Posts Tagged ‘Gregg Popovich’

Crafty Carlisle puts Pop to the test

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

Rick Carlisle (shown earlier this season) and the Mavs must be doing something right in the playoffs (Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE)

Rick Carlisle (shown earlier this season) and the Mavs must be doing something right in the playoffs
(Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE)

SAN ANTONIO – Ever since the Spurs and Mavericks were first paired up in the first round, Rick Carlisle hasn’t missed a chance to praise the wonders of Pop. Even before Gregg Popovich officially won the Coach of the Year award on Tuesday, Carlisle anointed him the undisputed king of the hill.

Then it was Coach of the Century. Followed by best coach in the league. Ever. Which pretty much covers the last 100 years.

If Carlisle, a former Coach of the Year winner and the last coach to lead a team from the Lone Star State to an NBA championship, wasn’t so dang syrupy in his admiration for Pop, you’d swear he was playing some kind of Jedi mind trick.

The eighth-seeded Mavs headed home Wednesday night filled with gusto after a thorough, 113-92 thrashing of Pop’s perplexingly bumbling top-seeded bunch. This best-of-seven series that many figured came with a black-and-silver broom is tied 1-1. And as noted late Wednesday night, this could well be Mavs, 2-zip.

Not that you could tell listening to Carlisle.

“The coaching matchup is a wipeout, really,” Carlisle said following Game 2. “I feel like I have boulders piled on top of me. This kind of thing, you know you’re playing the No. 1 seed and all that, you’ve got to dig as deep as you can. They’re going to come up with some things up their sleeve for Game 3 and we’re going to have to counter and be ready.

“I’ve said it: I think Pop’s the greatest coach in NBA history, and I don’t think it’s close.”

Still, it’s not like Popovich and the Spurs don’t know failure. The last time San Antonio entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, in 2011, it ended badly, with Memphis sending them home.

Carlisle and his staff came to San Antonio last Sunday with a tricked-up defensive scheme that the Spurs admitted caught them off guard. Dallas switched up matchups everywhere, closed out hard to limit 3-point shots — or at least limit the good ones — and barely went into its well-known zone.

This has been one of the league’s most porous defenses all season, yet they are completely discombobulating the clockwork-like precision of the almighty Spurs. San Antonio shot the ball well in Game 2 (50 percent overall and 50 percent from beyond the arc, as opposed to Game 1, in which they they shot 3-for-17 in threes) when they didn’t turn it over a season-worst 24 times.

Anybody not named Manu Ginobili is struggling from beyond the arc. He’s 8-for-12; everybody else is 5-for-25.

Surprisingly for Dallas, it’s success has come with Dirk Nowitzki wildly out of rhythm, having made just 11 of 33 shots. Monta Ellis came back with a good Game 2, but the Mavs have boosted their confidence with detailed defensive work and a team effort all around.

Can Carlisle keep weaving this magic against the Coach of the Century and the Western Conference reigning champs? Nowitzki half-joked that he wants to play Game 3 in San Antonio because Dallas hasn’t been very good at home. San Antonio led the league in road wins with 30, four more than the Mavs’ home win total.

With a 48-hour break between games giving ample time for both coaches to adjust, Popovich will go back to the drawing board, .

“We didn’t expect to go 16-0,” said Tim Duncan, who had 11 points in Game 2 after 27 in Game 1. “We’ll make adjustments. We’ll play better. It’s all we can do.”


VIDEO: The Mavericks evened the series with a win in San Antonio on Wednesday night

Mavs surprise as Spurs spin their wheels

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Dallas dominates San Antonio 113-92 in Game 2 to even series

SAN ANTONIO –series that’s bolted off-script boils down to one simple reason as to why that is: The eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks have more players playing harder than the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs.

And now Gregg Popovich, the Coach of the Year whom his astute counterpart Rick Carlisle called the Coach of the Century, must figure out why that is.

And it could be worse. The Spurs were seven-minutes, 45 seconds and a trademark Dallas meltdown from heading a few hours up north down 0-2. Carlisle was so protective of Wednesday night’s 20-point lead that after Popovich emptied his bench with six minutes to go, Carlisle kept Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Monta Ellis out there for another three minutes.

“Having such a poor performance in the playoffs really bothers me,” said Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, whose sizzling shooting for a game-high 27 points was buried by a multitude of lazy, lackadaisical Spurs possessions and a season-worst 24 turnovers.

“We,” Ginobili continued, “are going to definitely have to play much, much better to have a chance in Dallas.”

To have a chance in Dallas? Where the Mavs’ 15 home losses, two to the Spurs, are the most of any West playoff team? That’s how strange this thing has become.

Here we are through two games and the sixth-most efficient offense in the league during the regular season is being choked at every turn by the eighth-least efficient defense. The Spurs’ offensive rating (98.6 points per 100 possessions) in the series is barely a tick better than the Charlotte Bobcats, who are matched up against the Heat. Their defensive rating (108.3 points per 100 possessions) would rank 28th in the regular season, just ahead of the Bucks and Jazz. That’s bad company.

And who would believe that the Mavs’ playoff defensive efficiency in these strange first two games would position them third in the regular season behind the Pacers and Bulls?

