Gregg Popovich strolled to center court, hoisted the award he never wanted, said “thank you” to a standing, applauding sold-out crowd then looked for an assistant to take the problematic plaque off his hands.
His Red Auerbach Coach of the Year trophy might as well have been a bomb.
Tony Parker and his explosive cohorts helped Popovich diffuse it with a 114-83 pistol-whipping of the overmatched, prostrated Jazz.
San Antonio led by as many as 38 in a game that flew out of Utah’s reach faster than Salt Lake City ever winning an “entertainment capital of the world” designation. So this is what playing a real eighth seed looks like.
The Spurs moved one victory closer to erasing an embarrassment. An authoritative smack down built on defense and ball movement also rendered the curse of the Auerbach commendation irrelevant for one night.
The last eight coaches to bag the award failed to get their squads to the NBA Finals, much less a championship finish. Five of them were fired soon after accepting it.
Popovich has a lot more to worry about than a questionable malediction affixed to a trophy. Taking this suffocating act on the road to Energy Solutions Arena is one. What might come in the next round is another.
Yet, an unmistakable truth born from the fruits of his coaching and management emerged late in the second quarter, when San Antonio made Utah look like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons trying to catch Usain Bolt in a 400-meter relay.
Yes, the Spurs are too big and athletic for the Jazz. Soak up that sentence. Let it sink in like news of a sudden visit from your mother-in-law.
Tyrone Corbin’s scrappy bunch crashed the playoff party early and has now been promptly kicked out by the ruthless hosts. Utah figures to steal one game when it returns home, for pride’s sake, but this series is over like a fractured Hollywood marriage.
Chalk this mismatch up to irreconcilable differences.
The Jazz needed otherworldly contributions from a pair of undersized, unathletic big men and a sophomore with a lot to learn to have any chance. Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and Gordon Hayward, it turns out, are no match for anyone on the opponents’ roll call. The Spurs own a 120-80 edge in points in the paint through two contests.
In Tuesday’s low-key presser, Popovich opened his remarks by rifling off the names of more deserving Coach of the Year candidates.
Tom Thibodeau, Corbin, former assistant Mike Brown, Monty Williams and Rick Adelman cracked his impromptu ballot.
All of those sideline chiefs merited consideration. Williams guided the Hornets to a respectable finishing kick, never allowing his unit to make excuses or stop competing, despite league ownership shackling the franchise’s ability to make impartial, necessary basketball decisions.
Thibodeau’s second year at the Bulls’ helm speaks for itself.
Yet, someday when Popovich abandons the post he has occupied since 1996, fans and pundits should remember him for evenings like Wednesday.
He beat out a stellar crop of peers because of where his squad sits now.
Jefferson and Millsap were supposed to obliterate their silver and black counterparts.
Yahoo! Sports writer Kelly Dwyer said in his series preview that the Jazz’s starting forward and center “might be running rings around [Tim] Duncan and DeJuan Blair throughout the tilt.” Instead, Millsap and Jefferson have been forced to run for cover.
Basketball followers should remember Popovich for his guts and his gameplans. How many scribes across the country have wondered how the 6’7” Blair might hold up against bigger front lines?
Blair played significant minutes in the first two games only because 6’11” preferred backup Tiago Splitter suffered a wrist injury. Credit Popovich for replacing a Pittsburgh product with versatile Frenchman Boris Diaw in the starting five. Credit him also for keeping Blair ready.
Writers cannot keep up with San Antonio’s master tactician.
What will the Jazz do if Manu Ginobili hits more than three shots and Splitter returns to add double-figure scoring?
How many scribes have opined that the Spurs can no longer win with defense?
Credit Popovich for maximizing this team’s offensive output while also finding ways to ameliorate a deteriorating coverage. There was nothing middle of the pack about San Antonio limiting Utah to a stunning 23 percent accuracy in the first half. The Jazz shot 41 percent in the opener and 34 percent on Wednesday.
Credit Popovich for integrating two youngsters who have been a mammoth part of that improved defense. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green fueled the Spurs’ scoring surge in Game 2 with 18 and 17 points, respectively. The glare of the postseason has not blinded them yet.
The defense can get better when Splitter suits up and plays more than eight minutes in the first half.
Popovich's preparation prior to last year’s revealing clash with the Grizzlies proved all for naught. He instructed his players to focus on rebounding and forcing a dreadful jump shooting outfit to fire away from the perimeter.
San Antonio out-rebounded Memphis by 10 in Game 1, tied the bruising Grizzlies in points in the paint and still lost because Lionel Hollins’ team bucked the scouting report and drilled too many devastating threes in the opener.
Utah does just what the game tape says it should, and that presages a second-round appearance for the reinvigorated Spurs.
Credit Popovich for getting the Spurs ready for any and all comers, for sharpening them to make the most of this do-over.
He isn’t perfect. Bob Hill, the coach Popovich replaced, would say “amen” to that.
Popovich once lost a playoff game by 30 to the Lakers then promised his team would compete at a higher level in the next affair. The Spurs lost that one by 39.
Yet, San Antonio has been here, up 2-0 in a series, so many times because of his expert tutelage and his vision.
He sees what others cannot and produces results when many think they are no longer possible.
So Wednesday, he walked out to center court, delivered a ceremonial, gracious wave, then returned to the business of guiding his Spurs to a merciless beatdown of a Jazz squad just happy to be there.
Good luck diffusing him.
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