The Inbounds: Outside the gates af the Church of Popovichtology

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Gregg Popovich is 63 years old. He is able to play, convincingly, the part of the crusty old basketball coach, barking at players coming off the floor for a timeout (no matter how many All-Star appearances they have), grousing at reporters, and generally being a mean sonofagun in most of his appearances to the public. That could be who he is. He could be a snuggly-wuggly teddy bear, but I’ll let you ask him if that’s his true identity.

When talks begin in roughly a month about the NBA season as training camp opens, when the initial rush of football descends from a fever-pitched roar to… well, OK, it’s pretty much a softer fever-pitched roar, there will be talk about the Heat and Lakers. LeBron James and Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and his Thunder, even some mentions of what Jason Terry does for the Celtics. The Spurs will be mentioned, but only in passing. Spurs fans will go apoplectic over this and then dismiss the national media, all the while tuning in the next time to once again go through the process. And the Spurs really shouldn’t be considered title contenders this season. They will almost assuredly win enough games to land in the top three of the West, and then will be defeated by a better defensive team because, well, God is apparently not without a sense of humor.

But what will also pass quietly is that we could very well be looking at the second-to-last season for Popovich in the NBA. There have been jokes and comments about Popovich retiring the second that Tim Duncan walks away. Duncan just re-signed for two more years with a player option for a third. If Duncan walks away when he can ditch the player option to get it off the Spurs’ books, something he would do because he’s that kind of guy, this could be Popovich’s second-to-last camp. That’s not a big deal. It could be his second-to-last. So there will be no huge arching narratives. Even when it is, there likely won’t be.

Popovich doesn’t take laps. He’s never given access to an author for a book, he’s never authored a book. He’s not doing lecture tours or commercials. And in the press there’s little-to-no self-aggrandizement wrapped in philosophies or shots at his competitors. He’s complimentary to his opponents, he’s complimentary to his players, he’s short with the press. There has been no indication given in his career that any of this is about anything but basketball for Popovich.

And yet:

Popovich  manages to be able to brutalize the press and be revered for it because he wins. The process works. Bear in mind that both Popovich and George Karl, a very different breed of the same species, are trying to win a title with an offense-first approach which historically runs counter to the most basic concepts (and cliches) about playoff basketball. But Popovich has not only managed to have a good team with this approach, despite not having a roster traditionally thought of in such terms, but has put together the team with the best record in the West the past two seasons. Those same concepts (an cliches) are what have been their downfall, but consider how difficult it must have been to get players like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Many Ginobili, and Stephen Jackson to adjust and go from a defense-first approach to an offense-first approach.

Popovich does this by being a coach that his players not only respect as his own man, but genuinely like. Consider this from a recent Spurs.com interview:

Ryan

Location: Los Angeles

Question: Who are some of your favorite musical artists, and any amazing live shows you’ve seen come to mind?

GP: The last live show I’ve seen was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And they’re still one of my favorites, you know the old stand-bys. I was a big Motown guy for a long time, being from that part of the country, and that sort of morphed into Jimmy Hendrix, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Led Zepplin, those kind of guys. And being here in Texas you can’t help but hear country music here and there. Everybody takes a different path in life and about three years ago I started listening to a Patsy Cline album and it just blew me away. I just am still amazed by her voice, and the guys and my family say “jeez, are we going to listen to that again?” So that’s the newest one, and another one: Terri Clark. Somebody gave me a CD by her, a country gal, and I love it. It’s really great. So I listen to that, and everything else is sort of foreign. It’s Egyptian, Usef, he’s an Egyptian guy, or Turkish music. That kind of thing. So pretty strange, a lot of different things.

What about any of Stephen Jackson’s?

Jack used to try to give me some of his tapes, but, first of all I couldn’t even understand what was going on, and some of them you could even dance to, but once I started hearing what they were saying and everything I just gave them back.

via Coach Pop Mailbag: 8/30/12 (Page 2) | THE OFFICIAL SITE OF THE SAN ANTONIO SPURS.

That’s actually a pretty revealing answer. Popovich is open to a lot of things. That kind of contradicts his crusty nature, but it’s representative of what we know about him from his background. A guy who has spent years overseas as an intelligence officer is probably going to be open to more than one way of looking at the world, or a problem. And he’s the kind of coach who Stephen Jackson gives his mixtape to. The fact that he can’t even understand, let alone enjoy, what Jackson’s rapping about is irrelevant. This is Stephen Jackson, and he’s giving his coach his album.

Something tells me the same will not be happening with Tom Thibodeau.

(Note: I don’t think Thibodeau listens to any music. When he’s done watching film I would think he either sleeps or sits in a dark room with the sound of a practice playing.)

Popovich has managed to contradict everything. He’s one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, and he’s one of the least famous. He’s a fervent stickler for defensive intensity who is now reliant upon his team scoring. He’s got an extremely imposing background, and little time for nonsense, yet has connected with modern NBA players and gotten them to not only commit but look up to him, because of the respect he gives them. He gives journalists little to no respect, and receives the same adoration.

Nothing about the Church of Popovichtology makes sense, and when his day is through, there will be no expose. No one will walk through the gates and explore all it secrets. He’ll simply lock the gate, turn, and walk home to his vineyard with a good book and without a look back.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue on Kyle Korver’s playing time: Brad Stevens ‘threw us for a loop’ by not playing Semi Ojeleye

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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LeBron James is obviously the Cavaliers’ best player. Cleveland’s second-best player? Usually Kevin Love, but Kyle Korver has made a case lately.

