SAN ANTONIO – Gregg Popovich is always interested in teachable moments. But even he cringed that the lesson learned by the Grizzlies in blowing that whopping fourth-quarter lead in Game 1 to the Clippers.
“Every coach in the league talks about one of the worst lessons you can get is a big lead in the first quarter or the first half, because it’s a 48 minute game,” Popovich said following the Spurs practice on Monday. “We all know anything can happen and it’s happened to all of us. Every team has gone through something like that. It’s sometimes your worst nightmare.”
However, it can also a real teachable moment, a galvanizing experience that can pull a team together, redouble the focus and lead to better, bigger, even grander days.
The back-to-back championship runs by the Rockets in the mid-‘90s was born out of the agony of losing a pair of big leads at home in the second round of the playoffs against the Suns. They let an 18-point fourth quarter lead slip away in Game 1 and then coughed up a 20-point fourth-quarter lead in Game 2.
Choke City. That was the newspaper headline.
Clutch City. That was the nickname that rose from the ashes when the Rockets rallied to defeat the Suns in the series and endures in Houston sports annals today.
Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich responded to the pair of painful losses by reminding his team that they were good enough in the first place to build those leads and simply had to play like it.
History bears him out. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, of the three previous teams that have blown leads of at least 18 points in the fourth quarter of playoff game, two of them went on to win the NBA title.
The second time it happened was just last year when the Mavericks lost an 18-point fourth quarter lead to Brandon Roy’s heroics in Portland. The Blazers never won another game in the series and when the parade finally ended in Dallas in June, the Mavericks all pointed back to Game 4 and the painful experience as the moment that turned it all around.
“You want to always remember that it’s the playoffs and anything can happen,” said the Spurs Stephen Jackson. “You don’t ever want to get caught counting things too soon or celebrating early. I saw a lot of the Memphis guys jumping around when they were up 20. That can come back to bite you.
“But at the same time, as bad as it feels for them now, what Memphis has to remember is that same experience. It was one game. The series isn’t over. You’ve got to play all of the games just like you’ve got to play all four quarters.”
A painful lesson learned. But history says a teachable moment and one to build on.