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Oklahoma City Thunder: An evening with Pop

by Berry Tramel Modified: April 4, 2014 at 6:05 pm •  Published: April 4, 2014

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich talks with Tim Duncan during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Thursday, April 3, 2014. Oklahoma City won 106-94. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich talks with Tim Duncan during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Thursday, April 3, 2014. Oklahoma City won 106-94. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

Gregg Popovich is an NBA enigma. One of the most interesting personalities in the league. One of the best minds.

But you have to extract the interesting stuff from Pop. He’s not going to give it freely.

If you watch TNT or ESPN, you know that. Popovich’s in-game interviews are legendary for how little he cooperates. The NBA’s television contract requires coaches to answer at least two questions after the first quarter or third quarter of nationally televised games. So Popovich does that. With stunning conciseness.

Here was David Aldridge’s interview with Popovich on Thursday:

Aldridge: “Pop what did you think of your team’s defense in the first quarter?”

Popovich: “I thought we did a good job.”

Aldridge: “How do you think Kawhi (Leonard) did so far with the assignment on (Kevin) Durant?”

Popovich: “He’s doing well.”

Aldridge: “Thank you.”

Popovich: “You’re welcome.”

But I find Pop fascinating. He’s a pro Bobby Knight. Difficult to deal with. But worth the effort.

Popovich chatted with the media Thursday both before and after the Thunder’s 106-94 victory over the Spurs, which ended San Antonio’s 19-game winning streak.

Just like with Knight, you’ve got to ask good questions to get any kind of answer. Sometimes that won’t even do it. But sometimes it will.

I thought I would share with you the transcript of our chats with Popovich, complete with the question, the answer and the enlightenment.

 

PREGAME

 

Will you have a full lineup tonight?

Pop: “Manu’s out.”

Health reasons or resting Manu (Ginobili)?

Pop: “He’s out.”

Some coaches will talk about injuries. Some aren’t too crazy about it. Put Popovich in the latter category.

 

Can you tell me about your French players (asked by a French reporter)?

Pop: “They’re really nice guys.”

What has been the constant throughout your winning streak?

Pop: “We’ve been fortunate enough to shoot the ball pretty well, and we’ve shared it really well. That’s probably the most common thing that I see.”

OK, now he’s warming up. Sharing the ball is a San Antonio staple.

 

Is it important for you to beat OKC since you haven’t beaten them this year?

Pop: “Everybody tries to win every game.”

It’s hard to get any NBA coach to cop to matchup problems. Tight-lipped, loose-lipped, great coach, shaky coach. No one wants to tread on matchup problems, even though it’s an elephant in the living room to everyone else.

 

You’re not big on your own streak, but what do you make of Kevin Durant’s streak of 25 points or more in 38 straight?

Pop: “He’s a great player. If anybody’s ever seen him play, you shouldn’t be surprised. He’s something else.”

That’s what I love Popovich. That’s 17 words, none of them sensational, about a topic that’s endlessly written. But Popovich still found a way to shed light on Durant. He’s right. It’s no surprise at all that Durant has such a streak. The question is, how does anyone come close to holding him under 25?

 

What does it do for a team knowing it’s got a player who will get 25 automatically?

Pop: “I guess it makes ‘em feel pretty confident.”

It’s a flippant answer. But it’s rock solid. What more could a 25-point scorer provide?

 

Do you guys talk about the winning streak within the locker room?

Pop: “No. Not at all.”

Uh, this is going nowhere. That’s what I mean by good questions.

 

Do you have any explanation…

Pop: Probably not but go ahead.”

That’s what I like about Popovich. He has a sense of humor. That’s what makes him different from Knight. Knight is void of humor. Pop is somewhat self-aware. Knight is not. This was my first question, by the way. So I continued.

 

Any explanation for all the major streaks going on in the NBA. This one. The Heat had that historic streak last season. Philly tied the record this season for most losses in a row.

Pop: “You think I know why? No. I have other things to think about. I don’t worry about that sort of stuff.”

