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Mistakes Were Made: How the Night King and Gregg Popovich Failed Their Teams

Bad strategy, poor clock management, and a lack of roster help—two legends fell this weekend, and their demises shared a number of parallels. This is how the Spurs and the undead both fumbled golden opportunities.

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

The Night King and Gregg Popovich are figures from different universes. One is a villain dedicated to outmastering foolish mortals vying for sovereignty around him, and the other is a Game of Thrones character. Yet they share many commonalities. Both are leaders. Popovich coaches the San Antonio Spurs, and the Night King commands the army of the dead. Neither cares for small talk. Pop owns a winery; the Night King also appreciates things that have sat in a cold, dark basement for years on end. They rarely smile, but tell me those mugs aren’t similar when they do:

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

And, of course, both are ageless. They’ve been dominating their respective hustles for decades. Some might say centuries. Or millennia. The Spurs haven’t had a losing season in 22 years. The army of the dead’s record goes back to before records were kept. So color me shocked that, in a single weekend, both the Night King and Popovich lost. These were no ordinary, run-of-the-Stone-Mill L’s that they took, either: San Antonio lost Game 7 of its first-round series against Denver in the final seconds, 90-86, failing to complete a 17-point comeback and bowing out of the playoffs, and the army of the dead lost the Battle of Winterfell, eliminating it from all of existence. Both these losses can be laid at the feet of their leaders. The Night King and Popovich failed their respective teams, and here’s how:

Inadequate Talent Utilization

Neither the Spurs nor the White Walkers had home-court advantage. San Antonio was playing in the Pepsi Center in Denver; the army of the dead was in Winterfell. (Though, to be fair, the undead brought the chaotic weather conditions with them.)

Still, there’s no question that the Night King had the talent advantage. He had hundreds of thousands of soldiers at his disposal. Now, were the wights the brightest bunch? No. But would they fight to the death? Also no: They’re already dead. They did, however, have boundless energy. Some limped, but they can climb; they can run; and—oh yeah!—new soldiers can be made from the army of the dead’s kills. The Night King had nearly endless, renewable bodies during the fight. He also possessed a dragon with more range than Joe Harris (even though, technically, it was a cold shooting night for Viserion).

The Night King wanted his men to be volume scorers. Put up shots like the 2016-17 Houston Rockets. Worry less about field goal percentage and more about hitting the target as frequently as possible. It might take three wights to kill one Dothraki, but the Night King, like Daryl Morey, backed his strategy with simple math. Three points is greater than two; three wights taking out one Dothraki eventually equals four wights.

Pop went eight men deep with his rotation. So, a little different. And unlike the army of the dead, the Spurs weren’t the more talented team. Remember the wight giant that Lady Lyanna Mormont (RIP) fatally stabbed in the eye only to be crushed in her own little lady right? Well, he’s a Nugget. And he can throw a killer no-look pass.

The Spurs couldn’t buy a shot. Nor could the Nuggets, which, typically, Popovich would find a way to use to his advantage. Pivoting to the paint, perhaps, which Pop eventually had his team do, but where Denver also outscored San Antonio 56-44. By design, the Spurs shot the fewest 3-pointers in the league this season, yet took more (23) than the Nuggets (20) on Saturday—but connected on an atrocious 26.1 percent. It was so bad that Popovich said he “thought both teams set basketball back in the first half.”

Too Much Iso Ball

San Antonio’s best scorer, DeMar DeRozan, could not score. His first and only field goal of the first half came with 1:51 remaining in the second quarter. Yet the Spurs spent the first half rotating through unsuccessful isolation looks between DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge; together, they went 3-for-18 from the field before the break. In fact, it was San Antonio’s own wight risen from the dead, Rudy Gay, who led the team with 21 points off the bench.

The Spurs’ last possession was a DeRozan isolation. With 35 seconds remaining and the Spurs down 90-86, he drove the ball down the court, spun on Torrey Craig on his way to the basket, then was blocked by Craig as the rock left his hands:

In Popovich’s defense, DeRozan is the Spurs’ best player. Why pass it out to Patty Mills in the corner, wide open or not, when Mills was 1-for-5 from deep and DeRozan had a much higher percentage shot at the rim?