“We are mixing things up a lot and doing things we don’t really want to do, but we have to because they are such a potent team and they have such great players; they have the Coach of the Year,” Carlisle said. “It’s a monumental task, but we are in this thing to win.”

Dallas surprised San Antonio in Game 1 with a tweaked-up defense that switched on pick-and-rolls and was wholly focused on chasing the Spurs off the 3-point arc. It worked. The Spurs went 3-for-17 from deep and, again, were fortunate to pull it out late.

In Game 2, there were no surprises. San Antonio made 10 of its 20 3-point attempts, so that wasn’t the issue. Into the second quarter, the Spurs were shooting better than 70 percent, yet as their shooting percentage kept rising, so did their deficit. The culprit was nine turnovers in the first quarter and six more in the second. Then there were all those missed free throws: 18-for-29.

“It’s a bad combination to not play good defense at one end and give the ball up at the other end and not shoot free throws very well either,” Popovich said. “That’s a bad combination at both ends of the floor. That means you got your butt kicked and that’s what happened tonight.”

This cohesive, finely tuned engine is suddenly missing pistons. Topping the list is small forward Kawhi Leonard. Other than Ginobili, photos of San Antonio’s reserves should be plastered on milk cartons. Marco Belinelli, a key acquisition this summer who meshed so early and so well, has been nonexistent. Ditto for Patty Mills and Boris Diaw. Starting shooting guard Danny Green has six points in two games. Unlike Game 1, Parker and Tim Duncan didn’t find open real estate to the rim this time and combined for 23 points. Duncan had 27 and Parker scored 21 in Game 1.

For Dallas, which basically went 10-deep in Game 2, role players have provided such a boost that they’re in this position despite Nowitzki going 11-for-33 from the floor in the two games. Devin Harris has been sensational with 37 points on 15-for-25 shooting. Marion had 20 points, Ellis went for 21. Former Spur DeJuan Blair and the erratic Sam Dalembert provided real juice.

And point guard Jose Calderon, the tortoise trying to play against the hare, bounced back and scored all 12 of his points in the Mavs’ hugely important third quarter that they won 32-24.

See, just as Dallas built a 56-41 lead with a couple minutes left in the first half, San Antonio knocked it down to 56-51 at the half. It was their one and only spurt of the night.

“All season, sometimes we let up a bit and compete all the way until we get in trouble,” Nowitzki said. “I like our intensity right now. It is a little dangerous going home because we have been a decent road team all year. At home, we have not figured it out yet.”

Pop led Spurs out of Finals doldrums

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Gregg Popovich accepts his third Coach of the Year award

SAN ANTONIO – Last summer was unlike any of the previous 17 in Gregg Popovich‘s career as coach of the San Antonio Spurs. The long days passed, but the doldrums from the Spurs’ heartbreaking Finals defeat to Miami bogged down like a stagnant lake in the Texas heat.

The 2013 championship was right there, 28 seconds from glory for a proud San Antonio franchise, the model of the NBA if not professional sports as a whole. But everybody knows what happened next. Popovich lived with it every day thereafter until he finally could not any longer, when the players returned to begin, somehow, a brand new season.

“The way we lost in the Finals wasn’t an ordinary loss; it was pretty devastating,” Popovich said Tuesday afternoon at the Spurs’ practice facility as he received the Red Auerbach Coach of the Year trophy. “And we decided that we would just face that right off the bat at the beginning of the season and get it out of the way; don’t blame it on the basketball gods or bad fortune or anything like that. The Miami Heat beat us and won the championship and that’s that, and you move on. In all of our lives there are many things more important than winning and losing basketball games and that’s the perspective we had to take. And our team showed great maturity and resilience in being able to do that, so I’m very proud of them for that.”

Their resiliency also came during a period of transition on the bench. Popovich’s longtime aids, Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer, became head coaches.

But nothing seems to phase this group. With Manu Ginobili turning 36 over the summer and Tim Duncan celebrating his 38th birthday on Friday, neither had to return, or return in better shape than they finished the previous season. When this season could finally have been the one that signaled the inevitable descent it seems has been predicted for the past half-dozen seasons, the Spurs won 62 games, the second-most of Popovich’s 18-year career and earned home-court advantage throughout the playoffs with the league’s top record.

With the Spurs, everything is a collective effort. They win together, lose together and plan how to win again together.

“We’re fortunate,” Popovich said. “These guys don’t care about stats, they only care about winning basketball games. You might get a championship, you might not, but you give it your best effort. But these guys could all have better stats. I play them for 29 or 30 minutes a game in their careers and their stats suffer because of it, but that sacrifice helps our entire team. and this year, whatever adversity we had — every team has adversity — but our bench really helped us through that. We would not have had the same success without what our bench did. I think that and the leadership that our older players showed helped us get through the hard times.”

In accepting his third Coach of the Year trophy, joining only Pat Riley and Don Nelson as three-time winners, Popovich spoke sincerely. He praised owner Peter Holt for granting he and general manager R.C. Buford, who sat next to his friend of more than two decades at the table during the news conference, the freedom to do their jobs, and said he was humbled to be singled out among the many worthy candidates this season that included first-year coaches Jeff Hornacek at Phoenix and Steve Clifford at Charlotte, plus Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Portland’s Terry Stotts and others.

