MEMPHIS, Tenn. — After coaching a combined 1,536 regular-season and playoff games over 17 seasons, what still motivates San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich from day to day? Is it the teaching? The film study and preparation? The tactical decisions within the actual games?
“I think dinner after the game,” Popovich said dryly as only he can. “Those things are hard. It’s not fun, I know that.”
Pop must’ve had a satisfying meal Saturday night after the Spurs clawed back from down 18 early for a 103-94 overtime victory to seize a commanding 3-0 lead over the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals. Popovich’s 1,034rd career victory (regular season and playoffs) and 208th in the postseason moved him one win away from coaching in a fifth NBA Finals.
He and Tim Duncan, the two constants over this once-in-a-lifetime marathon of success, are on the verge of appearing in a Finals in three consecutive decades. Their first of four championships came in 1999 and was followed by titles in 2003, ’05 and ’07. After losing a 2-0 lead last season to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the favorite to win the West again until Russell Westbrook‘s unfortunate knee injury in the first round, the Spurs, who every year seem to be on their last, best chance to make it back, appear that they certainly will this time.
Although the Grizz have taken the last two games to overtime, they’ve been overmatched by the Spurs’ depth and their undeterred, everlasting trio of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, a Big Three that first took the floor together a decade ago.
“It’s amazing. It’s amazing being on this team and playing with those guys,” said Boris Diaw, who had his playoff battles against the Spurs when with the Phoenix Suns and was rescued out of Charlotte by a fortuitous trade last season. “They still play the same way. They’ve been playing great for years now together and they’re still the same leaders of this team.”
And Popovich is still coaching the same way, Duncan said, although these days far less frequently while wearing a neck tie on game nights.
“His fire and his passion is there and just like the rest of us he knows the opportunity we have here and how fleeting it is,” Duncan said before team’s late Sunday morning practice. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been there. We know the work it takes, we know how special it is and I guess you get a better appreciation for having gone that far and been that close for many years, and we just want to get back.”
Their first chance to lock up their first West title since ’07 comes Monday night in Game 4 back at the FedExForum.
“I think we should give them no hope,” Parker said. “And it’s always sweet to win on the road.”
The theme of the game will be to get it done for Timmy, now 37 and recently selected to the All-NBA First Team after a spectacular renaissance of a season.
“It would be amazing and hopefully I can talk about it more after a win [Monday],” Parker said. “Let’s focus on [Monday] and then we got, what, 10 days to talk about that.”
The Spurs are 11-2 this postseason and can complete a second sweep. Four times they’ve been taken to overtime and once, in the remarkable Game 1 comeback against Golden State, were challenged to two overtimes. Three times they were the fresher team in the extra period despite the high-mileage legs of their three stars.
Popovich gave no credence to his rigid management of minutes during the regular season as playing a role now, but his players certainly suggested that they felt good in Saturday’s overtime for a reason when they outscored Memphis, 18-7.
“I always trust Pop,” Parker said. “Whatever Pop decides is good with me.”
Trust is the operative word with the Big Three and their coach. Ultimate respect swings both ways. Pop will lay into his stars as quickly as a role player who erred. And the players hold each other accountable, too, such as when Duncan’s pass intended for Parker missed its target and skidded out of bounds. The two barked at each as they retreated on defense.
“I have a great deal of confidence in them and they’ve earned that,” Popovich said. “They’ve been together. They’re all very competitive. They may or may not do something perfectly, but they’re going to do it to the best of their ability. That allows one to go to bed at night and deal with whatever the consequences are.”