I think he’s telling the truth. I don’t think Popovich has thought about it. I think it’s a good question. Sort of like extreme weather, extreme streaks are prevalent in the league. There has to be a reason for it. Lack of parity. Really bad teams. I don’t know. But I’ll bet Pop could figure it out if he thought about it.

 

What’s the significance of this game?

Pop: “Same as last night or the night before or this coming Sunday. Everybody wants to win when they go out to play. That’s the bottom line. Everybody gets excited about streaks or you won against this team or that team. The bottom line is, everybody wants to be playing as well as they can by playoff time. Everybody wants to improve every game. Whether we’re playing OKC tonight or the worst team in the league, we want to think that we improved by the end of the game. You might win, you might lose, but if you improve, that’s the point.”

We’re getting close to the Spurs’ secret of success. You know how Sam Presti likes to talk about the “process”? That’s what he’s talking about. Presti learned at the feet of the master.

 

What’s the difference in Durant this year from years past?

Pop: “I don’t know if there’s a difference. I don’t see him that much. He’s just as scary last year as he is this year. He’s just a great player.”

That’s a question we all know the answer to. We just want Popovich to address it. Maybe he knows that and refuses to play along.

 

Where has your bench this season exceeded expectations?

Pop: “Patty Mills was a surprise when he came back because he changed himself physically. He’s like a total different human being coming back from the summer. So that was a surprise. Been surprised that Marco Bellini has been able to pick everything up so quickly. Usually it takes people a year to feel comfortable in the system. He’s moved right in and done a great job for us. Those are, if I had surprises, those are the two, I guess.”

Now that’s rich stuff. Mills’ transformation has been well-documented. But Bellini’s immersion is interesting. That’s something to keep an eye on with the Spurs. How quickly do first-year players acclimate themselves, because San Antonio absolutely does have a system.

 

What allows Tim Duncan to continue to be the force he is after all these years?

Pop: “He loves the game. He’s highly competitive and he’s really taken care of himself. If he took his shirt off for you, you’d see he’s svelte, he’s skinny, he’s cut. He really takes care of what goes in his body. And all during the summer he works out. He’s not pounding on his knees or anything, but he’s boxing, he’s swimming, he’s doing things that will sustain a certain level of fitness. I think for all those reasons, he’s been able to do what he’s done.”

Insightful, wouldn’t you say? Listening to Popovich made me take stock of what I put in my body.

 

How has Duncan reinvented himself over the years?

Pop: “He doesn’t have the athleticism he had when he first came in. He’s worked on his jumpshot. He’s continued to be a good defender and shot blocker, but mostly he’s moved his game away from the post a little bit. He’s adjusted to us becoming a little bit more perimeter-oriented with Tony (Parker) and Manu and those guys.”

Nothing particularly insightful here, but a great snapshot of a career. How does a great player change over time. And literally, Duncan has moved farther from the basket. Makes you think about spacing and body development. Wonder if Kevin Durant, 10 years from now, will be closer to the basket?

 

What do you like about what Kawhi Leonard brings on the defensive end?

Pop: “Just like you said, defense. I like the defense that he brings. That’s why we made the trade. That was a really tough trade for us (with the Pacers), because George Hill was a really good and popular player for us. But he was behind Tony Parker, and that seemed like a waste of talent. We had a hole at the 3 (small forward) position, especially defensively and size wise. It was one of those trades that was great for both teams. That doesn’t happen very often. Usually, you all talk about how one team got the better end of this or that, that kind of stuff, but with that one, both teams really made out. So his defense is important to us. If there’s anything I’m excited about tonight, it’s to have him go guard Kevin (Durant). Because he hasn’t been able to do that. He hasn’t been available in our previous games. Kevin’s going to still score points, but it’s good for Kawhi to get the experience and learn about what Kevin does. That’s the most interesting thing about this game for me.”