None faced quite the unpredictable psychological hurdle that Popovich did with his heartbroken team.

“I think his steadfast attention to detail and facing the realities of last season’s end and immediately getting it behind us was really important,” Spurs general manager Buford said. “And his approach with his staff was different because it was a different staff, but the energy and the leadership we’ve seen has been consistent throughout his time as a coach.”

But of course it wouldn’t be a Popovich press conference without a measure of snark, and Pop didn’t disappoint.

When asked about losing his two longtime assistants, he interrupted the questioner:  “Thank God.”

Asked where he displays his Coach of the Year trophies, Popovich said: “They’re on the hood of my car. … I’ve got three of those right on the hood.”

As a younger man, Popovich dreamed of a playing career in the NBA before turning to coaching, getting his start as an assistant at the Air Force Academy. Asked if he knew he wanted to coach in the NBA once he didn’t make it as a player, Pop responded: “Larry Brown screwed me as a player. He had the unmitigated gall to pick David Thompson over me back when he was the Nuggets coach.”

Brown, of course, is one of Popovich’s mentors and who helped him get to the NBA, a place Popovich said was never truly a goal. He said he would have been happy to live out his days where he spent his early coaching days at Division III Pomona-Pitzer College in California.

“For me, the NBA was watching on TV back when they had the long nets and watching the ball go through the long nets; I really enjoyed that,” Popovich said. “I was fat, dumb and happy as a Division III coach. I could do it the rest of my life, it was fantastic, I loved it. But all of us take a different road here and there. The NBA was never a dream or thought of, ‘I’m going to go to the NBA and be a coach and do this.’ I had no clue.

“We run a lot of the same drills to be honest with you, pivoting drills and sitting on chairs, silly things like that, but all fundamental basketball stuff. After that, let the players play. They know how to get it done.”

So, too, does Pop.

Pop (hmmph) picks up third Coach award

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The best of Gregg Popovich (2013 playoffs)

SAN ANTONIO — Even after coaching 217 playoff games over the last 17 seasons, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich embarked on another postseason Sunday with butterflies swirling.

“Heck yeah,” Popovich quipped 90 minutes before the Spurs began their 17th consecutive playoffs under the coach everybody knows as ‘Pop.’ “If you don’t get nervous, you’re dead.”

The gruff Air Force Academy graduate is maybe the only coach in U.S. sports who has to come to be as celebrated for his typically terse exchanges with the media — particularly for his now famous, one-word retorts to television sideline reporters — as he is for his enduring legacy with a single franchise.

On Tuesday, Popovich, 65, added yet another layer to his rich, sure-fire Hall of Fame career as the recipient of the Red Auerbach Trophy as the 2013-14 NBA Coach of the Year. He led the Spurs to a 62-20 record, the best record in basketball, made more impressive because it came on the heels of a devastating loss last year in the NBA Finals.

“I feel very honored for a whole lot of reasons,” Popovich said at the news conference announcing the award. “First of all because there were so many coaches who did such a great job this year. I think it was really unique. A lot of people were really special and to be singled out is pretty humbling. I know I’ve been very lucky for a good number of years and I know full well I just represent part of what goes on here.”

It’s his third Coach of the Year honor and second in the last three years. He joins Don Nelson and Pat Riley as the only coaches to win the award three times. Popovich totaled 380 points, including 59 first-place votes, from a panel of 124 sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the United States and Canada.

First-year Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek finished second with 339 votes, Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau was third, Charlotte’s first-year coach Steve Clifford was fourth and Toronto’s Dwane Casey finished fifth in the voting. (Complete voting totals here.)

Popovich also won the award following the 2011-12 season and also for 2002-03, the season in which Manu Ginobili joined Tim Duncan and Tony Parker to form the Big Three. They won their first of three championships that season. (Popovich won another title with Duncan and David Robinson back in 1999.) The Spurs entered these playoffs as the reigning Western Conference champions, boasting the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

That consistency is the hallmark of Popovich’s 18-year career in San Antonio. This season included a 19-game winning streak and only one losing streak of more than two games (three, back in late January). The Spurs extended their streak of winning at least 50 games to an NBA record 15 consecutive seasons.

The Spurs’ 62 wins is their second-highest total under Popovich, one fewer than the 2005-06 team. This team was an offensive juggernaut, ranking sixth in the league in offensive efficiency (points per 108.2 points per 100 possessions) and No. 1 in 3-point shooting at 39.7 percent. At the other end they ranked fourth overall in defensive efficiency and second in the Western Conference.

Popovich achieved it while masterfully managing his team’s minutes and particularly his two aging stars, Duncan, 38, and Ginobili, 36. Popovich limited every player on the roster to less than 30 minutes a game while nine players averaged at least 18.9 mpg.

“We saved minutes all year long so we could give those minutes come playoff time,” Popovich said.

Rick Adelman‘s announcement Monday that he was stepping down as coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves moved Popovich to the top of the list of career victories among active coaches — ninth on the all-time list — with a record of 967-443. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers (644-498) is second and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle (569-339), who is matching wits with Popovich in their first-round playoff series, is third.

“Pop’s the best coach in the game and for my money he’s the best coach in history because of what he’s been able to do over a period of almost two decades, keeping the same system and just plugging in different players,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s been phenomenal.”