The Night King is also the best the army of the dead had. A no-brainer franchise tag. Like DeRozan, the Night King went full iso on the last play of the game. He’s surrounded by murderous wights, yet decides to approach Bran Stark himself. Never mind that Bran had, to switch up sports analogies, a single lineman to protect him in Theon Greyjoy. (The Night King decided to take out Greyjoy all by himself, too.) There is no clear reason the Night King had to end Bran himself. Bran doesn’t have moves. He isn’t his big-brother-actually-lol-jk-not-brother Jon Snow. Bran is 2016 playoffs Isaiah Thomas hidden in the corner on defense. By playing hero ball, the Night King played himself.

Oh, and speaking of irrational isolation plays, here’s Jon squared up with a dragon:

Poor Clock Management

The Spurs are the Spurs—overachieving, outlasting, obstinate—because they don’t make dumb mistakes. Usually. But San Antonio went out on the dumbest of mistakes Saturday, in the final seconds of an elimination game.

Jamal Murray crossed half court with 22 seconds left on the clock. It was a four-point game. He gave it to Nikola Jokic, who was standing all the way up on the logo. Popovich was screaming and pointing from the sideline to foul. Meanwhile, Jokic was just standing there, killing time off the clock. No one—not his primary defender, Aldridge, or the secondary defender, Mills—thought to foul. The shot clock elapsed, and Murray jacked a 3 with five seconds left on the game clock.

I have many what-the-fucks to give out here: What the fuck, LaMarcus Aldridge, you’ve played 13 seasons of professional basketball, two years of college basketball at Texas before that, four years of high school basketball before that, and a childhood of watching basketball before that dreaming to be in a Game 7 just like this one. What the fuck, Mills, DeRozan, and Gay: See previous sentence about experience. What the fuck, Bryn Forbes, everyone can see you yelling and motioning at your teammates to foul from your spot on the court. You knew you had your coach’s approval to do so, and still did not. But the largest what the fuck of all goes to Popovich. Yes, his screams were drowned out by the Pepsi Center crowd, that much Aldridge confirmed after the game when he told reporters he couldn’t hear Popovich. But it’s the final play in a Game 7 in the NBA playoffs, and Popovich gave up on telling his team to foul after nine seconds.

If it sounds like I, a blogger, am saying an award-winning, Finals-winning coach should’ve done more, it’s because I am! Have we not seen a furious Popovich charge the court before? Do we seriously think he cares about cordiality or communication norms? Is his job not, utterly boiled down, to instruct players what to do? DeRozan grabbed Murray’s rebound with not even enough time for him to heave a 3 of his own.

A similar what-the-fuck moment for the Night King, who, for someone who wants to wipe out Westeros’s history, doesn’t seem to understand time management. Once he finally reached Bran in the forest, he emerged from the crowd of wights with all the speed of a wedding processional. After killing Theon, the Night King then walked over to Bran. Walked! To his enemy! To the one who holds what he wants most! Stroll, light jog, skip, do the Naomi Campbell walk for all I care! But don’t just walk! Arya had to make a 15-foot broad jump MINIMUM to get to the Night King right as he reached for his sword—S-L-O-W-L-Y reached, by the way—and he only turned to catch her a millisecond before that Valyrian steel reached his heart. He also didn’t crush her right away, despite his hand being on her neck, leading to his fate: death by a Jordan-inspired midair hand switch.

Roster Help

Earlier in the episode, Arya climbed under tables and tiptoed around a library to avoid being discovered by a group of wights. Right—she’s sneaky. But you’d still think that the Night King or any of the wights and Walkers that surrounded him could have heard her as she ran up to him without any complication. I know communication isn’t a strength for wights or White Walkers, but there wasn’t so much as a grunty AIDUEHRBDHKJSH noise from any of them to tell their boss, “Hey man, watch out.”

To make matters worse, they’re all vets. Think about how long these guys have been in the game—a literal lifetime. The same goes for San Antonio’s vets on the court, and, again, for Popovich, the longest-tenured coach in the NBA. The army of the dead is an army of brain farters, and I’m still blaming them. The Spurs coaching staff is supposed to be the best in the league.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.