It’s great to hear a coach talk about a trade and a player that in depth, but Popovich isn’t above exaggeration. Leonard played 38 minutes against the Thunder back in November. He also played more than a quarter in January vs. the Thunder, before suffering an injury. With all that said, that’s still interesting, that Popovich was most interested in the Leonard/Durant battle.

 

How have you kept Parker going? (from the French reporter, coming back around)

Pop: “He’s young, still. We’ve given him a lot of rest. Recently we gave him about 20 days off. That’s really helped him stay fresh.”

Thanks for giving the French guy a little bit of something. He came a long way.

 

How has Diaw helped you?

Pop: “Boris is a very important player for us.”

Like I was saying, the French guy came a long way.

 

Your three injured players, will they play? Bonner, Daye, Baynes.

Pop: “Bonner still hurt, Daye’s still sick. Baynes is still hurt. Thanks for reminding me of those names, because I might not have come up with them.”

Nothing’s more embarrassing than a coach who can’t remember his own players’ names.

 

You just signed Damien James. What will he do for you?

Pop: “I have no clue. I have no clue. They added him to the team. If we’re ahead by 20 or down by 20, then we’ll find out.”

“They”? Popovich is “they.” He’s head coach and vice president of basketball operations. Gregg Popovich added James to the Spurs. Just because we’re charmed by Pop doesn’t mean we’re duped.

 

How can the addition of Caron Butler help the Thunder?

Pop: “He’s a great pickup. At both ends of the floor, he really adds to their depth. And it’s timely, with (Thabo) Sefolosha being out, obviously. But he adds a lot of experience and a lot of skill, so it’s a great pickup.”

I haven’t seen Butler’s defensive prowess, to be honest with you, but when people like Popovich reference it, I pay attention.

 

Who’s the league MVP?

Pop: “Looks like it’s down to two. Take your pick.”

That’s a lot better than that question deserved.

 

What if you had to choose?

Pop: “I don’t choose. I don’t pick. I don’t vote.”

Move on down the road. Nothing to see here.

 

Do you recognize rivalries. Do you guys have one?

Pop: “I know some people think we might. I don’t know. I’ve never really noticed one, to be honest with you. We just try to not to even do that. We just go play. That rivalry stuff’s all about hype. You’re supposed to learn how to hate somebody or be angry at somebody? We just try to go play and go win.”

Maybe coaches believe that. Maybe they try to convince their players that rivalries don’t exist. But we all know that’s not true.

 

Kendrick Perkins is playing tonight. How important is his return?

Pop: “You always want your starters back. Everybody wants their starters back. He’s a big tough guy. Gives ‘em an edge. It’s important.”

Not much there. Pop was running out of steam.

 

POSTGAME

 

Like some coaches, Popovich sometimes is better after a loss than after a victory.

 

What makes Oklahoma City such a tough matchup for you guys?

Pop: “They’re a hell of a basketball team.”

Decent question. Succinct answer. You’ve got to warm up Pop.

 

The Thunder’s defensive length really seems to bother you. Bothers everybody, but why you guys in particular?

Pop: “If we play slowly or play in mud, they’re too long and too athletic, too talented. We’ve got to have more movement. But for us, we didn’t react well to the physicality. I thought they did a great job getting physical in the second half. That created a gazillion turnovers. That was the game. Thirty points off turnovers, you’re going to lose. Our reaction to the physicality wasn’t good. That’s the ballgame.”

What a great answer. Great question, even if I asked it myself, but in the name of full disclosure, A.C. Slater asked me to ask for him. But Popovich gave us great insight to the game. The game turned when the Thunder got tough.

 

In pregame, you talked about Leonard guarding Durant. Seemed like he did a pretty good job, despite some foul trouble.

Pop: “He was great. I was proud of him. He’s learning every day. Playing longer minutes than he ever has. Going to him on the offensive end more. He’s just growing by leaps and bounds. I wanted him to be out there every minute with Kevin tonight, just so he could learn what it’s like to guard a great player. That’s what he’s going to be doing for his whole career in this league. So it was a great night for him.”

