Gregg Popovich is as good a pick as any as the world’s best basketball coach. But he outsmarted himself in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night.
It happens. It’s not a big deal, other than being such a big deal it likely will cost the Spurs their fifth NBA championship. But it’s not a big deal in that coaches mess up. We sometimes forget that. Just like players. Just because you’re the best doesn’t mean you’re the best every single minute of every single game.
Popovich’s sins came in the final minute of regulation, a game the Spurs led 94-89 with 25 seconds left but lost 103-100 in overtime.
There were plenty of reasons to grow agitated with Popovich earlier. He opened the fourth quarter with both Tim Duncan and Tony Parker on the bench. The Spurs have a wonderfully-balanced team, with all kinds of layers. But on a night when Danny Green couldn’t get free — Chris Bosh was right; the Heat was NOT going to let Green shoot — and Manu Ginobili was awful, the Spurs weren’t much of a threat without Duncan and Parker.
Popovich rested Duncan with 39 seconds left in the third quarter and the Spurs up 75-63. Pop brought back Duncan with 9:22 left in the fourth quarter. That’s only little more than three minutes of down time for Duncan. Seemed like 30 for the Spurs. When Duncan returned, the Spurs’ lead was cut to 79-75. Duncan’s replacement, Tiago Splitter, had San Antonio’s only two baskets during that stretch, but neither set off any confidence in Alamo Land. Both were circus shots, launched out of I’ve-got-to-do-something desperation. When Duncan left the game, the Spurs were in control. When Duncan returned, it was anybody’s ballgame.
Duncan was playing a game for the ages. He had 30 points by the 4:31 mark of the third quarter. But Duncan is 37 years old. He was en route to playing 44 minutes. Popovich had to rest Duncan. It’s frustrating to watch a beaten foe climb back into the game with your most effective player on the bench, but Duncan had to sit for a little while.
But later, with the game on the line, Duncan again took a seat. And those times, it was not out of necessity. It was out of strategy. And that’s where Popovich erred.
With 28 seconds left, Ginobili missed a foul shot, keeping the Spur lead at 93-89. And Popovich inserted Boris Diaw for Duncan. Pop’s decision-making was clear. The Heat would be in 3-point shot mode. Miami had on the court LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and three 3-point marksmen — Mike Miller, Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers. So everyone had to be defended. Who would Duncan guard against such a lineup?
Ginobili then made the second foul shot, making it 94-89, and here came Miami. LeBron missed a 3-pointer, but the rebound caromed out and in a wild scramble Miller recovered the ball and tapped it back to LeBron, who this time drained the deep shot, cutting the Heat deficit to 94-92 with 20 seconds left.
The best shots in the NBA are not determined by who is shooting. The best shots in the NBA are determined by how open is the shooter. The Heat, or anybody else, can run all kinds of intricate plays for open 3-pointers, but when a defense knows a 3-pointer is coming, it can overplay for the long shot and make success difficult.
However, once the ball is shot, all bets are off. First, unlike the rest of the game, the shooting team is not getting back on defense. The shooting team is hitting the boards with a desperation. And if an offensive rebound is secured, it’s a mad scramble for the offensive players to find a spot on the perimeter and the defensive players to get them covered. Which is how LeBron came to be open for a 3-pointer the Heat absolutely had to have.
So Popovich reinserted Duncan, and with 19 seconds left, the Heat fouled Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, just like Ginobili, missed the first foul shot. And again Popovich replaced Duncan with Diaw.
Having just seen the effects of an offensive rebound, Pop still made the same substitution. Only this time, Chris Bosh was going to be on the floor. Erik Spoelstra inserted his center. So Duncan had somebody to guard. Bosh is capable of making a 3-pointer, but if you’re the Spurs, and LeBron, Wade, Chalmers and Allen are on the court, you’ll take Bosh shooting a 3-pointer over Duncan every time.
Leonard made the second foul shot, giving the Spurs a 95-92 lead, and down came Miami. Again, LeBron launched a deep 3-pointer. This one bounded high off the rim. And Bosh, freed from the shackles of Duncan, had a clear path to the ball. He was not on the side of the rim where the ball headed, but the ball bounded so high, Bosh had plenty of time to get where he was going. No one put a body on him. Ginobili was in position to rebound, but Bosh easily jumped above Ginobili, grabbed the ball and found Allen retreating to the corner. Swish, overtime, Game 7. It all came crashing down that quickly on San Antonio.
Again, the Spurs’ defense was fine. But in the scrum after a missed shot, defenses break down. Shooters get open. The best way to get an open 3-pointer is to miss a contested 3-pointer and take your chances. That’s what Miami did not once but twice.
Maybe Duncan wouldn’t have retrieved that first rebound. Heck, maybe he wouldn’t have corralled the second. But Duncan absolutely would have kept Bosh from getting that ball. That’s what Duncan does. The Big Fundamental. He blocks out. He rebounds. He’s perhaps the most consistent player — season to season, game to game, play to play — in NBA history.
And Duncan wasn’t in the game for a solitary play or two when his presence would have made all the difference.
Popovich remains the world’s greatest coach. But he blew this one.