Gregg Popovich spoke, and his team listened.
The San Antonio Spurs lost their fifth home game of the season on Thursday, 105-101, to New York, and their famously surly head coach let them know their effort was unacceptable. The players clearly got the message, blowing out the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, 116-92.
If the Clippers expected some sympathy from their opponents in their first game without their star point guard, they were sadly mistaken. Instead, the Spurs came out on fire with a 37-17 first quarter. By halftime, they had pushed the lead out to 35 points.
The Spurs came out looking to make a statement. If the Clippers had Chris Paul, they still would have lost.
Popovich's motivation clearly worked. Still, the question remains: Why did he feel the need to lay into his veteran team so early in the season? After all, this is the coach for resting his own players, whether the NBA commissioner approves or not.
San Antonio isn't exactly struggling this season. They are now tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for second in the Western Conference, just a half-game behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Spurs are four games ahead of their nearest competitor in the Southwest Division, the Houston Rockets.
But Gregg Popovich is a certified coaching genius, destined for the Hall of Fame. He doesn't make a move, nor utter a word, without thinking of the future, the big picture. Could Coach Pop see this as a crucial moment in the race for home-court advantage in the Western Conference?
No professional athlete likes to be accused of playing soft, especially by his own coach. But that is exactly what Popovich did to the Spurs. San Antonio lost on Thursday by allowing a critical offensive rebound to the undersized New York Knicks in the final seconds. The Spurs did a weak job of boxing out, and it cost them the game. And Popovich will not tolerate weakness.
Popovich lit into his team after the game, per Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News.
Most of the time physical, aggressive teams are going to win in the NBA...That's just the way it is. I thought we were very poor in that area. We should be embarrassed about how soft we played tonight.
That verbal spanking made headlines across the basketball world. Even the Clippers' broadcasters mentioned it repeatedly during Saturday's game.
And San Antonio certainly didn't play "soft" against Los Angeles. San Antonio out-rebounded the Clippers by a margin of 16-to-1 in the first quarter. Remember, this was a Clippers team missing its point guard but still stacked in the frontcourt with the duo of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
The Clippers did go on a second-half run to cut San Antonio's lead to 13, thanks mainly to the garbage-time scoring genius Jamal Crawford, but the Spurs' starters returned to put the game on ice.
After the game, Popovich was in a much better mood. Per McDonald:
Pop: "These guys take a lot of pride and losing bothers them, so they usually come back pretty strong."— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) January 5, 2014
As always, Coach Pop is playing chess, while the rest of the league is playing checkers.
Since his blowup came before Paul was injured, it's possible Popovich was trying to motivate his team for what at the time would have been a tough matchup against one of the best teams in the league.
It is no secret that the Spurs have struggled against the NBA's elite this season coming into Saturday.
- 0-2 against Houston
- 0-2 against Oklahoma City
- 0-1 against Indiana
- 0-1 against Portland
- 0-1 against L.A. Clippers
Though a veteran team like San Antonio can likely shake off these problems come playoff time, it wouldn't hurt to pick up some wins against the league's best, particularly those Western Conference teams competing for home court.
This is an interesting time in the West. The other top contenders appear vulnerable, at least for the time being. Russell Westbrook's knee injury has weakened the Thunder, and Paul's shoulder injury has weakened the Clippers. The young Blazers have zero track record when it comes to competing for the playoffs.
The Spurs have a chance to seize control of the Western Conference if they play well for the next month. It may not be critical to their playoff hopes, but with their aged core possibly feeling the effects of last year's deep playoff run, some wins in January could prove crucial.
Coach Pop is never one to pass up an opportunity. And if he has to bruise a few egos and step on a few toes along the way, then so be it.