Ever since a couple of thrilling wins against the Raptors and Thunder at the beginning of January, the Spurs haven’t been themselves at home. They’ve had losses to the inferior Hornets and depleted Clippers, as well as close wins against the kinda-tanking Wizards and cellar-dwelling Suns, both of whom were also missing key players.
Meanwhile, in a reverse from the first half of the season, they’ve gone 3-1 in their last four road games while showing much more focus and respect for the opponent away from the comfy confines of the AT&T Center. That home complacency appears to be getting on Gregg Popovich’s nerves, as he’s had a couple of note-worthy, public reactions to those two lackadaisical wins this week.
Against the Wizards, he called a timeout just 16 seconds into the game — his quickest of the season, although not a personal record — after his defense allowed a wide open lay-up on the opening possession. From ESPN’s Michael C. Wright, Pop provided rare insight into his reasoning behind such tactics.
In Sunday’s instance, Popovich said he was trying to teach “professionalism”. Here’s more: “I often tell them things like if you’re a plumber, and you go to somebody’s house and you don’t get the job done or you screw it up, they don’t call you again. This is your job, and there’s a responsibility to it. Not just to do the job for yourself, but you have a responsibility to your teammates. There’s a game plan, and there are changes that get made during the game, and everybody’s got to pay attention and respond. That’s professionalism, and you learn that as you continue to grow in whatever job you’re in; you guys’ jobs, and whatever vocation it might be. So I think sometimes doing something dramatic like a quick timeout or showing a little bit of anger about not being able to do a simple thing helps them focus more, and understand that it is important. So in the end, the lessons get learned.”
The Spurs woke up some after that timeout, and although it took until the second half for his team to really clamp down on their opponent, it was clear after the timeout that he had gotten his point across.
Then, there was last night’s nail-biter that never should have been against the 11-42 Suns. The Spurs once again looked unengaged on defense, allowing a team on an 8-game losing streak to shoot 60% from the field with relative ease. Most of the night the outcome never felt in doubt, and it seemed like the Spurs would eventually get it together and pull away, but even when they finally could create some separation — such as a 12-point lead in the third and 4 points in the final 33 seconds — the Spurs could never build off that momentum, allowing the Suns back in and needing a buzzer-beater from Rudy Gay to avoid overtime.
Once again, Pop was not happy, this time taking his disappointment directly to the media to praise the Suns’ effort and make a point to his own team.
“We were really fortunate to win the game. I thought that they outplayed us, out-coached us, out-physicaled us, out-executed us. We had no respect for them or for the game. We didn’t play with each other. It was a pathetic performance, and Phoenix got robbed.”
With that, he left, taking no questions and leaving his players to answer for their own ineptitude. As Gay said:
“It’s a win. I’m not happy about how it happened. But we got the win, and that’s part of being a good team. You’ve got to find ways to get wins.”
And Derrick White:
“We’re just not as physical as we were when we were really playing well. We have moments where we’re doing the right things, but we haven’t been consistent with it.”
While this was at least a win and not yet another home loss with no excuse that could really hurt them in the standings down the line — like they’ve already had to the Magic, Bulls and Hornets — hopefully Pop’s words start getting through to his players, especially with a brutal Rodeo Road Trip schedule beginning next week.
“It wasn’t our best game, and we didn’t execute well down the stretch,” said LaMarcus Aldridge, who led the Spurs with 29 points. “But we’ve lost some games that we should’ve won. This is one that we kind of dodged a bullet and got a win.”
The Spurs can’t afford to give away games like this, and they know it. It may have been another “teachable” moment for Pop, but after the last two games hopefully the point has gotten across, and Pop won’t need to use them anymore.