy who was always going to shoot that shot, unless the Spurs completely left Allen or Miller WIDE open, and even then he was probably still launching. I mean, really, can we just use some common sense here? What does it matter if Diaw is covering Miller instead of Duncan when James was gonna be the guy to shoot anyway?

23.0 seconds remaining

So much for that oh-so-important switching defense. There's a miscommunication between Green, Ginobili and Diaw and James pretty much gets an uncontested look at his initial three. He was wide open, with Green pathetically late to contest after first running toward Allen, who Ginobili already had. You're telling me they'd have been worse off with Duncan in there? In fact, Green was just a comedy of errors on the whole sequence. After the miss instead of hustling back toward James --or any shooter-- he's running toward the middle of the floor, looking for a breakout pass that will never come. The whole rebound sequence is in front of him, and he doesn't run toward anybody. Just awful.

Diaw, meanwhile, reacted to James miss by doing what his initial instinct told him to do. Boxing out Miller for the rebound. At the free throw line. As in 15 feet from the rim. You know why Diaw is boxing out? Because that's what non-rebounders do. Diaw is used to having fellas like TIM DUNCAN snatch boards while he boxes out the Mike Millers of the world. Once Diaw saw that Leonard was having some difficulty procuring the board, he belatedly jumped toward him, which, you know, only cost them the championship.

To the people who say the crazy carom of the rebound would've ensured that the exact same outcome would've happened with Duncan out there instead of Diaw, I say that's bunk. Duncan's three inches taller and has at least a five inch longer wingspan. Add those two things up and that's eight inches higher he reaches than Diaw does. Either he would've snatched the rebound in his vice-like grip outright or at the least gotten enough of it to tap it forward, toward the baseline, instead of backward. He'd make that much difference, minimum.

19.4 seconds remaining

I recall Leonard missing his free throw a lot worse than he actually did. It wasn't a bad effort at all. Just rimmed out. Certainly closer than Ginobili's miss. He made the second, Spurs up three.

If the first time Pop sat Duncan was a poorly-conceived idea, the second time was simply outright asinine. There's just no other word for it. It was Pop not getting over himself. He messed up the first time, didn't want to admit it, and did the exact same thing again.

It's one thing for Frank Vogel to bench Roy Hibbert for the final play of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. It was a one-point game. Any basket beats him there. Plus, there were only three seconds left. The Heat wouldn't have time to grab an offensive board. He was just trying to deny any open jump shot, thinking, wrongly as it turned out, that a jumper was the only kind of shot the Heat would have time to take. Oops.

Here though, with 20 seconds left and down three, Miami had all kinds of options. They certainly didn't have to go for the three there. On the broadcast, analyst Jeff Van Gundy is imploring them to drive it straight to the basket for the quick two. And that really was the smart play since, a) the Spurs had just missed two of their last four free throws, and b) TIM DUNCAN WASN'T IN THE GAME.

Now, understand, please, that Erik Spoelstra subbed out Miller in favor of Chris Bosh. That's right, he took out his best three point shooter. The Heat had a lineup of James-Wade-Bosh-Allen-Chalmers, down 3. I've already covered Wade's hesitance to shoot threes. James had his own shooting issues, having caromed one off the side of the backboard before nailing his most recent attempt. Chalmers wasn't gonna shoot in that spot, not unless he wanted his teammates to commit a Code Red in the locker room on him after the game. Look at Bosh's game log though, again scrolling down to the Finals. You'll notice, he, too, didn't make any threes all series long and attempted only two of them in the final six games, and none in games 4-6. There's just no way he was gonna shoot a deep one there.

I just can't fathom how Pop, upon seeing how the last Heat possession unfolded, in which the Spurs could not secure a rebound without Duncan on the floor despite the Heat having zero bigs out there, went right back to the same strategy with Bosh on the floor, particularly when there was plenty of time for the Heat to just drive for an uncontested layup. I mean the two most likely outcomes of that possession were, a) a Miami layup, or b) Bosh's offensive rebound and then something bad. Any positive outcomes for the Spurs were probably fourth on fifth on the list, after an outright made three on the Heat's first shot attempt.

Which James took, by the way (shocker). I can't believe an all-time great player took the shot down three with 11 seconds to go in an elimination game. Nope, did not see that coming. Players in that situation usually hand the ball off to some role player and let them decide the fate of the season, right?

11.0 seconds remaining

If you can still bear to watch, you'll notice that the supposed "switch" is again comically misplayed between Diaw (I'm sensing a pattern here) and Parker. Both are miles and miles off James, who bricks the wide open look. Again, what's the point of not having Duncan out there if THAT is how effective the replacement is gonna be? What am I missing?

Bosh, the tallest guy on the floor by something like three inches, skied for the offensive board, with absolutely nobody boxing him out or challenging him in the slightest. Not shown: Duncan's guts twisting like this.

I rest my case. It's Pop's fault. He's going to the Hall of Fame, deservedly so, but it's his fault. Yes, bad luck, bad bounces, a thousand things had to go wrong, all of that. Yes. But without question, he failed just as surely as Ginobili and Leonard did at the free throw line with the championship in the balance.

In conclusion, I'll never forgive him for benching Duncan down the stretch in Game 6. While lots of folks played a role in losing that game, no one had more to do with it than Pop. You'll never convince me otherwise.

Thanks for making me relive that all over again. It was exactly as fun as I imagined it would be. My idea of Hell is those 28 seconds from the 4th quarter of Game 6, on an endless loop.

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