To stretch an analogy about as far as it can go, Gregg Popovich might as well have been my car’s trunk and Erik Spoelstra was a bag full of my dress shirts for 47 1/2 minutes in Game 6 — because Popovich took Spoelstra to the cleaners.
Thanks, I’ll be here all week.
If you’re still reading — nobody would blame you for leaving after that opening — there is little dispute that Popovich is the best coach in the NBA, and arguably the most accomplished person currently coaching in any of the four major professional sports. It’s not just his ability to wring championships and conference titles out of the likes of Malik Rose and Gary Neal. There is also his somewhat shady past involving something with Air Force intelligence that tends to mute any harsh criticism, lest the critic end up curiously never being heard from again.
Up until the last half-minute of the fourth quarter in Miami’s 103-100 overtime win in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday, Popovich had thoroughly outcoached Spoelstra in ways that not even a monster quarter by LeBron James could overcome. Despite building a 10-point lead after three quarters, the Spurs were tight and fatigued, and it was only due the defensive scheme masterfully crafted by Popovich and the heroic shot-making of Tony Parker that the Spurs were still protecting a five-point edge with less than 30 seconds to play.
The Spurs snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in stunning fashion, and while any San Antonio player getting one more defensive rebound would have rendered it all moot, Popovich’s decision to bench Tim Duncan on two crucial defensive possessions deserves as much blame as any Spurs player warrants for not boxing out.
In a sense, sitting Duncan with the Spurs clinging to a five-point with 28 seconds left and then a three-point lead with 19 seconds left was the right move. The Heat needed to take 3-pointers in those situations, and inserting a more mobile defender made sense, by the book, compared to sticking a 37-year-old 7-footer on the perimeter to try to defend a shooter.
The problem was, taking Duncan off the floor also removed the Spurs’ best rebounder, not to mention the greatest player in franchise history and a four-time champ. Duncan has shown in this series that he can guard wing and backcourt players in brief situations, even elite ones like James or Dwyane Wade. What’s more, Duncan has been there before. Somehow, he would have found a way not to make a fool of himself, and he sure would have helped on the glass when James missed a three at the beginning of each of those possessions.
“Well, Duncan’s past performance may matter to you and I,” you might counter, “but Popovich doesn’t deal in sentiment. Pop calls the number of the player who is best able to do the job at that moment. He trusts whichever player is capable of the task in that situation, regardless of sentiment.”
That might be a worthy argument, if Popovich had not spent the entire game — if not the entire series — giving exactly that kind of leash to Manu Ginobili.
Honestly, take Ginobili — please. (Be sure to tip your waitress.) He was awful on Tuesday, far worse than he had been in the first four games before his breakout fluke in Game 5. He committed eight turnovers, three more than all of his teammates combined. The game effectively ended, unsurprisingly, with Ginobili driving into a gaggle of defenders in the lane with two seconds left in overtime. After Ginobili had jogged his way into an uncalled traveling violation and turned the ball over anyway, he had the gall to complain about getting fouled, conveniently forgetting that he had taken approximately 17 steps before any contact occurred. Through it all, Popovich stuck with Ginobili, even though Neal was playing at least as well (or at least not as terribly) and Boris Diaw had proven he could play alongside Duncan while still allowing the Spurs to protect the perimeter.
There was no explanation for Ginobili’s persistent presence in the game besides Popovich’s attachment to him and the trust Ginobili has instilled in his coach in winning three rings. In a way, it was understandable. Popovich is not the first coach to stubbornly stick with his fading star even when reason suggests he should do otherwise.
But in this case, Popovich chose the wrong legend to trust and the wrong legend to bench. The Spurs did hold a nearly insurmountable lead with 28 seconds left in regulation, so playing Ginobili did not necessarily cost the Spurs the win in Game 6. But not playing Duncan in the clutch may have just cost the Spurs a championship.