Popovich is the longest-tenured coach with the same team in all four major professional U.S. sports.

Time for Harris’ speed over steady Calderon

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Tim Duncan has 27 points as the Spurs take Game 1

SAN ANTONIO – Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle needs to pull a page from Avery Johnson‘s 2006 postseason playbook against San Antonio and match speed on speed, minute-for-minute.

Johnson sprung second-year backup point guard Devin Harris on Tony Parker and the Spurs in Game 2 of their 2006 semifinal series. His insertion into Dallas’ starting lineup proved to be a catalyst in ending the Spurs’ repeat title hopes in seven games.

In 2008, Dallas traded Harris to the Nets for Jason Kidd, and Parker applauded.

“To be honest with you,” Parker said back then, “I’m really happy for that trade.”

After stops with the Nets, Jazz and Hawks, Harris is back in Dallas and Carlisle essentially followed Johnson’s adjustment in Sunday’s tough, 90-85 Game 1 loss, turning to Harris early and often over the miscast Jose Calderon. One of the few men in the league with the quicks to challenge the Spurs’ All-Star point guard and driving offensive force, Harris nearly won the game for the eighth-seeded and heavy underdog Mavs, who didn’t get typical efforts from Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, yet led 81-71 with 7:45 to go.

Carlisle endured five minutes before turning to Harris over the slow-footed Calderon, whose defensive deficiencies grew in their unpalatability as his shot misfired. Calderon was 0-for-4 from the floor, with only one attempt being a bread-and-butter 3-pointer, when he made way for Harris. The Spurs led 9-2 and Parker, being guarded by overmatched Mavs small forward Shawn Marion as Dallas mixed coverages, scored the first seven points on beautiful drive-and-scoops.

Harris might need to play 35 minutes or more if they’re going to press the Spurs, so he might as well get started on Parker from the jump. At Mavs practice back in Dallas on Monday, Carlisle didn’t tip his hand with Wednesday’s Game 2 still more than 48 hours away, but Nowitzki told reporters they’re sticking with Calderon.

“We’re rolling the way we’re set up,” Nowitzki said. “Jose has been our starter the whole year. We’ve got to start the game off a little better. I think we were a little slow and we were down eight or 10 pretty quick there in the first quarter, so we’ve got to be a little better there, but Jose is our starter. He’s the guy that puts us in our plays and we’re rolling with it.”

Calderon, playing in his first postseason since 2008 with Toronto, logged just 16 minutes — his shortest stint of the season not cut short by injury. He watched the entire fourth quarter from the bench. Harris played 32 minutes, his third-most minutes of the season, scored 19 points — one off his season high — including three 3-pointers, with five assists, and he consistently forced the issue against Parker and speedy Spurs backup Patty Mills.

“He’s capable of that,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, noting Harris’ scoring binge . “He might not do it night after night after night, but he’s capable of it, and he showed that.”

Parker, who finished with 21 points and six assists, left Sunday’s game offering Harris credit, and something of a pointed compliment.

“He surprised us a little bit,” Parker said. “He made three 3s in the first half. He usually doesn’t make those 3s. Devin is the type of guy, he can score a lot of points quickly, so we are going to have to stop that.”

It certainly wouldn’t be out of character for Carlisle to alter his starting lineup in the postseason. In the 2011 Finals against Miami, Carlisle inserted the diminutive J.J. Barea at shooting guard over defensive-minded DeShawn Stevenson trailing in the series 2-1 to take advantage of Barea’s quickness and ability to penetrate. The Mavs never lost again.

Carlisle did go back to Calderon to start the third quarter against San Antonio and the tough-minded veteran responded with three buckets, but finished 3-for-9 with seven points and a couple assists. A spot role in this series for the Spaniard, who signed a four-year $29 million deal with Dallas last summer, could be something he’ll have to accept.

The Spurs have won 10 games in a row over Dallas, including 4-0 during the regular season. Parker played in the first three meetings and torched the Mavs for 23.3 ppg — seven more than his season average — on 54.2 percent shooting. Calderon averaged 29.6 minutes in the four games. Harris averaged 20.5 mpg playing in only 40 games after undergoing offseason toe surgery.

While Sunday’s Game 1 was Calderon’s shortest stint of the season, it was the second time in the last three games that Carlisle sat the 32-year-old against a quick, penetrating backcourt. Calderon, who averaged 30.5 mpg during the regular season, played just 17 minutes with a playoff berth on the line against Phoenix in the second-to-last game of the season.

Nowitzki and Ellis must pick up the scoring load, but the bigger burden at both ends of the floor might just lie with Harris’ ability to tackle Parker.

“His quickness, his ability to shoot the pull-ups, shoot the 3, get in the paint, find guys is just something we have to exploit,” Mavs shooting guard Vince Carter said of Harris.

It’s why Harris should find himself back in the Mavs’ starting lineup come Wednesday night.

Jeff Hornacek talks Suns’ 48-win season

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Suns’ Goran Dragic is a nominee for Kia Most Improved Player

DALLAS – The Phoenix Suns added their name to a very short list of teams to win 48 games and not make the playoffs. Their pleasantly stunning season has sparked increased debate about whether the NBA should look at ditching the conference model and put the 16 teams with the best record into the postseason.

