Pop’s Game 4 retreat is no surrender

VIDEO: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich discusses Game 4

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.

VIDEO: Game 5 preview between the Thunder and Spurs


  1. TruthTeller says:

    Pop sent a message to the refs and to the league. The zebras got caught up in the noise, and the calls (and lack of calls) were atrocious. I saw Adams come down on top of Tim Duncan – I mean riding on his back – and there was no call, and I wondered if Popovich might get himself ejected on purpose. He just pulled his starters and said, “Fine. Let’s see how the audience likes watching bench players.” And they got it cleaned up for Game 5.

    I’m a Golden State fan, but the Spurs were outnumbered in Oklahoma. You can say what you want about the aggressive team getting the calls. But when one team is aggressive, and gets no calls, while the other gets calls every time they move toward the basket, it’s not about being aggressive. It’s about the calls being different on opposite ends of the floor. The biggest thing, to me, is that any time the Thunder wanted some space, they shoved off with full arm extension. I don’t think I saw a single one of those called. Even on the play where Splitter got fined for flopping, Ibaka did push off. All Splitter did was try too hard to force the refs to call one.

  2. Scott C says:

    that was no surrender, that was Pop using his second playoff team…. Spurs are that deep on the bench, Even last year when he sent the top 4 player home instead of suiting them up against the Heat, our bench took Lebron and gang down to the last few seconds. Plain and simple, our starters weren’t producing and in SA, if you’re not producing, someone else will step in…. this is a great matchup, at least we’re not watching a paint drying contest like in the East

  3. TopSpurFan says:

    Has anyone condiered that Pop got to watch almost an entire 2nd half of defense adjustments the Thunder made when he went really small. Perhaps with Diaw and Duncan both in, Ibaka, Adams or Perkins will either have to guard Tim at the high post, or Diaw on the three point line. The lane opened up for Joseph to drive and kick and eventually posterize Ibaka. They can’t leave Diaw on the 3 point line. I thought it was genious.. His subs against Thunder starters made the push because they stretched the floor.

  4. jorito says:

    I give the right hand to Pop,HE is the coach,and not only the coach,its THE coach,so if he thinks that its better to save stranghts I support him.
    But lets not overreact,I mean 2 games ago,the Thunder was done,with a historical 35pts loss and having to win to stay alive..they got beat up by the same guys,,lets not overreact.
    Spurs is a very experienced team and in my opinion WILL find out how to win AGAIN to OKC in the Western Finals.
    These guys are thirsty for vengance against miami and will not rest.

    In my humble opinion Spurs are the champions right now,not Miami,(talking about last year),they beat Miami,they just forgot to take a rebound,but did everything else right and beat them then.

  5. Joe says:

    I love Pop! But being down 12 is not surrender time, especially in the playoffs! Sure, save them for Thursday. But to tell you the truth, that second unit proved something to me. They didn’t give up. The starters looked like they threw the towel in and that’s not Spurs ball. How many times have we seen them pull it out late in the 4th? I hope Pop doesn’t do this again. I’d start Corey Joseph in place of Green and Diaw in place of Splitter. What’s he got to lose? I still think the Spurs can beat Miami but in order to beat OKC, they not only have to play smarter, make fewer mistakes and want it more, Coach Pop has got to make changes too!

  6. Hunter says:

    In my opinion I think Popovich made a huge mistake in pulling the starters late in the third. If they need rest because of AGE and it’s the season then OK but it’s the PLAYOFFS. If your two best men on the team are in their late thirties and need rest when there is plenty of game left in a huge game then that might mean its time to RETIRE. I doubt they wanted to rest, they wanted to play, this was a coach decision.

    I am no NBA coach but I know darn well that Red Auerbach or Riley, or Phil Jax would have sent the core three back in in a critical game four with only down by 12. You don’t beat the Thunder with SAFE BALL, nor do you win rings with SAFE BALL either.

  7. Spursfan says:

    To me Pop took them out because they were being out played. Period. I think it was a showing to the starters that even though you are the stars of this team, if you are not playing all out you are getting taken out. I liked the move. It will also rest them up and give them some of the hunger back.

  8. Faba says:

    @Chap 52:you are absolutly right! Spurs are missing a player like Bruce Bowen right now!

  9. Ryan says:

    Spurs will still win this series.

  10. Jason says:

    Spurs aren’t boring, they’re just efficient. Efficient basketball to some equals boring, because some people would rather see Blake Griffin dunk three times in a game than watch great ball movement by the Spurs. It’s gotten kind of ridiculous but that’s the way it’s going.

  11. Ned says:

    Here’s why Pop was wrong to not put his starters back in when his bench got them within 12 points from down 27: Not because of what the starters might or might not have done. But because the bench was, by that time, too exhausted to keep it up. Its normal to let those players play who are making things happen, and they should be rewarded. But expecting them to play so hard, and so consistently well for 18 minutes is not realistic, and expecting them to “pull the game out” after playing so hard for 10 or 12 minutes straight is not realistic. It is for that reason that Pop should have put his starters back. They WERE rested. If they then failed, he might have felt that it might have demoralized them for the rest of the series. This is valid thinking. But at the same time, with almost a full quarter left and down only 12 points, the starters had a shot at winning, his bench clearly must have tired out the Thunder’s bench, and I think this was a mistake. Comments like “no other coach could have gotten away with it” is a curious way of saying this, and perhaps a sloppy or cowardly way. But it suggests merely that what he did was unconventional. I don’t think that’s the point. I think he erred by betting on a group of players who, at that point in the game, had less of a chance to catch up completely than did his well-rested starters.

