Teachable moment? Gregg Popovich benches Spurs starters early in third
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Nobody agreed. A couple of players made it clear in corners of a quiet locker room, after the San Antonio Spurs dropped Game 3 in their Western Conference playoffs series 105-94 to a resilient Memphis Grizzlies squad energized by coach David Fizdale’s post-Game 2 rant criticizing officials.
Ultimately, though, the Spurs understood the lesson that probably no other coach in the NBA but Gregg Popovich could get away with teaching during the playoffs.
“Yeah, I was [shocked],” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “It’s not the first time that Pop did something like that. But I guess he thought it was a lesson to be taught and learned in that situation, and he pulled them out.”
San Antonio entered halftime down 50-46. But just 52 seconds into the second half, Popovich called timeout, laid into the starting group, then sat them all on the bench next to the rest of the staff, as he subbed in Patty Mills, Pau Gasol, Jonathon Simmons, David Lee and Kyle Anderson for Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dewayne Dedmon, Danny Green and Tony Parker.
That’s how fast this game had gotten away.
“I don’t know what to say,” Parker said when asked about the move.
Before Popovich’s timeout and lineup switch, the coach had just watched San Antonio’s four-point deficit at the half swell an additional five points thanks to a pair of careless turnovers from Dedmon and Parker. Two minutes and six seconds into the third quarter, San Antonio trailed by 12 points after Zach Randolph converted a 3-point play to make the score 58-46.
Popovich felt as if the game had gotten away in “like the first minute,” of the second half, he said. The Grizzlies finished with three players — Mike Conley (24 points), Marc Gasol (21 points) and Randolph (21) — scoring 20 points or more in a playoff game for only the third time in franchise history.
“We turned it over twice to start the minute like we were out on a picnic some place,” Popovich said. “I don’t know. Those two turnovers, and then the mistake defensively where Marc got the 3-pointer at the top, and all of a sudden, it was a nine-point game. I thought at that point, we lost a little bit of composure and a little bit of confidence, and the rest ensued.”
After Popovich pulled the starters, Memphis only continued to gain momentum. Popovich began to re-insert the starters at the 8:27 mark of the third quarter. But by then, Memphis led by 12, and the Spurs had fallen out of rhythm.
The Grizzlies outscored the Spurs 31-17 in the third, and increased their lead to 18 on a Conley 12-foot floater off a Marc Gasol assist to close out the quarter.
It would be fair to argue that Popovich’s quick third-quarter hook might have disrupted the little rhythm the team did have to that point, making it even more difficult for the Spurs to mount a comeback, as Memphis’ crowd grew more and more frenzied with each Grizzlies bucket.
Leonard poured in 16 of his 18 points in the first half, and would take only two more shots the rest of the game.
“[Popovich was] just disappointed in the last couple plays,” Leonard said. “So I guess he thought that we all should come out at the game at that time, and see if that second unit had more energy.”
With the victory, Memphis snapped a nine-game playoff losing streak, but more important, moved into position to tie the series 2-2 on Saturday with a victory at the FedExForum.
Fizdale started off the process with his impassioned rant criticizing referees after Game 2 in San Antonio.
That was apparent all over the FedExForum through T-shirts, frenzied cheering, and even booing of Thursday’s officiating crew. When Fizdale’s name was announced during pregame introductions, the crowd roared, waving Growl Towels — left on every chair in the arena for fans — which featured the words “Believe Memphis”.
“Yeah, our fans were amazing tonight,” Fizdale said. “Honestly, when I did what I did and said what I said, I did not do it to try to create this. I was trying to fight for my guys, and this is Memphis. Memphis gets behind you when you stand up for your brother, for your city, and that’s all I was doing. I was just fighting for respect, and I think our guys really took it to heart that I stepped up for them, and they stepped back up for me. That’s what it’s all about.”
The Grizzlies are now only one victory away from tying the series, and they’ve finally found a lineup in James Ennis III, Randolph, Marc Gasol, Vince Carter and Conley that San Antonio struggles to match in terms of aggression, physicality and intensity.
“They started to feel more confident. The crowd got into it,” Ginobili said. “Pop got upset with the guys starting the quarter, sat them, and the whole momentum changed. In playoff games, especially on the road, a two-minute mental ‘something’ can become a 10-point deficit. That’s what happened. We were in good shape at the half. Not playing well, not shooting great, down four on the road, and it was a good situation. It was OK for us. We had that moment there in which the whole game changed. I guess he wanted to point out that it was not the right approach to start a third quarter.”
The move even surprised Conley, who said the Grizzlies became even more locked in, because they were unsure of what Popovich was doing, and wanted to stay prepared.
“Overall, it was hard for everybody to get a rhythm because getting in and out, subs, stuff like that,” Parker said. “It’s tough, but no excuse. We have to play better in Game 4 and come back strong.”
Fizdale’s rant against referees after Game 2 didn’t bear fruit until Game 3. So we won’t know until Game 4 whether Popovich’s actions from Game 3 will properly motivate his Spurs to close out the series.
“That’s what type of coach [Popovich] is,” Leonard said. “He wants us to understand what’s going on on the floor, and how important the opportunity is for us.”