Suns coach Jeff Hornacek vaulted to the top of the Coach of the Year discussion early on and, like his team, never faded. Phoenix was believed to be a team headed for major ping-pong balls come the lottery, a team constructed of journeymen and unproven parts expected to top out at around 25 victories.

The first-time head coach will have competition from Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Portland’s Terry Stotts, Charlotte’s Steve Clifford, Toronto’s Dwane Casey and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.

“Jeff is an awesome coach,” Suns point guard and team MVP Goran Dragic said. “He was a great player and he understands the game. As a coach, he sees things differently and he is always calm and gives us that extra confidence. He works hard with young players after practice and he gives us the strength to fight the whole season.”

Here’s how Hornacek views his rookie season on the bench:

Q: How did you manage to quickly establish a winning culture in a locker room with high turnover?

A: That’s the one thing going into this season we wanted them to do, just play hard, play together and for the most part they’ve done that. These guys care about each other, they’re a very close-knit team and that gives you an opportunity for success.

Q: How did Gerald Green, NBA.com’s choice as Most Improved Player, find success this season and bouncing in and out of the league?

A: Gerald is a guy who can get his shot off anywhere — and he does (laughs). He’s got great confidence in his shooting. He’s done a much better job of not just settling for the jump shot, but he’ll take it to the basket. If he gets a step and has a chance to jump, you know how good of an athlete he is, he usually gets the ball in the basket. He’s improved in terms of his consistency. It’s not where he’s jacking up 10 3s and making two of them. He realizes that if he’s not making them, he moves in and tries to take a different shot and that’s been big. I think that’s where a lot of his improvement’s come.

Q: It’s been said that you are the perfect coach for him and the system is a perfect fit. Do you agree with that?

A: He’s bought into what we’re trying to do, it kind of fits his style. We don’t mind running up and shooting quick 3s. I think his eyes light up when one of our point guards, Goran or Eric [Bledsoe], sprint down the court and he’s filling a lane. Guys have great confidence in him and they look for him now because they know he can get hot and make six, seven in a row. It’s a big part of what we do and he’s been great this year.

Q: You played for and coached under Hall of Fame Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. What aspects of his coaching style or philosophies did you incorporate into yours?

A: When we went into it I tried to take a little bit from all the coaches. With Jerry, it’s just go out there and try to play every play like it’s your last, that’s what Jerry always stressed and we’re constantly talking about that. We’re an inexperienced team in terms of playing games so those guys are learning on the fly of how to do that night in and night out, and then get to every play. You can’t have three or four plays that, ‘Oh I forgot,’ or ‘I spaced off’ or whatever it is because that’s going to be enough to cost you the game. Jerry was always on that: Play every play like it’s your last and we try to get that from our guys.

Q: Not sure if even you could have predicted the level of success the team had this season. What does it mean for the franchise when 20-something wins seemed to be the ceiling?

A: Well, the whole part of the rebuilding is you’re going to have steps. From a team that was supposed to win maybe 20 games, we thought if we can get to 30, 35, start establishing things, maybe next year make a push for the playoffs and the year after that get in the playoffs, the kind of stepping stones that you have to go through. Maybe we just skipped a rung. I think it’s great.

Q: Why were you able to skip a rung?

A: I don’t know. It’s always tough in the NBA, especially the way guys switch teams nowadays. The chemistry part is big. And our guys, we had 10 new guys, you never how that’s going to come together, they’ve gotten along pretty well. We emphasized in the beginning, you’re a bunch of new guys, you’re a lot of guys that have contracts that end this year or they end next year, so that’s always kind of a recipe for disaster when guys try to get individual, worried about their contracts. I told them stories about some of our guys from the past, that when you’re on a good team that’s when teams want you, that’s when they’ll pay bigger bucks if you’re on a good team. And so if we’re a good team, all that stuff will come, don’t worry about it, just play and try to win games and that’s what they’ve done. They’ve put it all aside and just played.

Q: When did you first see signs that your team could be pretty good?

A: Early in the season we lost a couple of close games to San Antonio and Oklahoma City at their place and our guys; when you’re in a rebuilding mode a lot of times guys are talking about, ‘hey, that’s a moral victory. Hey look, we played well.’ Our guys were ticked off, they were mad about it. So, to me, as kind of a competitive player, I think, I took that as a sign that, hey, we could be OK this year because these guys care and they want to win.

Q: You paired two point guards, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, in the same backcourt. Why did you believe they could complement one another?

A: I just kind of envisioned it because I saw what Kevin Johnson and I went through way back in the day when you had two guards out there and we wanted to be an up-tempo team. We felt that the best way to do that is to have two guys you can outlet the ball to. We don’t need it in one guy’s hand when you can throw it to anybody. We just kind of, [general manager] Ryan McDonough, when we talked about if it could work, he said, ‘yeah I think it would be great getting them from one side to the other. Teams have to look at the mismatches. Someone’s going to have the advantage as good as those two guys are.

Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Gregg Popovich once again has the Spurs playing at a high level. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

Gregg Popovich once again has the Spurs playing at a high level. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

If you took a poll of their peers and asked them to name, year in and year out, the best coach in the NBA, the same name usually would show up.

