SAN ANTONIO — Let’s face it. If any other coach in the NBA — maybe on the planet — had done what Gregg Popovich did in Game 4, he’d be online toast by now.
Just imagine what would be left of poor little Scott Brooks if he tried that stunt in OKC.
Down by 20 just five minutes into the third quarter, the Spurs’ boss called off his dogs. After all, there are only so many times he can watch them roll over and play dead and still thinks it’s a cute trick.
Trouble is, 19 minutes in this league that is built on runs and streaks and offensive explosions is an eternity and the question was asked in more than a few corners why a coach who once snarled and told his team during a timeout that he wanted “some nasty” folded his tent so politely.
“Thursday,” Pop said.
He meant, of course, Game 5 at the AT&T Center, where the Spurs’ season — if not their era as a championship contender — hangs in the balance.
Yes, Pop surrendered for a night. But just to throw the only punch he’s got left.
If Russell Westbrook brings his 40-point, 10-rebound, five-steal game, maybe it won’t matter much what the Spurs try to do. Not with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka also there to stamp the Western Conference for certain as their domain to rule for the foreseeable future.
Popovich spoke of the Thunder’s superior athleticism and length and noted that it gives you just a small margin of error. That margin was long gone in Game 4 and there was no sense chasing a pipe dream.
All, really, that Popovich was doing was following his instincts and his philosophy on managing playing time and energy expended that he’s relied on for years. Whether it’s November and it’s the end of a five games in eight nights stretch at Miami or it’s late May and the Western Conference finals, Pop watches his veterans and he watches their minutes.
With a 38-year-old Tim Duncan, 36-year-old Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker turning 32, Popovich has never watched and micro-managed minutes more. Not a single Spurs player averaged 30 minutes per game this season.
No matter the specific circumstance, the belief is that no one night of overextending an individual is worth the long term goal of being healthy and fresh for the grueling playoff run.
None of the Spurs looked fresh on Tuesday night. They were all outrun, out-jumped, out-hustled and outworked. Not quite three minutes into the third quarter, there was a sequence where Duncan and OKC’s Kendrick Perkins got their arms locked and tangled in the low post. It evoked a rare angry reaction from Duncan. When play resumed, Duncan turned to put up a short jumper and Ibaka blocked it solidly and even sent Duncan flailing and falling to the floor. Two minutes later, Pop pulled the plug.
While it was interesting to see the Spurs eventually fall behind by as many as 27 and then have the bomb squad of Cory Joseph, Matt Bonner and Jeff Ayres use sheer hustle to cut it to 12, that’s all it was, interesting.
Steve Kerr mentioned on the TNT telecast that if the lead got under double-digits, Popovich might have to consider returning his to starters to chase the win.
Uh-uh. Not for even a second.
Pop knows his team and he knows the situation his Spurs are now in. There isn’t a strategic adjustment that’s going to turn the series around, suddenly make the Thunder look less youthful and less athletic.
The only chance in Game 5 — and for all intents and purposes, the season — is to meet that OKC athleticism with as much energy as those old Spurs legs can muster.
That’s why it was the right decision, even if it was tough to watch and no other coach in the league could have gotten away with it without taking a public flogging.
One reason: “Thursday.”
The only real minutes left that matter.