Gregg Popovich Chokes Away Spurs' Best Shot at NBA Title

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 19, 2013

The San Antonio Spurs wanted their season to come to a close with Tuesday night's Game 6.

Sure, this was only the first of San Antonio's two chances to secure the title, but neither of those two games would be held on its home floor. A win on Tuesday would've been an emphatic exclamation point at the end of its dynasty. A loss would bring a number of question marks between now and Thursday's Game 7.

Coach Gregg Popovich allotted his minutes accordingly. Tim Duncan, a 37-year-old 16-year veteran, tied his season-high with 44. Tony Parker, who's been dealing with a nagging hamstring injury, logged 43. Manu Ginobili, who gave away eight of San Antonio's 13 turnovers, played 35.

But Popovich's paper-thin rotation was far from his biggest coaching gaffe. Well, except for maybe Ginobili's prolonged run:

Gregg Popovich had a bad night. Manu Ginobli had no business playing. That was obvious early and often.

— John Buccigross (@Buccigross) June 19, 2013

All of this would have been forgiven if the Spurs ultimately found themselves on the right side of the scoreboard.

But thanks to a pair of crunch-time triples from LeBron James and Ray Allen and an untimely showing of the legendary coach's mortality, that wasn't the case.

The Spurs carried a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter, but they watched it all dissipate over the next 12 minutes. San Antonio's meager five-point showing in overtime wasn't enough to ward off the backs-against-the-wall Miami Heat, who lived to see another day with a 103-100 win.

With nothing more than two sleepless nights left separating these teams from a winner-take-all Game 7, Popovich would love to fast-forward the next 40-odd hours. Surely, he didn't seem like he'd be searching for the rewind button during the postgame press conference:

Gregg Popovich might choke a reporter tonight

— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) June 19, 2013

The what-if questions are going to haunt this team until the opening tip gets tossed on Thursday night.

So, why not let the haunting begin here?

What if Popovich hadn't benched Duncan with 28 seconds left and the Spurs holding a five-point lead? Given that Erik Spoelstra sidelined his own big man, Chris Bosh, during the same break, it would have led to a tough matchup, but it's hard to imagine Duncan not tracking down at least one of Miami's two crucial offensive boards that set up James and Allen's bombs:

#spurs coach Gregg Popovich is a genius, but not having Tim Duncan on floor late in reg. was huge. Mia got 2 boards that led to 3s for #Heat

— John Denton (@JohnDenton555) June 19, 2013

What if Popovich had just left Parker on the floor for the entire final 79 seconds of the extra session rather than pull him twice with a title on the line? Presumably, that pulls the ball out of Ginobili's hands, who coughed up turnovers seven and eight in the final 45 seconds of the contest.

The Spurs' legacy is already set. Popovich's team wasn't expected to be in this position, so surely his career wasn't going to go down in the history books based off of this series alone.

But that doesn't free the coach from facing the same criticisms that would hammer his peers under the same circumstances:

Gregg Popovich coached like Vinny Del Negro at crunch time, with a title on the line.

— Marcel Mutoni (@marcel_mutoni) June 19, 2013

There's not going to be another 30-point, 17-rebound effort coming from Duncan. That's not me saying that; it's the body of work he's put forth over the last two months.

Kawhi Leonard had 22 points and 11 rebounds in this game. His last 20-10 game? A Spurs loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder back on April 4.

Another disastrous game from Ginobili would surprise no one; he's been a non-factor in five of the six games in this series.

This was a game the Spurs had to win. Not just because Miami's a 46-7 team at home, but because San Antonio had that 10-point lead with 12 minutes left, that five-point edge with 28 seconds remaining:

That was probably San Antonio's best punch. No matter how you slice it, Spurs choked. And that's on Gregg Popovich.

— Got 'Em Coach (@GotEm_Coach) June 19, 2013

And then, Popovich lost his cool. He forgot why the Spurs were even in this position to begin with:

Almost any other coach but Pop would be ripped for the last moments of regulation and OT. No Duncan, no Parker, no sense.

— Bill Plaschke (@BillPlaschke) June 19, 2013

Popovich has the kind of wildly successful coaching resume that we're never supposed to question.

But on Tuesday night, with a fifth championship ring at his fingertips, he left us with no other choice.