Gregg Popovich.

That’s what happens when you spend 18 years establishing roots and a philosophy in a Spurs franchise that produces four NBA titles, 15 consecutive seasons of at least 50 victories and the best record in the Western Conference three of the past four seasons.

“I think for everybody in the league, you hope to get to that point where the established players, Hall of Fame type players, play in a system together for a long time,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “They know each other, know the amount of effort that it takes, know how to get ready for games and how to get ready for series and how to get ready to win championships. All those things come from some time. It’s been a phenomenal run. In my career in the NBA, it’s been the most sustained long run. It’s just amazing that Pop gets them to play the same way every year.”

But especially this year, when the pages on the calendar cry out that Tim Duncan is soon-to-be 38, Manu Ginobili is 36 and Tony Parker is 31. Especially this year when the Spurs have worn the scars of their devastating loss of a fifth championship that was in their grasp until the last 28 seconds of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. Especially this year when Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Parker and Ginobili all spent stretches of time on the shelf with injuries or assorted aches and pains.

“Even if you have talent in this league, it isn’t as easy as people think,” Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. “You have to get guys to come together and get them to buy in and find a way that they can play as a team.”

Popovich, the longest-tenured coach in any professional sport, has won Coach of the Year honors twice before in 2003 and 2012. But the work he’s done this season just might be his finest.

He is the first to tell you that the Spurs keep winning year after year because they have the talent, professionalism and unselfish nature of their Big Three to be committed to common team goals. But they continue to succeed again and again because Popovich has ingrained a system where the ball moves to find the open man and the best shot on offense and the defenders’ feet move to cut off open shots by their opponents.

The cast of supporting characters changes frequently, but what doesn’t is the requirement to stick to the same basic, demanding understanding of how the game is played. He won’t lower his own expectations, but will constantly raise your own.

This season Popovich has coaxed and nurtured the Spurs to 62 wins in the powerful Western Conference, all while carefully managing the minutes of his stars. Not a single player on the roster plays an average of 30 minutes per game. Parker is at 29.6, Duncan and Leonard at 29.2, Ginobili 22.8. Parker is the team’s leading scorer at only 16.7 per game, but the Spurs have nine different players averaging at least 9.1.

The Spurs are strong. They are deep. They are resilient and healthy going into the playoffs and ready again to drill into opponents what has been drilled into them — the sheer simplicity and brutal efficiency of playing one way.

Pop’s way. Which proved to be the best way. Again.

The contenders

Doc Rivers, Clippers — The veteran coach made the cross country hop and immediately changed the culture and the attitude of the franchise. He demanded and got more out of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and made a good team into a real playoff threat.

Jeff Hornacek, Suns — Getting his first chance as head coach, the last thing Hornacek wanted to hear was lottery talk. He took a disparate group of players and got them to share the ball and make the most of their ability. Nearly winning 50 games in the West is not to be undervalued.

Tom Thibodeau, Bulls — When Derrick Rose went down in the 10th game, he could have cursed the fates. When Luol Deng was given away to Cleveland, he could have thrown up his hands. Instead Thibodeau keeps grinding and now the Bulls are a fearsome matchup for anyone in the playoffs.

Steve Clifford, Bobcats — Another rookie head coach who gave the Bobcats what they’d been lacking for so long — an identity and a plan. He turned the worst defense in the league into one of the best (No. 6), made Al Jefferson the calling card of his offense and lifted Charlotte into the playoffs.

Mills ready to fire away for Spurs

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Patty Mills hangs 26 points and six assists on the Mavs on April 10

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Meet Patty Mills, the latest once-anonymous, low-minute man to thrive as a meaningful member of the San Antonio Spurs.

In a game last week at Dallas, a bad back sidelined All-Star point guard Tony Parker. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has typically started Cory Joseph in these instances to keep Mills firing off the bench. On this night, with the Mavericks desperate for a win as they chased a playoff spot, Popovich surprised the 6-foot Mills by starting him at point guard for just the second time this season.

Mills responded by destroying Dallas’ backcourt with six 3-pointers and a game-high 26 points, six assists, a couple steals and not a single turnover in 36 minutes. If you squinted, it almost looked like the jitterbug wearing No. 8 was really Parker’s No. 9. The Spurs won the game, going on to sweep the regular-season series 4-0 against a Mavs team they might see again this weekend when the playoffs begin.

The first-round matchup will be determined Wednesday when Dallas plays at Memphis (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). The loser will assume the eighth seed and head for San Antonio. The Grizzlies are also 0-4 against the Spurs.

After the big victory over Dallas, Mills was asked if he finds himself looking ahead to the playoffs considering he’s headed for his first postseason as an integral part of a rotation.

“No, no, and obviously it’s not easy to do,” Mills said in a softly spoken Australian accent. “You really need to focus on the job at hand and we’ve got games like tonight we’ve still got to play which are going to develop us and give us a good opportunity to get better against playoff teams.”

He quickly added: “I think whether we won or lost tonight’s game, I think it was a matter of how well we played that we came out of this game, you know, better.”

It reminded of the line Popovich delivered earlier this month to his club during TNT’s timeout peek into the Spurs’ huddle at Oklahoma City:

“I could care less whether we win or lose this game. I’d rather win but I want to win the right way.”

