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A Brief History of Pop vs. D’Antoni

The Rockets-Spurs series rekindles one of the underrated playoff rivalries of the 21st century — the coaching clash between Gregg Popovich and Mike D’Antoni

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

One coach has embedded himself so deeply in one franchise that his name is synonymous with San Antonio basketball, despite the line of Hall of Fame players that have played for him. The other has been a basketball nomad, a door-to-door salesman hell-bent on implementing a style of play that is only now being recognized as successful. Though merit can and should be holistic, sometimes success is as simple as counting the rings on a hand. Gregg Popovich has titles. Mike D’Antoni does not — and Pop is one of the reasons.

A quick perusal through history will show that in this quasi-rivalry between the two, there is an alternate reality beyond the woods of basketball fantasies where D’Antoni parlays his methods into success and becomes what Gregg Popovich now is. Instead, it’s Pop who has eliminated D’Antoni’s teams four times in the playoffs, beating him soundly at his own game and even turning his own team into a pace-and-space powerhouse capable of taking down LeBron-led teams after losing the 2013 Finals.

With these two coaches facing off again, this time in the Western Conference semifinals, the duel is back on. In Game 1, we saw a glimpse of how D’Antoni must have imagined beating those mid-2000s Spurs: outpacing and outscoring them thanks to making 22 of 50 3s and winning by 27. But in Game 2, we were reminded that Popovich is the king of adjustments, as the Spurs kept pace with the Rockets and outshot them from the field and 3-point land on their way to a 25-point win.

2005 Conference Finals: Spurs (4) vs. Suns (1)

After winning a league-high 62 games, the Suns had reached the conference finals for the first time in 12 years. In classic D’Antoni fashion, Phoenix was the best offensive team in the league and dead last defensively. NBA MVP Steve Nash, in his first year on the team, and Amar’e Stoudemire were picking and rolling everyone to death, while Quentin Richardson, Joe Johnson, and Shawn Marion were shooting more than 15 combined 3s per game. The first iteration of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns that made it into the postseason ran at a rampant pace and swept the Grizzlies in the first round before defeating the Mavericks in six games. Then, they faced the second-seeded Spurs in the conference finals. It was the perfect matchup. ABC even had the perfect intro.

From Game 1, Popovich’s team adjusted to Phoenix’s pace, scoring 100 or more in all five games in a series where all but one game was decided by seven points or less. It was as evenly matched as evenly matched could get, but in the end, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili — then still possessing a luscious head of hair — all averaged more than 20 points and collectively outgunned Stoudemire, who averaged 37 in the series, and the rest of the Suns on their way to a Finals berth and eventually, an NBA title. D’Antoni thought he had the winning recipe, but Popovich simply used his better ingredients and beat him with it.

2007 Conference Semifinals: Spurs (4) vs. Suns (2)

The same story played itself out, when the two teams met in the 2007 conference semis. The Suns won 61 regular-season games, finished second in the West, and were ready for revenge against the Spurs, who were coming off a 58-win campaign of their own. This was another rendezvous between the league’s best offense and the best defense, and the series had a little bit of everything. There was Nash’s bloody nose late in the fourth quarter of Game 1, which kept Nash out for most of the last minute after he had hit a game-tying shot with just over two minutes left.

Then, there was Robert Horry hip-checking Nash into the side paneling hard during Game 4. A hold-me-back pseudo fight broke out and both Boris Diaw and Stoudemire made the mistake of exiting the bench area. The Suns won the game, but both players were suspended for Game 5. The Spurs would win Games 5 and 6, one a grind-it-out contest in the 80s, the other an avalanche in the 110s. Luck didn’t seem to be on D’Antoni’s side, and once again the ability to win any type of game, whether low- or high-scoring, gave Popovich the edge. He also had Tim Duncan, who averaged nearly 27–14 during the series and would lead the Spurs to a sweep of the Cavs in the Finals a few weeks later.

2008 First-Round Series: Spurs (4) vs. Suns (1)

By 2008, the meeting between Popovich’s Spurs and D’Antoni’s Suns in the playoffs had become a ritual, if not part of a rivalry, and it provided an opportunity to contrast their styles. This time, the teams met in the first round of the playoffs — the Spurs as the 3-seed, the Suns as the 6-seed. Phoenix again had a top-three offense, while San Antonio boasted a top-three defense. The defending champs largely retained their core from the year prior, but then–Phoenix GM Steve Kerr changed the direction of the franchise when he made a move against their patented modus operandi and acquired Shaquille O’Neal from the Heat in a February deal. D’Antoni was reportedly OK with the deviation, telling reporters, “It just makes us better.” If what had kept them from the mountaintop had been a bonafide superstar, they now had one. In theory, at least.

The 2008 first-round series truly began and ended in Game 1, where the Suns, who led the game for the first 44 minutes, squandered away all of the following: an eight-point lead at halftime, three-point lead with 20 seconds left in regulation, a five-point with 1:08 left in overtime, and a three-point overtime lead with 12 seconds left. In double overtime, a fadeaway 3 from Nash would tie the game with just over 10 seconds left before a now-much-balder Ginobili would drive to the hoop and end the thriller with a running layup. The Suns would steal Game 4, but the series was already lost. Phoenix thought Shaq could get them over the hump. But in the end, the larger obstacle remained Pop’s Spurs, who would fittingly be the final team D’Antoni played before leaving Phoenix for New York.

2013 First-Round Series: Spurs (4) vs. Lakers (0)

In 2008, D’Antoni left the desert for Manhattan. There is no factual evidence that he wanted to get away from facing Pop in the playoffs, but that certainly couldn’t have hurt. Instead of benefiting from a change of scenery, D’Antoni flopped in New York, never truly implementing his system enough to guide the Knicks to real success. After two losing seasons and a third that featured new arrivals Carmelo Anthony and Stoudemire, and most of a strike-shortened fourth. D’Antoni resigned from his post, in part due to reported clashes with Melo.

A season later, the Lakers fired Mike Brown five games into the season, and the Buss family chose D’Antoni over Phil Jackson to take over as coach. With Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and new acquisitions Dwight Howard — then still good — and Nash, it would have seemed like the perfect place for D’Antoni to thrive. This was supposed to be fun and work out.

But after D’Antoni’s Lakers won 45 games in the regular season, who awaited them in the first round? Pop’s Spurs, of course. The Lakers, without Kobe due to his Achilles injury, never stood a chance and were outscored by 75 points over the course of the sweep. D’Antoni returned for a second season in L.A., but the team never bought into his methodology and won only 27 games before he stepped away from a messy situation once again.

In 2010, after the Suns — then without D’Antoni but still abiding by his unique style — finally outlasted San Antonio in a playoff series, Popovich knew he had to make a change. After years of using players as spokes around the big man, Popovich told his coaches, “We can’t win like this anymore. We have to get faster.” So they did. After landing near the bottom of the league in pace repeatedly, the Spurs from 2011 to 2014 were in the top 15 fastest teams in the league. D’Antoni was gone from Phoenix, but his influence was felt across the league.

It’s easy to portray Pop as the ghost that has haunted D’Antoni throughout his coaching career. But D’Antoni has been chasing far more than the Spurs sideline staple. His run-and-gun approach, offense-over-defense philosophy (which Pop once defended him for) had never truly found an apt home until this season in Houston. Paired with Daryl Morey and this decade’s more dynamic version of Nash in James Harden, D’Antoni’s style of play has been vindicated. All he needs now are the results, and in another evenly matched series with his pseudo-nemesis, this may be his best chance for a breakthrough.