    • pop says:

      with pop its not just about the outcome of the game, but the psychological effect that follows the game. If the starters had come back, and they didn’t make a comeback then there would be no fear for okc players going in to game 5 – and thats too big of a risk when all they need to do is keep home court. We all know on their day, KD, Westbrook and Ibaka have the ability/strength/stamina to beat the spurs, but now pop is getting in their heads a bit. Kind of like 2007 when they last won a championship, they were up against the suns & that was a rough series, and they won that with mind games as well.

    • aLpha says:

      First of all, there’s still substitution on that 18 minutes. Second, it’s a great move by Pop to let the starters see what efficient basketball does to the opponent.

      • kd's abeast says:

        U guys do realize okc stopped playing wen the starters of the spurs came out right? ??? They werent being aggressive for rebounds and wasnt driving just chucking up shots with 15 seconds left on the clock. Even brooks said as soon as the starters left okc relaxed, they were up by 20 points they didnt see the need to go all out against reserves.

  12. okcDoke2014 says:

    This one looks like a 7 game series with each team winning at home

    • Julio says:

      I do agree… I ask if OKC, even qith the Spurs having a different strategy will have up than 30 free throws again. Splitter was called for flopping after Serge’s push. I think that was at least a foul! Serge walked till him, pushed his chest and then walked back to the other guy. Even Splitter being a big guy, Serge used his HAND to push, not his arm or body… his HAND. And Splitter flopped….BS!!

  13. okcDoke2014 says:

    Heat may be resting up for Spurs after tonight’s game

  14. okc2014 says:

    I have the boring Spurs riding off into the sunset on Saturday. OKC2014!

    • Kalbo!! says:

      people who says spurs are boring knows NOTHING about basketball..

    • Mike says:

      So you have the Spurs being eliminated on Saturday, and later you mention it will be a 7 game series with each team winning at home. Spurs have 2 home games left, the Thunder have 1. Either make up your mind or reacquaint yourself with basic maths.

  15. luis says:

    es la mima receta para spoltra, solo que los pacer no le dio descanso como en el primer juego a los suyos y ha sido una guerra a desgaste

  16. I thought Jason Kidd did the same thing in game 2 of the series with Miami.

  17. squala96 says:

    Pop is known to suddenly rest his top players and let the bench pick it up from there. He may have found it pointless from that point to push for a win. He’s also got old guys who can’t play 46 minutes unlike Westbrook and company; maybe he’s saving their strength for a Game 5 comeback attempt (which I doubt to be successful).

  18. Chap 52 says:

    I was hoping the Spurs would send a message to Westbrook when he kept coming into the lane. The old time Bad Boys would have sen him sprawling. The Spurs have to be physical once in a while. They need to send a message. The Thunder look too fast, too strong, and they have younger legs. Looks like an uphill battle for the Spurs. Hope they can win 2 out of 3.

  19. It may not be a surrender but they have to be asking themselves what else can they do. The Thunder seem to just get stronger day by day and I don’t know what 2 San Antonio stars out of their big 3 of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili can match the Westbrook/Durant onslaught.

    I think this has less to do with the venue (home court) and more to do with the return of Ibaka who moves Durant to defending the perimeter with his length and rotating at his size on shooters. The way Westbrook is defending right now is also something that has to be acknowledged along with Steven Adam’s added size inside for finishing and contesting shots behind Serge Ibaka. Reggie Jackson is also a player teams don’t have an answer for with so much attention going to the Oklahoma City stars.

  20. TheKush says:

    Nobodies perfect I mean we all got flaws sometimes I find Pop is too exacting…. Anyway I’m really interested in watching game 5 to see if deja vu happens yet again. In both losses I felt that Pop pulled his guys too early sometimes I think he should let them play. He made a crucial mistake in last years final by pulling Tim Duncan which is the only reason Ray Allen got that 3 shot. Prior to that Duncan had been owning Bosh and the Heat on the boards. I guess the bright spot yesterday was Joseph that dunk was spectacular. Pops currently the best coach in NBA however I question some of the things he does in the playoffs.

    Regular season yes you’d pull your guys early but in the playoffs where it’s first team to win 4 I would have only pulled them if it was the 4 minute mark in the 4th quarter and they were down 25. He pulled them with like 5 minutes left in the 3rd quarter yes those players are old and that’s the exact reason why I’d keep them on the floor because who knows if they’ll ever reach this far in the playoffs again? I’d only sub them if they were getting tired.

    I still have OKC winning it all but I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong this has been the best season I’ve seen so far. Last years finals was the best series I had ever seen but this years playoffs especially in the west has been really entertaining.

    • Tom says:

      I can see what Pop’s coaching and you’re not. It’s all about game 5 and fatiguing your starters hoping for a very unlikely comeback on OKC’s floor would’ve been dumb and jeopardized the series further.