Mills, told he sounded much like Pop, said with a grin: “I’ve been around him for a while now, so…”

Hailing from Canberra, Australia, Mills, 25, played two seasons at Saint Mary’s in Northern California and was the 55th pick of the Portland Trail Blazers in 2009. During the 2011 lockout he returned to Australia and went to China briefly. San Antonio signed him in March 2012 and re-signed him the ensuing summer. In his first full season with the Spurs, Mills averaged 11.3 mpg and 5.1 ppg in 58 games.

When the Spurs didn’t re-sign long-distance shooting guard Gary Neal  last summer, the 180-pound, quick-footed Mills ascended into the rotation.

“He can score,” Popovich said. “He’s not afraid to shoot it, that’s for sure. That’s how he plays, he’s always aggressive, that’s what he does. He’s not going to get a whole lot of rebounds or stop a whole lot of people, but he’s going to shoot it, that’s what his skill is.”

Logging a career-high 18.3 mpg in 80 games this season, Mills, making $1.1 million in his final season under contract, is averaging 10.2 ppg and converting 42.5 percent of his 3-point attempts (134-for-315) — both better marks than Neal produced last season.

Mills’ effective field-goal percentage (eFG%, adjusted for 3-pointers being more valuable than 2-pointers) is 59.4 percent, the highest in the league among reserve guards who average at least 15.0 mpg.

However, he’s entering an all new ballgame now. His postseason experience consists of scarce minutes, a total of 79 in his career. Is he prepared to produce as he has during the regular season in his first playoff pressure-cooker?

“I don’t doubt him,” Manu Ginobili said. “He’s very young and doesn’t have that much experience, but he’s played big games for Australia, and in the Olympics. The guy can score. The guy is a scorer and I don’t see a scenario where pressure can really bother him. We trust him and rely on him, too.”

Mills is fully indoctrinated in the San Antonio way. Popovich last week provided his seal of approval.

“He’s ready,” Popovich said. “He’s not a 21-year-old rookie. He’s played all over the world in all kinds of situations. He’ll be fine. I’m not worried about him.”

Spurs get a scare; 3-team race tightens

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Spurs post ninth straight win against Mavs.

DALLAS – Gregg Popovich said it all happened so fast he didn’t have time to fear the worst. Manu Ginobili said the players looked at each other, gritted their teeth, and got a little worried. Patty Mills, the Spurs’ hero Thursday night, flat-out called seeing Tim Duncan on the floor clutching his right knee, a full-on panic.

“I panicked. I felt like my heart skipped a beat,” said Mills, who poured in a game-high 26 points that included six 3-pointers as injured starter Tony Parker‘s body double in the San Antonio Spurs’ 109-100 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. “I wanted to run back and see if he was all right, but then I was trying to foul someone so play could stop.”

The silence that surely enveloped the entire city of San Antonio could be sensed 270 miles to the north in Dallas. And why not? Even Duncan, who hyperextended the knee only to be just fine moments later after a brief stop to the training room, deemed it “very, very scary.”

“I was trying to get my bearings after it happened,” Duncan said. “The pain wasn’t that bad, but I knew it felt kind of weird; it went at kind of a weird angle. I just wanted to make sure everything was fine.”


VIDEO: Duncan admits he was scared by tweaked knee.

Was it ever. The ageless Duncan, two weeks removed from his 38th birthday, quickly returned and bludgeoned Dallas for 20 points and 15 rebounds in 39 minutes, 17 seconds — 51 seconds shy of his season high. Kawhi Leonard was brilliant with 16 points, 16 rebounds and five assists, and Mills and Danny Green combined for 11 of the Spurs’ 16 3-pointers as San Antonio kicked its one-time rival, and potential first-round playoff opponent, for a ninth consecutive time.

San Antonio (61-18) now virtually has the No. 1 seed locked up. One more win in the Spurs’ final three games or an Oklahoma City loss will do it.

“We want to end it as healthy as possible and we want to lock it up,” said Duncan, who described the regular season as dragging following last season’s heartbreak in the Finals. “We’ve come this far and we’ve worked this hard, we want to get it locked up, so another great step.”

Meanwhile for the Mavs (48-32), Thursday night continued a string of frustrating home losses. They went 4-4 on their recent franchise-long homestand, then followed it up with four straight road wins to seize the driver’s seat in the fight for the final two spots in the Western Conference with Phoenix and Memphis.

Now they’ve slipped back into eighth, behind Phoenix (47-31), while No. 9 Memphis stayed alive with Wednesday’s rousing home win over the Heat. The Mavs, Suns and Grizzlies all play each other starting Saturday night.

Thursday’s combo of the Mavs’ loss and Duncan’s massive minutes only increases the intrigue for Friday night when the rested Suns play at San Antonio before coming to Dallas for a Saturday night showdown.

Asked about playing against the Suns, Duncan said he’d go 45 minutes.

“At least 45,” he added, tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Popovich said he planned to enjoy the victory for a half-hour before delving into lineup possibilities against the Suns.

