The Gregg Popovich postseason experience is a rich text. One fan at the AT&T Center held up a sign that read, “GIMME SOME NASTY,” a callback to Pop’s infamously spirited rallying cry during a timeout … five years ago.
Time flies when you’re consistently great. This time of year, the Spurs, even in defeat, seem to exist on a different plane from everyone else in the race. Some teams flip a switch to find the best version of their present selves. The Spurs flip a switch and suddenly have access to an entire database of Pop’s learned experience. The feeling of déjà vu can be overwhelming watching the Spurs. They are The Simpsons of the NBA postseason — these two decades of sustained success means there isn’t anything they haven’t seen or endured.
With this second-round series, Mike D’Antoni has faced off against Pop in five of San Antonio’s 20 winning seasons, serving as a minor inconvenience to Popovich’s enterprises for a quarter of Pop’s playoff life. D’Antoni has yet to pull off a single series win. Those lopsided Suns-Spurs duels in the mid-2000s were a protozoan representation of modern NBA basketball, and helped shape its parameters. It was only fitting that they’d face off once again a decade later, armed with toys, new and old, fighting the same war. The personnel may have changed, but the themes that define the clash remain mostly intact. Which means, after five games, Pop once again has the upper hand. It’s almost cruel.
After 20 consecutive seasons of playoff excellence, San Antonio’s moments of brilliance don’t blur together so much as they fold on top of one another. Their moments become replicates. Manu Ginobili’s game-saving block on James Harden at the end of Game 5 was the best version of Looper, sure, but it also gave me traumatizing flashbacks. It wasn’t the first time Manu had crushed a D’Antoni team in the final seconds:
This was nine years ago, in an agenda-setting Game 1 of the Suns and Spurs’ first-round series (which Phoenix was favored to win). It was vintage Ginobili — in isolation, with off-kilter staccato steps, and an off-balance finish in traffic. It was the kind of play that Pop had learned to live with from Manu.
“I went for it,” Ginobili said. “But very risky. It was a risky play.” Manu actually said that after Game 5 on Tuesday night, but it’s essentially been the mission statement Ginobili has carried with him through time.
That off-balance layup in 2008 was the first strike of the hammer that sent a nail through D’Antoni’s tenure with Phoenix. D’Antoni went east after the Suns’ first-round exit, while Popovich siphoned some of his counterpart’s offensive philosophies and injected them into the Spurs’ aging core. Pop adapted; D’Antoni, in Houston, mutated. The D’Antoni-Popovich war is a moving history. But the ghosts from their old battles still linger.
The Rockets’ 110–107 loss to the Spurs in Game 5 happened in a stunning overtime, but a familiar sinking feeling that all Mike D’Antoni devotees are familiar with began to percolate in me with about four minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Houston had held San Antonio scoreless for nearly six minutes, and had only a three-point lead to show for it. As Steve Nash would’ve said in a past incarnation of this team: We weren’t built for this. The Rockets had technically won the fourth-quarter battle, 16–15. But they weren’t built for rock fights, period. This wasn’t D’Antoni’s game — not then, not now.
“Playing the Suns is like being a passenger in a car going 75 miles an hour,” former Nets coach and extremely safe driver Lawrence Frank told writer Jack McCallum in Seven Seconds or Less, a deeply embedded story about D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns published 10 years ago. “When you’re driving, like they are, you feel comfortable. But when you’re a passenger, you’re uncomfortable. The trick is how to figure out to be a driver. But they don’t let you do that.” Despite how close the game was the entire way through, and despite their 15-point advantage from behind the arc, the Rockets lost control of the wheel. James Harden, D’Antoni’s perfect avatar, looked hollow in the deciding minutes of extra time. He was in no fit state to drive.
D’Antoni deflected a question about Harden’s fatigue during the postgame presser. “Fatigue was in everybody,” he said. “[It was] 16 to 15 in the fourth quarter — everybody was tired.” The answer was intended to level the playing field, and as a coach, it was the right response: If everyone was tired, then no one person needs to be singled out. But playoff basketball is not egalitarian. Impact is weighted. The best D’Antoni teams had the same fundamental flaws: an extremely short rotation and an exposed spine. At his most successful, he finds a singular player capable of serving as the backbone to his organizing principles — but it comes at a price. In a battered Harden, D’Antoni is confronted by the specter of his past: an overclocked Steve Nash, whose burden of being a one-man system always caught up to him in the postseason as his body broke down.
The winner of Game 5 in a best-of-seven series has historically gone on to win the series 82 percent of the time. Mike D’Antoni finds himself in all-too-familiar territory. Time is starting to feel like a flat circle with him, but there are several factors that could finally change his fortunes against Popovich this time around. One, Tim Duncan is retired. Two, Kawhi Leonard, while vowing to play in Game 6, is physically compromised. And three, when you are a team that attempts nearly 43 3-pointers a game in a series, you will continue to submit yourself to entropy.
There is a lot that Gregg Popovich seems capable of controlling, but he can’t stop a random hailstorm once it starts. In any case, Game 6 will see more of the same from the Rockets; as tired as they may be, they’ll hope that the ball finds energy. They’ll play a short stack, and they’ll let it fly without inhibition. It’s a D’Antoni team. They’re not built any other way.