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The Spurs’ Postseason Goes Pop: Gregg Popovich and the Limits of Coaching

Getty Images
Getty Images

The Spurs were supposed to win, and coming into their series with the Thunder, their biggest advantage was supposed to be on the sidelines. Gregg Popovich, arguably the greatest NBA coach of all time, was going up against Billy Donovan, a rookie who had become a laughingstock on Twitter this season as he made the transition from college to the pros. Six games later, with the Thunder advancing to the conference finals and the Spurs facing an offseason of unprecedented change, maybe the most shocking part of the Thunder’s upset was how decisively Popovich lost the coaching game.

After a 32-point loss in Game 1, it looked like every criticism made of Oklahoma City over the past few years was coming true, from the lack of depth around their stars to their inability to buy into a team concept on either side of the ball. Instead, they righted the ship, in large part thanks to a few strategic tweaks from Donovan. OKC stayed big for the rest of the series, closing games with the gargantuan duo of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter up front. The Spurs had no answer for the size, length, and athleticism on the Thunder roster, and it was especially apparent in the paint, where their aging big men were overwhelmed on the glass.

NBA playoff series are all about adjustments, and Pop never adapted to Donovan’s initial gambit. There were two basic ways Popovich could have tried to counter OKC’s supersize lineups. He could have fought fire with fire by playing Boban Marjanovic, or he could have downsized with Kawhi Leonard at the 4 to try to run the Thunder big men off the floor with a steady diet of pick-and-rolls. Unfortunately, these adjustments weren’t made until the second quarter of Game 6, at the first signs that the game might’ve been slipping away. Boban picked up three loose-ball fouls in the quarter, and when he was on the floor, the Thunder repeatedly forced him to defend the pick-and-roll away from the basket — he was a minus-13 in less than seven minutes of playing time. Sizing down with Kawhi only exacerbated the rebounding problem that had killed the Spurs all series.

Given how unsuccessful both strategies proved to be on Thursday, there’s certainly no guarantee that they could have worked had Popovich gone to them earlier in the series. That’s the nature of the beast with coaching. But the timing was also off.

Despite his reputation for coaching wizardry, Pop now has playoff series losses to Scott Brooks, Doc Rivers, and Billy Donovan in the last five seasons. Of course, this can be spun another way: His teams have lost to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, and Chris Paul. Durant had 41 points in Game 4 and 37 points in Game 6. He averaged 28.5 points a game on 50 percent shooting in the series. There’s just not much a coach can do about that.

Bad coaches can hold a team down in the playoffs, but the spectrum of good and bad all starts to blend together once you reach a certain level of competence. With last night’s loss in Oklahoma City, Popovich is 2-11 in road elimination games. Even for a 67-win team, the margin of error is so thin in the playoffs. Every mistake matters, and every coach is going to make mistakes. While it feels almost blasphemous to say, Pop made more mistakes than Donovan in this series. But ultimately, coaches are at the mercy of what their players can and cannot do. Gregg Popovich is no exception.

This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 13, 2016.