San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was by most accounts gregarious, loquacious and engaged during his media session at practice in Miami on Wednesday, one day before Game 1 of his team's NBA Finals matchup with the Miami Heat tips off at AmericanAirlines Arena. Perhaps his finest answer, both in chuckle-inducing and hoops specificity, came in response to a detailed query from Wall Street Journal reporter Chris Herring about both conference champions' ability to perform well enough in certain areas to mitigate perceived weakness in others.
After first poking fun at Herring for being long-winded — "That's a really long question" — Pop offered a revealing and funny answer that started by poking a hole in the validity of 3-point percentage allowed as a defensive statistic (something Kevin Pelton, among others, has written about) and continued by underlining what feels like a pretty neat unifying theory of winning:
It really comes down to being able to make stops when you need them, making buckets when you need them, and not being gross. By "gross" I mean, in one game you get 23 turnovers and they get 27 points off those turnovers. You might have a hard time that night, or you shot 32 percent from the field. But you can be 2 for 26 from three and win. Because maybe something else. So everything being copacetic, maybe shots and making stops on demand wins a lot of games.
Like, for example, not coughing the ball up a ton, giving the opposition a chance to score in transition and get cheap buckets — the Spurs have posted one of the league's 10 lowest turnover rates six times in the last seven seasons, and in 2009-10, they were tied for 11th. Or being able to execute in high-leverage moments to get a score or a stop "on demand," as Pop termed it — the Spurs had the fifth-best point differential in "clutch" time (with the score with five points in the final five minutes of a game) and had the league's second-best winning percentage in games that featured "clutch" play. (The best "clutch" point differential and winning percentage? The Heat, naturally.)
At the highest levels and at the most important junctures, attention to situational detail can often subvert what you'd expect to happen based on stats, narratives and past tendencies. To borrow a common turn of phrase, that's why they play the games. And with talent differences as minute as they often are between NBA teams, sometimes the difference is just not beating yourself or being a hair's breadth better in the right few seconds.
So for all you young players out there, the next time your coach tells you not to be "gross," he might not just be telling you to watch your practice shorts more often. Although you should probably do that, too. As they often say in San Antonio, cleanliness is next to Poo God-liness.
Pop quotes via ASAP Sports Transcripts.