So, how did Korver play just 19 minutes, including none in the first quarter, in the Cavs’ Game 5 loss to the Celtics last night? That was his playoff low, besides Game 1 against the Pacers, when he was still recovering from injury.

Blame Boston coach Brad Stevens removing Semi Ojeleye from his rotation.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue:

Well, initially, he’s been putting [Semi] Ojeleye in, so that’s been kind of Kyle’s matchup when he comes in the game. He didn’t play him tonight, so it kind of threw us for a loop.

This won’t slow the talk of Stevens being a genius. He neutralized one of Cleveland’s best players simply by not using a limited rookie.

Still, Lue’s strategy held some merit. Korver is a defensive liability, but Ojeleye’s offensive limitations make it hard to take advantage. Ojeleye’s biggest strength, his physical strength, is of limited utility in trying to stick tight to Korver on the perimeter.

In Games 1-4, Cavaliers with Korver on and…

Ojeleye on:

  • Offensive rating: 111.9
  • Defensive rating: 102.1
  • Net rating: +9.9

Ojeleye off:

  • Offensive rating: 97.0
  • Defensive rating: 109.5
  • Net rating: -12.5

That said, Korver is too good to plant on the bench. Other perimeter options – J.R. Smith, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and Jeff Green (who actually played fine last night) – are just so unreliable. Lue shouldn’t just wait for the perfect matchup to use Korver.

But will Lue get it, anyway?

Stevens:

We believe in Semi and we think he’s a big, huge part of our team. It would not be a shock if he plays a ton for us in Game 6.

Lue better develop a plan for using Korver in Game 6 Friday, with contingencies based on Stevens using or not using Ojeleye. I wouldn’t trust Stevens’ declaration one bit, and Lue doesn’t want to get thrown for a loop again.

PBT Extra: Rockets showed defense, resilience, can Warriors show same in Game 5?

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Game 4 was an epic game, and the Houston Rockets proved they are a serious threat to knock the Warriors off the top of the mountain. They took Golden State’s big punch to start the game (a 12-0 run) and Stephen Curry haymaker in the third, cranked up their defense, got a great game from Chris Paul, and evened the series at 2-2.

Heading back to Houston, we can expect more of the same out of the Rockets Thursday night — they know a win in Game 5 puts them in a very dominant position in the series.

The question is, do the Warriors have another gear? That’s one of the topics I get into in this PBT Extra. For a few seasons now, the Warriors have been able to play lockdown defense and hit tough shots in the clutch, with Kevin Durant making them especially hard to stop, but in Game 4 when it got tight they looked tired and slow. Houston’s ball pressure threw Golden State off its game, and fatigue had set in for the Warriors. Can they not only go on big runs but slow down Chris Paul, James Harden and the Rockets’ attack?

Thursday night is going to be interesting.

LeBron James recalls six turnovers with striking precision (video)

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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LeBron James showed off his memory after the Cavaliers’ Game 1 loss to the Celtics, detailing every play of the beginning of the fourth quarter:

He was at it again after Cleveland’s Game 5 loss to the Celtics last night.

Asked about his six turnovers, LeBron perfectly described six turnovers:

The turnover LeBron very noticeably said went off Jeff Green‘s hands was actually assigned to Green. So, that meant LeBron omitted one of his own:

Still, this was incredibly impressive. It was also maybe a little passive-aggressive, the way LeBron notes the ball going off Green’s and J.R. Smith‘s hands.

So, it was quintessential LeBron.

Celtics top Cavaliers in Game 5, setting up Game 7 in Boston?

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LeBron James and a couple Cavaliers teammates left the court well before the Celtics dribbled out their 96-83 Game 5 win Wednesday.

The Cavs are already moving on.

Game 6 will be Friday in Cleveland, and the Cavaliers – down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals – must win to avoid elimination. The way Boston has played on the road, it’s even easy to look ahead to Game 7, which is scheduled for Sunday in Boston.

Still, the Celtics bought themselves leeway with their decisive win in Boston tonight. They led by double digits the final 20 minutes, breaking the Cavs’ momentum after two straight wins in Cleveland.

“It’s tough going on the road, playing against somebody else in their house with their crowd,” said Jayson Tatum, who had 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks tonight. “So, we were just comfortable. We came back home and defended home-court like we have all playoffs.”

Boston is now 10-0 at home this postseason – but just 1-6 away. Fueled in part by that historic split, no game in this series has been close. All five have been decided by at least nine points, and the average margin of victory – 18 – is in the 97th percentile for largest ever in a 3-2 best-of-seven series.

So, just as two big Celtics wins in Games 1 and 2 didn’t deter the Cavaliers, this one likely won’t, either. The Cavs should be heavily favorited in Game 6.

Beyond, if it gets that far? That’s a much bigger tossup.

Teams up 3-2 in a best-of-seven series have won 85% of the time. But Boston is missing a key reason it secured home-court advantage, including a chance to break the 2-2 at home rather than on the road – Kyrie Irving. And LeBron James is downright scary in a Game 7, even on the road.

The Celtics at least took care of business tonight, showing a far greater sense of urgency than Cleveland. Brad Stevens changed his starting lineup, inserting Aron Baynes for Marcus Morris, and tightened his rotation to just seven players until garbage time. Boston ran the floor much harder than the Cavs, decisively outrebounded them and beat them to loose balls. Even in altercations, the Celtics had a man advantage.

LeBron (26 points, 10 rebounds five assists and six turnovers) never made his presence felt in the way usually necessary for the Cavaliers to win. Cleveland’s four other starters combined to score just 24 points, two fewer than LeBron did himself.

After Boston seized control early, the Cavaliers made few adjustments in strategy or effort – as if they’re saving those for later.