The San Antonio Spurs, the model for stability and sustained success in the modern NBA, were still a shaken team when they showed up for training camp in October, less than four months after a devastating loss to Miami in the NBA Finals.
Some coaches would try to brush off the disappointment of letting a title slip through their fingers and refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
Gregg Popovich took it head on, embraced the heartache, and in a career full of masterful coaching performances, delivered perhaps his finest effort in season No. 18.
"The way we lost in the finals wasn't an ordinary loss, it was pretty devastating," Popovich said on Tuesday after being named NBA coach of the year. "We decided that we needed to just face that right off the bat at the beginning of the season and get it out of the way. Don't blame it on the basketball gods or bad fortune or anything like that, the Miami Heat beat us and won the championship and that's that."
Popovich joined Don Nelson and Pat Riley as the only coaches in league history to take home the Red Auerbach trophy three times in their career.
"They're on the hood of my car," Popovich cracked. "One, two, three, right on the car, the way players do license plates. ... I've got three of those right on the hood."
He's never liked the attention, never bought into the proclamations of his genius. When the accolades come his way, Popovich is quick to deflect them, giving the credit to his players, his assistant coaches, owner Peter Holt and general manager R.C. Buford. The humility in his voice on Tuesday was genuine, the challenge of putting the pieces back together after last season's finish as daunting as ever.
They showed up to training camp still stinging from that defeat, and Popovich had to get to know a new-look coaching staff after losing longtime assistants Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer to head coaching jobs in Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Then he led the Spurs to a league-best 62-20 record, which gives them home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. And he did it while deftly navigating a season filled with nagging injuries to several key players. Tim Duncan was the only starter to play in at least 70 games. No Spur averaged 30 minutes per game and Tony Parker led the team with a modest 16.7 points per game.
Despite all of that, the Spurs won at least 50 games for the 15th straight season and topped 60 for the fourth time in that span.
"Day after day, year after year, the energy that Pop provides our organization is truly unique," Buford said.
The Spurs lead the Dallas Mavericks 1-0 in their best-of-seven series, with Game 2 on Wednesday night in San Antonio.
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