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When Gregg Popovich shut down Zach Collins: A story of rollercoasters and tough love

A look at the season’s ups and downs from the inside.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Boston Celtics Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Actively supporting an NBA team is like experiencing a rollercoaster.

Training camp is the moment you’re waiting in line with a stomach full of butterfly-inducing anxiety, heart-palpitating excitement, and artery-clogging funnel cake. Every highlight from the preseason straps you in your seat; sure, people have warned you not to overreact (to keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times) but it’s a rule you’ll break as soon as the first Victor Wembanyama coast-to-coast jam sends you screaming at the top of your lungs; your hands flailing like a car-dealer inflatable.

By the time your appetite’s been whetted by the initial twists and turns, you’re either craving more —if your team has title aspirations— or dreading your decision to let your friends talk you into getting on the ride in the first place —if your team is mentioned in the same breath as “expiring contracts” and “pick swaps”.

A three-game win streak is like a rocket-propelled ascent. A three-game losing streak is (literally) freefall. The trade deadline sends teams barrel-rolling and corkscrewing into the postseason, where a summer intern scarcely older than Dominick Barlow will add increasingly soul-crushing loads of Jupiter-level gravitational forces with each successive playoff series.

And by the time the ride pulls back into station (when the Larry O’ Trophy is lifted), you suddenly find yourself gasping for air and pining for the thrill yet again. You promise yourself it’ll be different. Beneath the shadow of Six Flags (or Five Banners) you return to the line and wait for the next round.

You’re an addict. You’re a kid again. You’re on the NBA rollercoaster.

Yet calling the NBA season a “rollercoaster” is a cliché up there with “leaving it all out on the court” and a klutzy big spinning their index finger imploring their coach to challenge a clearly mistimed block. It’s overused and, especially in the case of the latter example, a bit lazy.

But while we all know how the NBA rollercoaster feels from a fan’s perspective (described above), precious less is known about how players and coaches deal with the season’s turbulence. We get the occasional “play myself into form” or “ride the hot hand” during the season, but those are also clichés that don’t reveal much about how those on the inside leverage the NBA rollercoaster into learning lessons for younger players.

And then comes a spectacular offseason nugget from Zach Collins about how the San Antonio Spurs handle this sort of business during the season.

“I went through a three-game stretch where I couldn’t throw a rock in the ocean,” Collins recently revealed on the Road Trippin’ podcast. “I think we played the Pelicans, too, when I couldn’t hit anything. I was probably 3-16 from three over three games. It was bad.”

Indeed, there was a particularly rough shooting stretch during the 2022-23 season for Collins. Over a six game stretch between November 26 and December 10, Collins went 4-16 from deep. At that point in the season, the former Gonzaga big man was averaging 2.3 attempts from three per night.

That was about to change.

“So we came into practice one day, and you know, before practice we have a little meeting at center court or whatever. [Gregg Popovich] stopped everything … we were losing, so he was pissed. And he was like ‘Zach, never, pick and pop again in your life, ever. Roll to the rim. I’m effing–I’m done. You’re not shooting anymore.’”

And that was it. Collins truly did stop shooting threes – his attempts plummeted to 0.7 per game well into the first week of January. Pop didn’t offer any words of encouragement. He didn’t tell Collins to keep trying. He didn’t remind Collins that funks happen.

Instead, Pop shoved the terrible performance right in Collins’ face, with the player’s nostrils flaring at the stench. It’s not unlike Chip Engelland writing the date of Derrick White’s worst game in a Spurs jersey on a scrap of paper and taping it to his locker.

Collins was at the nadir of the season’s rollercoaster. Would he ever again experience the thrill of seeing a deep shot swish?

Of course. After weeks spent shooting clandestine threes behind Pop’s back, Collins’ shot returned. He went on a tear to finish the season, averaging 4.0 threes per game and drilling 40% of them.

And Pop noticed.

“And eventually just came back my way, I started making more, and he was like ‘hey man, you gotta start shooting five, six, seven threes a game now. We need you to shoot more.’”

Here’s what Pop knew: we fear a rollercoaster the same way we fear taking a three after missing their last 10 straight. It’s enough to shut down the brain’s logical side, the one that says doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is ludicrous.

Popovich telling Collins to roll to the rim is a coded message: you’re good at something. You’re not a complete NBA failure because you’ve missed a few threes. Get back to basics.

Put in another way, if the giga-coaster feels like a bite too big, try building some confidence by rolling to the rim. Get out of your own head. Just enjoy the ride.

On a completely unrelated note, “Rim Roller” would be an excellent rollercoaster name. Just saying.