Gregg Popovich followed a wince with a chuckle. This question both amused and infuriated him more than the one about 70 wins two nights ago. A poor sap wanted to know: was the Spurs' coach used to seeing the Knicks "play defense like this?"
The query implied that New York surrendering 115 points on 54 percent shooting qualified as adequate. Popovich responded in the only manner possible after a 128-115 defeat at Madison Square Garden. He drowned his blatant rage—and the throng of reporters attempting to interrogate him—with well-timed humor.
“I wouldn’t say there will be a line outside of the arena to buy either of our defensive playbooks,” Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News.
He opened his post-game presser with a line that could have applied last spring.
"The New York Knicks kicked our ass," he said.
He could have replaced the Knicks with the Phoenix Suns. Popovich could have been sitting at an AT&T Center podium pondering the bitter end after an eye-opening sweep. Raymond Felton replaced Steve Nash for one night and a theme became apparent.
The Spurs never stopped Amar'e Stoudemire or Nash. Now, they cannot stop any outfit with either All-Star on it. In the 2005, 2007 and 2008 playoff series, all of which the Spurs won in six games or less, Nash and Stoudemire roared past their season averages.
Stoudemire averaged 37 points against San Antonio in the 2005 Western Conference Finals. Popovich's squad survived the onslaught by suffocating Shawn Marion and Quentin Richardson for much of the five-game clash. STAT then rolled past Tim Duncan for and-one opportunities, dunks and reverse lay-ups. He bagged the occasional jumper and even drilled a three-pointer.
Nash, harangued by Bruce Bowen, still managed more than 20 points and 10 assists. The problem for the Suns and Mike D'Antoni was stopping the Spurs.
Fast-forward to Tuesday night, and the teams' switcheroo remains Popovich's chief bugaboo. The 29-5 Spurs had just finished a brutal four-game stretch in which they limited the Washington Wizards, L.A. Lakers, the Dirk Nowitzki-less Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder to a mean of 82 points and 37-percent shooting.
Those numbers fit with how San Antonio mangled the Dallas offense in the 2010 Playoffs and then became a Phoenix burn victim. Another statistic demonstrates the death grip Nash and Stoudemire have now mastered when it comes to beating the Spurs.
San Antonio has faced Stoudemire and/or Nash 10 times since November 2009, including the postseason and is 3-7 in those confrontations. The Suns, and the Knicks on Tuesday, totaled at least 110 points in every match.
Phoenix tallied 110 points even when Hedo Turkoglu had replaced Stoudemire as the starting power forward and did it again just after a blockbuster trade left Alvin Gentry with eight available players. Oh, and those Suns played the previous night in Oklahoma City. The Spurs escaped both of those barn burners thanks to career nights from Richard Jefferson and Gary Neal.
Tuesday, the Spurs became fish food in the Knicks' "you score, I score" trap. And both teams scored a lot. The 141 combined points at halftime were the most totaled by two squads at intermission this season.
When Popovich asked how many of the 128 points were owed to Stoudemire, and a reporter answered, "28," the coach quipped again.
“I’m thrilled about that,” Popovich told the Express-News. “We really stopped him.”
Wilson Chandler glided to 31 points. Shawne Williams (yes, that guy), was a difference-maker with nine points. Felton's line: 28 points, seven assists. In a fast-paced affair that reminded of San Antonio's ABA days, neither team offered much resistance.
Was Chandler's eruption worse than Goran Dragic becoming Michael Jordan, or Jared Dudley looking like Dennis Rodman on the glass? Strange things happen when Stoudemire and Nash now torch the Spurs. Their teammates also catch fire.
Kevin McHale spilled his drink and nearly fell over laughing when Stoudemire attributed the Knicks' 72-69 half-time lead to defense in an MSG Network interview. The NBATV studio analyst was still playing for the Boston Celtics the last time the Spurs delivered such a lousy defensive showing.
When both teams dipped below 60-percent shooting, it merited a mention. Just as was the case in the Suns-Spurs sweep in May, San Antonio clanged a series of makeable shots in the fourth quarter, and two of those misses, lay-ups no less, belonged to Duncan.
The Knicks attacked him in pick-and-rolls just as the Suns did. His 5-for-14 night made New York's pathetic defense appear credible. Manu Ginobili failed to take better advantage of an open middle en route to a 5-for-11 night and the worst plus/minus figure of the night.
The Spurs racked up a season-high 62 points in the paint and still lost by 13. It makes sense, then, that Popovich punished his starters by pulling them with three minutes left and the game still winnable. The coach determined, given how his players had defended, that it wasn't.
Ginobili tossed a towel across the floor after he parked his smoked keester on the bench for good. Duncan stared as if he had seen a ghost.
That "ghost" was Stoudemire again eviscerating the Spurs. It used to be the other way around. After the final buzzer sounded, STAT no longer applied to the Knicks' ballyhooed offseason acquisition. Doctors, instead, were trying to revive San Antonio's defense.
Popovich is accustomed to Stoudemire filling the box score with gaudy numbers. Losing to him is the new head-scratcher.
The Spurs once devised a game plan that allowed Stoudemire to go bananas. They often won by draining enough fourth-quarter shots and securing a key stop or two. Tuesday night, Stoudemire still went bananas, and the Knicks could not have mustered easier scores in a practice session.
D'Antoni sampled what Gentry savored last spring: sending Popovich to the defenseless nuthouse. It begs the question: how did the Spurs get from stifling the defending champions 97-82 (in a game the Lakers were trying to win), and the upstart Thunder 101-74, to a 115-128 defeat in New York? The Knicks also played without Danilo Gallinari.
Popovich may not have an answer. He tried everything in the playoffs, and none of it worked. Even a black eye could not keep Nash from finishing off the seventh-seeded Spurs with a masterful fourth-quarter binge. Stoudemire, who looked like more of a role player in the first three contests, exploded for 31 points.
When the vaunted pick-and-roll pair split up this summer, it figured to make life easier for the Spurs. Instead, Nash kept his new-found stranglehold in Phoenix, and Stoudemire took his to New York.
No, fans and opposing coaches would not line up to learn trade secrets about the Knicks' or Spurs' defense Tuesday night. Nor would they crave the Spurs' extra punishment for such futility: a date with the East-leading Boston Celtics tonight.
"The New York Knicks kicked our ass," Popovich said, and he could have substituted a team from Arizona.
Nash and Stoudemire, even after a dramatic separation in July, tend to do that now. Who else could put that many red marks on the Spurs' collective fanny?
Butt kicked and foul mood disguised by a few lines worthy of a chuckle, Popovich can thank the NBA schedule for this: his team is only guaranteed to surrender 110-plus points three more times. Those two-time defending champion Lakers? Well, at least Nash or Stoudemire does not play for them. Not yet.