Another fabulous answer. All kinds of nuggets there. Popovich seemed genuinely thrilled with Leonard, which is why I mentioned it in my column. I think that’s something the Spurs can build on, in case they get the Thunder in a playoff series. And Pop also trotted some long-term perspective about Leonard’s career. He is indeed going to spend his career guarding players like Durant and Paul George and whoever else comes down the pike.

 

Does any good come from the streak ending?

Pop: “We never thought about the streak in the first place. To us, it’s just another game. We just watched film about turnovers and playing in a crowd and that kind of thing. We learn from every game, whether we win it or lose it. It’s got nothing to do with the streak.”

You can ask Popovich about the streak all night long, he’s not going to give in.

 

You guys seem to bring out the best in (Reggie) Jackson, and he hasn’t even been playing all that well.

Pop: “We’re happy we’re able to come in here and get him on track again. We’re nice guys. What the hell. But you’re right. He’s kicked our butt every time. He’s got a lot of confidence against us.”

Popovich is actually joking around after his first loss in six weeks. How can you not like a guy like that?

 

Perkins seemed to inspire them some defensively.

Pop: “Every team needs that. He’s an enforcer. He’s got an edge. He’s got a toughness. He plays not to take any prisoners kind of thing. That’s great for a team. He’s been out a lot. He probably doesn’t have his rhythm and that kind of thing.”

Defensive rhythm. That’s a novel concept. One we don’t consider much. We probably ought to, with Perk coming back and Sefolosha returning soon.

 

You seemed to enjoy the national anthem tonight.

Pop: “I thought it was great. Plus the violin, you don’t see that kind of stuff. What a great talent. For kids to see that, I thought it was pretty cool. I probably did a second take. ‘Whoa.’ Everybody’s got a sax or a guitar, something like that. Kid comes out there with a violin, I thought it was pretty cool.”

I asked him about the anthem. I loved the violin/guitar duet, and I could tell Popovich did, too. I like a guy who stands at attention for 100 anthems a year and still can appreciate a version that stands out.

 

What kind of problems does Russell Westbrook cause when he’s on like he was tonight?

Pop: “He’s tough. Like Tony (Parker) at halftime, right before half, we were up by about eight, then we went in up by three all of a sudden, in a blink. Russell pulled up from about 36 feet. He said, “‘Pop, what do…?” I said, ‘nothing. No, let him shoot that.’ We’d rather have him shoot that. And he drilled it. When he’s doing that kind of thing, he’s really tough to handle, because he’s such a great driver in the first place. When he‘s making those shots, you’re in trouble.”

Now that’s a great story. That’s what I mean about Popovich. He’s more than capable of offering up a story like that, Parker’s frustration.

 

What’s the impact of Serge Ibaka’s interior defense?

Pop: “You already know the answer to that. He does it every night around here. He’s a great shot blocker, great defender. Takes great pride in it. Maybe the best in the league at it. Being mobile, getting from one side to the other. He has a huge impact.”

Again, great imagery. We don’t think about Ibaka on those terms, getting from one side to the other. But that’s exactly what Ibaka does. He crosses the lane for blocked shots, without compromising the back side. That’s what makes Ibaka great. Instincts. Lots of people can jump. Lots of people have good timing. But Ibaka has developed a feel for the game on when to cross the paint and when not to.

 

Six games remaining, how do you feel about this team as you close out the season with the playoffs approaching?

Pop: “We’re doing pretty well.”

Welcome to the club, Charles Thompson. CT does a radio show in Lawton and occasionally comes to Thunder games and grabs interviews. He asked Popovich this harmless question, but it wasn’t quite direct enough. Give Popovich room to blow off a question, he’ll take it.

 

You didn’t start Kawhi Leonard in the second half. Why?

Pop: “He had three fouls. I just wanted to save a couple of minutes. I didn’t want him to get another foul and have to come out of the game. I wanted him to have time to play Kevin all night long. We just saved a couple of minutes.”

Bad decision. But at least he explained it.

 

 

 

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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