The setting was the AT&T Center Saturday night—the Houston Rockets were in town. The Spurs had been down as much as 23 points in the second quarter and were now marching back. Shortly before the half, Tim Duncan was standing on the sidelines, waiting to inbound the ball.
Rockets coach Kevin McHale decided to take a short stroll—right in front of him. Gregg Popovich went all kinds of ballistic on the ref and drew a tech. It was classic "Pop" timing, the kind of rant that can get a team motivated.
Pop came out of the locker room for the start of the third quarter as if no time had passed whatsoever—he went right up to McHale and the referee and started in all over again.
Whether the whole thing was happenstance or not is completely beside the point. This is a team that, at its core, has been together for a really long time. It has its routines and its triggers, and it can sometimes seem like a family get-together during the holidays—you know what’s coming and still you watch and shake your head in amazement.
The Spurs came roaring back in the third quarter, on a 20-8 run to cut the lead to three points. The final frame was as good as it gets—two fired-up teams, head-to-head, toe-to-toe.
It should be acknowledged here and now that the Rockets won this one. They beat the Spurs 112-106, and they won fair and played hard. James Harden of the Rockets led all scorers with 31 points. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 27 points.
It should also be noted that old man Duncan did things like this:
After the game, Popovich spoke to the assembled press, per the Spurs website on NBA.com:
It’s a great lesson for us. When you play a good basketball team you got to come out with passion and edge and aggressiveness for 48 minutes, and we did that for a half. So I think it was a good lesson for our guys, that they got embarrassed for a whole half, and in the second half, their attention to detail was very good, and they got themselves back in the game, and I couldn’t have been prouder of the way they played in the second half.
This is quintessential Popovich—he wasn’t remotely happy that he lost, but he found a lesson in all of it.
The Spurs are one of the league’s most consistent teams. They get knocked down and get back up. They dealt with the heartbreak of losing to Miami in the NBA Finals last June and returned in the fall with essentially the same lineup. And even with the loss to the Rockets, the Spurs are still leading the Western Conference 14-3.
Popovich has been at the helm now for 18 seasons. Duncan has been with the team his entire career. The same goes for Parker, and the same goes for Manu Ginobili. Collectively, these four guys are about a million years old, and each and every year, they’re pronounced too old. The San Antonio Spurs never go away.
Tim Duncan. 20 points, nine boards. Still the GOAT.— Project Spurs (@projectspurs) December 1, 2013
Pop knows how to work his team, whether it’s asking for physicality or demanding they put their big-boy pants on or just saying he wants some nasty!
And sometimes, he doesn’t chew them out—he goes straight to the enemy and doesn’t mince words. Go back and look at his expression as he gets in McHale’s face. His players know, and they react.
The Spurs may be old, but they’ll try new things. Popovich tinkers with the engine, bringing in younger players who can run, giving the old guys the night off now and then. He’ll substitute in and out at will, taking advantage of offensive or defensive mismatches. But more than anything, he’s got his players’ trust, and that’s a lot. That matters.
Gregg Popovich’s Spurs will go away someday—it’s inevitable. Time doesn’t stand still for anyone. But they’re back again this year, and even in defeat, as their coach reiterated, there are lessons to be learned.