Wednesday night's game was supposed to be a humdrum affair against a Pacers team missing their entire projected starting lineup (albeit one that won at Dallas Monday night) but it's livened up considerably and become a historic event, as Ettore Messina, who joined the Spurs after a long and successful career coaching various Euro-league clubs, will make his debut in the main chair as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich recovers after a "minor medical procedure."
This isn't that surprising, considering that Pop has missed the last several days of practices, but it's big news nonetheless and at the very least it confirms an open question we've had for a while about whether it would be Messina or fellow assistant Jim Boylen who would get to coach the team in the event that Pop was ejected. Boylen was second in command last season, but it seems that Messina is the senior assistant now.
Messina of course has an established relationship not only with Pop but with Manu Ginobili, who he coached at Kinder Bologna while Ginobili took a quantum leap in his development. Ginobili was drafted in 1999 back when he was still playing in the Argentine league, but it was under Messina that he started to blossom and won not only the Euro-league MVP but also the unofficial title of "best player not in the NBA." Messina also coached Marco Belinelli at Kinder, but as a youth player who didn't play too much.
In his first pregame interview, Messina appeared at ease and showed off a sense of humor that's as much a job requirement for the Spurs as basketball know-how. Here's the transcript:
So, how do you feel being in this position, coach?
Do you mean in terms of "average scared," or "not scared at all"? Obviously, it's not what you want but the good thing is (Popovich's medical situation) is nothing big, so you can be so relaxed, and the other thing is that being the new one, you just hope that you don't mess it up. You just try to prepare, help the players as much as possible in terms of game plan - Coach (Jim) Boylen had the scouting report -- today was his game -- so we went through that this morning. I also must tell you the truth that everybody here tells me to from day one to feel very comfortable so the only thing I should make sure to don't do is to call all the plays for Manu (Ginobili). I will not do that, we already agreed on that.
Are you happy that you at least got one practice game coaching the team (in preseason at Phoenix)?
You know what, when I turn and see that Tim (Duncan) and Kawhi (Leonard) is back, I feel much more comfortable. I feel much more prepared than that day.
How does it feel being the first Italian to coach in the NBA? (Asked by an Italian reporter)
I knew you were coming up and so I was thinking ‘what would Pop say?' but I didn't think about that honestly and you try to stay focused on what you have to do and there is already enough to think about. The rest will stay for the record book and a good memory to tell my grandkids about in front of a fireplace.
Will you be making many big changes? (Joking)
Not at all. As we've always said, this is a very well-oiled machine and they know what they have to do. They're experienced, they've faced thousands of situations, and even this time I think they will be... if there is a team that can absorb, even if you're talking about Coach Pop, talking about anybody else, this team is ready to face any situation with their experience, their togetherness, and with their intelligence.
What are your feelings about the Pacers?
When you see that they have won at Miami, at Chicago, and at Dallas just two days ago, I think that says a lot about how they rise to the occasion, showing what kind of mentality they have, what kind of toughness they have, what kind of a good coached team they are. You can mention their defense, their rebounding, it's not going to be an easy win, for sure. But at the same time, I think that on one side it's absolutely a game where you have to respect your opponent, I think it's also a game where we have to respect ourselves and all the effort we made after a tough start to be in a good position now. We're playing better, we're playing together despite our own injuries. We've also had our share, not at the level of Indiana Pacers obviously, don't get me wrong, but we've also had our missing pieces, and the team I think defensively has done a great job in helping ourselves overcome the difficulties of the challenges that we have offensively. So we're here, the last two, three games, I think offensively we've made a step forward and I think this is another opportunity to build on that.
When did Pop tell you that you'd be coaching tonight?
It was yesterday.
Will you be thinking "What would Pop do here?"
That's a good question and that's right. I don't mean that you feel him over your shoulder because he's been terrific, meaning, leaving me with confidence and not over-coaching me. So I have no doubt about that. But at the same time you surely think, ‘What would he do now?,' and ‘What would he like?' and ‘Who would he play, now?' so what I think I should do is try to be myself, with my limitations rather than to be a poor imitation of Coach Pop because whatever kind of imitation you can try to make will be a very poor one of Coach Pop. So you try to forget that, be who you are and if it's enough it will be enough and if it's not, it doesn't work.
Do you think Pop will criticize your rotations later? (semi-joking)
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, so maybe he'll take a day off.
Will you lean on the veterans to help you ease into this, sharing what they're seeing on the floor?
Meaning if we'll have a democratic approach? They are always free to make their comments with Pop so it would be hard to imagine it will not be the same here. And I'm pretty sure they will be respectful of each other's spaces, not to invade and make my job more difficult, so I'm pretty sure about that.
Why did Belinelli start last game and why is he back to the bench tonight?
With Marco it was related to that he had very short minutes available so we thought starting the game after the warm-up would be better for him but now Marco is ready to go and we can go for more minutes with him.
Will Cory Joseph be available? What about Matt Bonner?
Cory is out and Matt is back. He went through practice and he was a little tired but he's okay and will be available. Cory is day-to-day, we'll see how he is for Friday.