San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has never lost in four NBA Finals appearances, but he knows the feeling. The feeling that leaves you wanting after acting as a major part of a championship contender, and yet still falling short once spring or summer hits. You give all you can, and yet it’s still not enough.
At least, you think you’ve given all you can. A look at game tape, or the opponent that eventually bested the one that defeated you, or a few pointed sportswriter columns may reveal, later, what you were missing in the moment.
Gregg Popovich hasn’t won a title since 2007, and while this is a mitigating mention that most other NBA head coaches will kill for, it’s still a tough reality for a coach that enters every training camp with high ideas about his team’s station. Miami Heat star LeBron James is coming off of his first title, but this is his third straight Finals appearance following two disappointing Eastern Conference playoffs runs in 2009 and 2010, and he’s already hearing the criticism after scoring “only” 18 points in Miami’s Game 1 loss.
Coach Pop, typically mindful of things most aren’t, rushed to LBJ’s defense in a curt meeting with the media on Saturday:
He's a grown man. He doesn't need any of you to tell him anything.
He knows more than all of you put together. He understands the game. If he makes a pass and you all think he should have shot it, or he shoots it and you think he should have made a pass, your opinions mean nothing to him, as they should not mean anything to him.
He's a great player, and his decisions are what they are to gain. All decisions don't always work out. They didn't always work out for Michael or Tim Duncan or Shaq or Kobe Bryant or whoever. You make a decision and that's what you go with.
All the chirp, chirp, chirping about what he should have done, I thought it was hilarious from the beginning. Frankly, I was very happy for him as the year progressed when it became obvious he was comfortable in his own skin and didn't need to listen to any of you all.
In a way, Popovich is lucky to not have to hear the chirp, chirp, chirping at the same volume James has had to work through over the last few years. That’s the luxury of never having to dribble the ball or make a decision on whether to pass or shoot while still in the air. And to his everlasting discredit, James added to his own personal brand of noise by making an embarrassing spectacle of his free agent choice during the summer of 2010.
Popovich called Heat personnel chief Pat Riley during that summer to congratulate him on his work in securing James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, and yet it’s Riley that should be reaching out to Coach Pop after Game 1 to turn over the same compliment.
Miami could roll from here on out, defending its title and taking the series, but for the first 48 minutes of these 2013 NBA Finals Popovich’s schemes led to what had to have been the most frustrating triple-double in NBA Finals history – James came through with 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists, and his team had a chance to win down the stretch, but the San Antonio defense should have been credited doubly and then triply before James was to be given the lash by “you all.” All while Bosh and Wade faltered in LeBron’s reserve.
The game plan certainly wasn’t as simple as San Antonio forcing LeBron to make it all about himself, but the Spurs’ hedging and talking and preparation left us looking at what we assumed was going to be a 2017-version of Dwyane Wade, with Chris Bosh turning in an unimpressive Danny Schayes impersonation. James was chased out of the post, eased out of his comfort spots in the mid-range portion of the court, and left to make basketball plays.
The problem with that is that the Miami Heat roster was built to feed off of LeBron James making LeBron James plays, and not “basketball plays.” Franchises that go to an ailing Mike Miller during the heat of June can’t completely rely on the correct basketball play to down a fellow conference champion. This is a top heavy team that is reliant on James playing perhaps the best basketball that any of us have ever seen in order to win a championship.
James is familiar with the scenario.
Prior to Game 2 LeBron relayed that he made a point to do “what's best for the team,” and that what’s best for the team “doesn't always result in a win,” and he’d be right in that regard. This wasn’t always the case in 2010 and 2011, when James minded his Ps and left us with plenty of Qs down the stretch of close games that he could have fully dominated, but by and large James has been a mindful competitor that understands that a single two-possession loss to a fantastic championship-level team shouldn’t alter a legacy.
Gregg Popovich understands as much, as well. And he also understands that, despite his chalkboard machinations, LeBron James is the sort of player that double that 18-point output while still delivering those 18 rebounds and 10 assists.
Coach Pop isn’t trying to butter LeBron up, and make him a friend heading into a must-win Game 2. He just knows what LeBron James has in him, and that James’ fearsome potential runs parallel to the respect Gregg Popovich has for LeBron playing the right way. It sort of makes sense that these titans of industry would see eye to eye on how to run their warring empires.