Gregg Popovich's March Madness Bleeds Into April: Who Let the Dogs Out?

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IApril 20, 2010

DALLAS - APRIL 18:  Forward Richard Jefferson #24 of the San Antonio Spurs takes a shot against Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center on April 18, 2010 in Dallas, Texas. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Who let the dogs out? (Woof, woof, woof, woof) (Woof, woof, woof, woof)

--Baha Men

Gregg Popovich paused for a moment, glanced at the box score as if to pretend he was in deep thought, and unleashed his inner Doberman on the Spurs' role players.

"I thought we had a lot of guys," he said, "who played like dogs."

He was barking loudest at Richard Jefferson, whose four point clunker in a 100-94 Game One loss to the Dallas Mavericks stood out as a problem.

He was also venting about every other player on the squad not named Duncan, Parker, or Ginobili.

Popovich knows what to expect from his star trio this time of year. Eveyone else? All bets are off.

Part-time hoops fans complained in March when an upset of No. 1 seed Kansas destroyed their brackets for good.

The Spurs' coach still hasn't finished his, and that may provide the biggest cause for concern as the team tries to even its best-of-seven tilt with the Mavs.

If you think predicting the winner of college basketball's tournament is hard, try figuring out Popovich's rotation.

He has no clue. Late-season injuries to George Hill and Tony Parker only made matters worse.

In the Spurs championship years, the coach had decided who he would use in the playoffs no later than February.

This spring, with the deepest but also most flawed team he's ever had, the guessing game has become his recourse.

A few things are certain. Ian Mahinmi will not play a significant role in this series. He seems to pick up fouls even when he's sitting on the bench.

Most who have watched the French big man struggle to adjust to the NBA game would not flinch if they heard Spurs' play-by-play man Bill Schoenig deliver this call:

"Mahinmi gets up to fetch more Gatorade for Duncan...and he fouls out!"

Future rotation fixture Malik Hairston's injury makes not playing him an easy call.

After that, doling out minutes becomes an assignment any genius coach would struggle to tackle.

Popovich loves Keith Bogans' defensive grit, but the numbers do not suggest he is a good enough defender to warrant a featured role.

He scored 10 points and helped limit LeBron James in the Spurs win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in March.

He's no Bruce Bowen.

When he cannot find the net with a Garmin and his man renders him helpless, does he help the Spurs at all?

Matt Bonner works hard, and you will hear me urge the Spurs to re-sign him this summer more than once. Still, his reserve status makes him a defensive liability, since referees afford him no respect.

He is commodious as a 15-20 minutes per night player. More court time than that exposes his weaknesses.

Roger Mason Jr. cannot disagree that his second season with the club was disastrous. He injured his shooting hand in a Feb. 21 game against Detroit. Even before that incident, his shooting was as off the mark as Tiger Woods' short game at the Masters.

He played too much for his own good last year, and that allowed opponents to zero in on his flaws.

At least one GM remembering that he did nail four game-winning shots in the 2008-2009 campaign will overpay him this summer. He won't wear silver and black when 2010 training camp begins.

Popovich, then, can only worry about getting whatever he can from Mason in the 10-15 minutes he plays in this joust.

If only Hairston wasn't injured.

Hill would produce if he wasn't recovering from a sprained ankle. He tweaked it just days after returning from a week of mandatory rest.

Hill might be the team's best individual defender, and his athleticism and much improved three-point stroke would make a difference...if he was healthy.

If Antonio McDyess produces 10 points and eight rebounds for the duration of this Texas two-step, he will give the Spurs a chance.

He remains an effective, physical low-post defender with an automatic jump shot. Leave him open on either baseline, or from the wings, and he can still drive and dunk.

Then, there's Jefferson, the greatest mystery of all.

At many junctures, he has done everything Popovich expected the athletic forward would do last summer.

Jefferson suffocated Paul Pierce each time the Spurs battled the Celtics, so much so that the Boston Globe's Celtics beat reporter used the word "menacing" to describe his defense. Twice.

He stood his ground against Joe Johnson. He helped the Spurs jump from the bottom half to the top half in points in the paint.

He led the team in dunks, removing them from the NBA's cellar of un-athletic rosters.

What, then, seems to be the problem?

He managed one field goal in his first playoff game as a Spur. Whether he bounces back will key the series outcome.

He did average 16 points against the Mavericks in the regular season. As long as he plays extended minutes alongside Manu Ginobili, he will get his opportunities.

The Spurs' brass should know by now that they employ one of the league's most overcompensated role players.

He will never live up to the $29 million price tag Peter Holt agreed to pay last June.

Yet, if he scores 15 points and hauls down seven rebounds in the remaining games against the Mavs, he will be everything the Spurs need to make this go-around more competitive.

Popovich should summon Jefferson to the locker room after practice and show him footage from Nov. 11.

Then, with Duncan and Tony Parker sidelined, Jefferson erupted for a season-high 29 points in the Spurs lone win over the Mavs.

He tore through Dallas' defense for monstrous jams and earned 10 free throws.

If Popovich can figure out how to get Jefferson to do that again for Game Two, the Spurs prospects look less bleak.

Northern Iowa over Kansas upset your bracket?

Popovich might take that surprise over his dogs.

Woof, woof, woof, woof.


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