In Game 6 against the Houston Rockets, the Spurs had 6 players in double figures. Other than the two bigs, the other four were a 5’11 late second round pick, a late second round pick who was cut from at least two teams, an undrafted guy who had to pay $150 to even get in the door for a D-League tryout, and a 20 year old rookie point guard who was the second to last pick in the first round. Three of these players started against the Rockets. The fourth played 24 minutes. As they say in Infomercials, “But wait, there’s more!”
The 5’11 guy just had his first two playoff game starts in his career, the guy who was cut twice scored the last 7 points his team scored to win Game 5 in OT, the guy who had to pay for a D-League try-out outplayed the possible MVP in the last 5 quarters of the series – plus an overtime, and the rookie point guard had a double-double with a career high 10 boards to go with 5 assists, 2 steals and a block – and only 1 turnover.
The Spurs’ best player in Game 6 was LaMarcus Aldridge. Spurs fans had become increasingly frustrated with LMA. During Game 5, when he had the ball one foot from the basket and passed it to the corner for a three-pointer instead of shooting (and likely getting an “and-one”), I am sure many of you did the same thing I did – I yelled at him through the television. Of course, he couldn’t hear me, but it felt better to yell anyway.
That being said, it was clear to me that someone talked to Aldridge before Game 6. It was equally clear that he listened. That someone was clearly Gregg Popovich. While we all admire Pop’s basketball strategies, the thing we hear most from ex-players is his ability to communicate. Remember that the Spurs sold Aldridge on the idea that San Antonio would be an Aldridge-Leonard partnership leading the Spurs forward post-Duncan. Of course, Kawhi’s remarkable improvement meant that Kawhi became Batman, and Aldridge became Robin – not what LMA expected. I am sure Pop understands that, and that his communication before Game 6 included praise and encouragement. Shoot the damn ball, attack the rim, we need you to be great. And Aldridge was.
Of course, coaching is much more than getting your best (healthy) player up before a big game. Coaching is all season long, working with your 4th best player, your aging vets, and your end-of-the-bench rookies, second round picks and escapees from the D-League. It is resting your best players during the season, and giving your lesser players opportunities to play. It is expecting the best from your stars, and from your bench guys. And telling your bench guys that you trust them and you expect them to do the right thing, whether during a meaningless game in Sacramento in February, or a playoff game in Houston where your best player is not even in uniform.
There was a great moment in the middle of the second quarter of Game 6. Dujounte Murray had just thrown the ball away with a horrendous pass, leading to a Rocket run-out and a shooting foul at the other end. While the Rockets shot the foul shots, Pop had his arm around Murray in front of the Spurs bench. Pop was talking calmly, not yelling. Murray already knew he had screwed up, and didn’t need to be yelled at. You could tell from the body language that Pop was encouraging Murray. “Just play”. And Murray did. That horrendous pass was the only turnover Murray had all night.
Compare that to the Rockets. At the end of Game 5, in which their coach trusted only 7 players to play, those 7 players were exhausted. Their best player had been asked to cover Aldridge and Gasol on the block, which is exhausting. And he was exhausted in overtime. And then he had no energy in Game 6. The Rockets looked tired, and played like it.
The Rockets also played like they could not believe that they were losing to Danny Green, Jonathan Simmons, Patty Mills, a 20-year old rookie – and a rejuvenated LaMarcus Aldridge.
An article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal included this rather perfect summary of Game 6:
"It's easiest to understand the Spurs' performance on Thursday night when it's put most simply: They won by 39 points on the road without their best player (Kawhi Leonard) or Hall of Fame point guard (Tony Parker) by holding one of the NBA's top-10 offenses ever to its single worst offensive performance of the season."
Yes, that’s what a well-coached team looks like.