The Spurs ended up with a compelling overtime victory in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, but it certainly didn’t start out as a game that would end in San Antonio’s favor.
Whether due to the extended layoff between games or because of the desperate nature of the Grizzlies, the Spurs were knocked on their heels from the opening tip, and were overwhelmed by a Memphis team that was clearly the aggressor.
As the Grizzlies forced seven turnovers in the game’s first seven minutes on the way to jumping out to a quick 11-point lead, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich didn’t at all like what he was seeing. But while most coaches would simply call time outs to try to right the ship while being fearful of messing with their regular rotations, Popovich felt that a more drastic measure was required in order to shake his team up.
After 7:07 had gone by in the first quarter and with his team trailing 16-5, Popovich subbed out all five of his starters at once. It was a bold move that didn’t pay immediate dividends; the Grizzlies extended their lead to as many as 18 points before the first quarter was through. But it got his team’s attention, and the Spurs began to chip away at the large deficit with the starters back in midway through the second quarter.
It would have been seen as a panic move by most, but Popovich is among the most tenured and respected coaches in the game, as well as someone whom his players completely trust. He is a member of a very small group of coaches who could get away with something like this without losing his players, and he explained the rationale for his unorthodox decision afterward.
“Well, to start the game, you all saw it; I don’t remember the stats,” Popovich said. “We had maybe eight turnovers in the first quarter. It looked like those five guys had been asleep since Tuesday, and so we thought we might as well get five different bodies out there and at least start to compete and not be as sloppy as that group looked. For whatever reason, I have no clue, but it was one of the worst starts I’ve ever seen. We just made the change and hoped we could sustain the hit, get the guys back in, and it was a real test of their character to continue to pound and pound and pound. That’s what happened.
“Really proud of their ‑‑ not really their effort so much but their ability to mentally hang in and stick with each other and continue to play.”
Popovich knows his guys, and the move worked to perfection. San Antonio had cut the lead that was once 18 points down to just four by halftime, and the starters regained their focus the rest of the way.