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.
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