Gregg Popovich's Late Decision in Spurs' Season Finale Became a Mistake

Robert KleemanSenior Analyst IApril 15, 2010

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 15:  Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs calls a play against the Charlotte Bobcats during their game at Time Warner Cable Arena on January 15, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Even the best coaches sometimes make mistakes.

Gregg Popovich, a sure-fire Hall of Fame sideline chief, may have made one Wednesday night.

Hours after ensuring basketball writers he would not sit any of his starters, he changed his mind.

Just before tipoff.

Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili sat in a 96-89 loss to the Mavericks, the team the Spurs will face in the first round.

With that, Dallas won a competitive season series 3-1.

The dream scenario—a playoff rematch with the Phoenix Suns—was a longshot. The Spurs needed Phoenix to win and Portland to lose for that to become a reality.

Popovich decided playing Duncan and Ginobili was not worth that slim chance, even after he had promised he would not give any player a night of rest.

The Suns hosted the Denver Nuggets Tuesday night. He probably guessed, like many, that fatigue might factor in their joust with the Utah Jazz.

The Blazers, fresh off victories against the L.A. Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder sans Brandon Roy, would surely take care of the Warriors at home.

Might as well settle for the Mavericks, huh?

Then, bad luck again slammed the Spurs in the collective gut.

George Hill tweaked the right ankle he sprained just a week ago in L.A. after stepping on the foot of a cameraman.

How much time he will miss, if any, remains unknown.

Phoenix and Golden State won.

In the worst twist imaginable, Popovich ordered two of his best players to wear sport coats to avoid a damaging injury with the playoffs on tap.

Hill, one of the league's most improved players, left the game with an ailment.

The medical staff did not force Hill back before he was ready.

Popovich did not play his sophomore stud too many minutes in Monday's 133-113 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Less than 17 minutes seems like a reasonable burn for a key rotation cog cleared to play by doctors.

No. Hill stepped on the foot of a baseline cameraman. Go figure.

Another series with the Suns would not have been a cakewalk, but recent history made it a favorable matchup.

The Spurs can beat the Suns as long as Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili are healthy.

Phoenix couldn't win a double-overtime, first-round opener in 2008 it dominated for the first 44 minutes when it boasted a more talented team.

Phoenix couldn't win in 2005 or 2007, despite a better record and home court advantage.

Can the Spurs beat the Mavericks without Hill?

Even the Jazz would have been a preferable foe.

Utah did sweep the season series 4-0, but 2007 and that home streak would have mattered. Three of the Jazz's best players—Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur, and Carlos Boozer—are hobbled.

Instead, the Spurs will face an opponent that has sent them home early twice in the last four years.

The Mavericks are also expected to do more in the postseason than the Suns or Jazz.

Popovich took a risk on Wednesday and it backfired. Maybe Dallas still wins if Duncan and Ginobili take the court.

That would have damaged the Spurs' psyche beyond repair.

Dirk Nowitzki played 33 minutes. Jason Kidd played 28 minutes. Caron Butler played 38 minutes. They wanted the second seed, and they showed it.

Dejuan Blair also reminded observers that determination can beat a lack of size and no ACLs. He posted 27 points and 23 rebounds against a full-strength Dallas frontline and helped San Antonio make it interesting in the final minutes.

After a 56-point first half, the Mavericks managed just 40 the rest of the way and shot 41 percent.

Popovich gets credit for sticking to his guns. Dallas Morning News Mavs beat writer Eddie Sefko projected that the coach would rest his starters—despite statements to the contrary—in his game preview.

You can't say you haven't seen the man do it before.

He values rest and health over seeding and particular playoff matchups. A rejuvenated Duncan and a scorching Ginobili will give the Dallas defense all it can handle.

Great coaches make mistakes. They also rarely question their instincts.

His instincts told him this: Make sure the aging stars do not injure themselves in the final regular season outing. He knew the Spurs would open a series on the road. Why not take another shot at the Mavericks with a reloaded roster?

Maybe late Wednesday night was an exception.

After seeing a fourth-quarter group that included Ian Mahinmi and Garrett Temple force Rick Carlisle to re-insert his starters in the final minutes and after Phoenix and Golden State won, he had to wonder if he was wrong.

We'll know in two weeks.