It would be highly surprising if Duncan suits up. Parker is also not expected to be back. Ginobili, who played Thursday despite a sore left calf, said he felt fine after the game and would wait to see what Popovich decides for Friday night. Whoever’s in or out shouldn’t enter the Suns’ minds. This is the Spurs. This is what they do.

Meanwhile, Memphis figures to stay in the hunt Friday with a home date against Philadelphia. The Grizzlies have won 12 in a row at the Grindhouse.

Dirk Nowitzki, who two nights ago celebrated moving into 10th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, lamented another lost opportunity at home. He finished 8-for-14 from the floor for 19 points, but managed just two points on two shot attempts in the fourth quarter when Monta Ellis finally heated up after a ragged 5-for-16 shooting start through the first three quarters.

Nowitzki, a season-long League Pass subscriber, said he’ll be tuning in for Suns-Spurs.

“I’ll probably come back tomorrow night [to the arena] a little bit and shoot, get a little rhythm, but I’m definitely going to catch the second half,” Nowitzki said. “I’ll tune in, we’ll see what happens. San Antonio’s got No. 1 locked up as far as I know, so who knows what they’re going to do.”

Heat’s margin of error has vanished

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron James did his usual work for the Miami Heat in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – With the start of the playoffs just 10 days away, I never expected to be questioning the Miami Heat.

Normally, you’ve earned the benefit of all doubt when you smash your way to three straight Finals, win back-to-back titles and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are capable of handling any challenge thrown your way on the road to that sort of success.

And yet I cannot get the words of TNT’s Steve Kerr out of my head. He was the first to fire off a warning about the perils of the sort of journey the Heat are on, the taxing nature of not only chasing a three-peat, but the exhausting grind of playing to the final day of the NBA season four years in a row. It’s a grueling process that has worn down the best of the best before, so why shouldn’t it do the same to the Heat?

“There’s a reason these teams don’t do it,” Kerr said in September. “Emotionally, it’s just exhausting to keep doing it year after year, particularly when you have to deal with everything Miami has to deal with on a daily basis, just the constant critiquing and scrutiny on the team, and then you factor in the injuries with Wade and Bosh and their health. I don’t think Miami will get out of the East this year.”

Even if they get out of the East (which I think they will), their margin of error in The Finals — which was razor-thin last season — has vanished. They were on the ropes against the San Antonio Spurs, 30 seconds away from going down in Game 6 before they found the magic needed to survive that game and the energy to finish the Spurs off in Game 7.

It’s asking too much for the Heat to muster that sort of energy and effort again … especially after they’ve already spent a considerable amount of energy and effort dominating the way they have for four seasons running.

This Heat team, the one where LeBron James does the nightly heavy lifting while Chris Bosh does his part and Dwyane Wade helps (when he’s healthy and feeling good enough to suit up) reminds me of the 2011 group that lost to the Dallas Mavericks in The Finals.

It’s a game-to-game thing with the Heat now. Things appear to be fine after a win against a contender from the Eastern or Western Conference, while a loss to a contender starts the chorus of concern all over again. We’ll see it again in the next 48 hours. Losing to Memphis Wednesday night raised all the same red flags about the Heat’s ability to answer the bell against a desperate team. But a win Friday night (7:30 ET, NBA TV) in their fourth and final battle of this regular season against the Indiana Pacers will silence the cynics — at least for a few hours.

A year ago, the Heat were in the midst of a stunning finish to the regular season that saw them win 27 straight games as they chased the Lakers’ NBA-record 33-game win streak. No one had any doubts that they were ready for the playoffs, ready to handle the rigors of winning back-to-back titles and solidifying their status as the league’s preeminent force.

These days, each outing offers more and more signs of decay. It’s a natural erosion that comes with the Heat pounding the rock every night since James, Wade and Bosh joined forces. You don’t have to be a Heat hater to see it either. You simply have to watch, study and give an honest assessment of what we’re seeing out of Miami as the regular season ends.

The same way Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Israel Gutierrez of ESPN.com did after that loss to the Grizzlies:

The other somewhat troubling sign Wednesday was how quickly the offense went from free-flowing with great ball movement in the first half to a stagnant, LeBron-or-nothing affair that played very much into Memphis’ hands.

James happened to keep Miami in the game because he had his jumper going. But the entire offense came to a standstill on several possessions, leading to forced drives into traffic and easily convertible turnovers.

“It’s something you always have to stay conscious of,” Spoelstra said. “Even as beautifully as we move the ball sometimes, it’s a game you have to work at. You have to do it under duress, when the defense steps up their pressure, which they did.”

LeBron says he would rather play the ball-movement game and keep his teammates involved. But when he’s got it going, he can also take the offense out of rhythm when calling his own number.

“That is a fine balance in this league,” Spoelstra said. “Because he, along with Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, they’re the best end-of-possession, bail-you-out options for the offense.

“But that can’t be your offense, and we understand that.”

Ultimately, this comes down to Wade. Will he be able to navigate a healthy path and play at an elite level long enough during the postseason to give the Heat that extra playoff edge they’ve had their last two playoff runs?

Because asking LeBron to carry the load without that help this time around might not be feasible.

Flipping that Heat playoff switch is not an option, either. Not when the margin of error has vanished before the postseason has even started.


VIDEO: A desperate Grizzlies team was too much for LeBron James and the Heat