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What the Heck Happened at the End of Nuggets-Spurs Game 7?

Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the NBA, but the final seconds of the series-deciding first-round matchup included a tactical failure, a communication collapse, and, given Pop’s gruff postgame press conference, a mystery

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I don’t get it. I went to bed not getting it and woke up not getting it and now I’m writing about how I still don’t get it. There was a lot to not get.

By Gregg Popovich’s admission, the Spurs did not play well for much of Game 7 at Denver on Saturday night. He said he thought both teams “set basketball back” in the early proceedings, and even though the game got better as it continued, he was “surprised people stayed.” Instead, Popovich thought the crowd “might want to go home and get a glass of wine and watch it on TV.” I feel like he’s projecting a bit.

Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets had the ball with about 28 seconds left. The Spurs were down four. You do not have to be a professional basketball coach or a professional basketball player to understand the situation. The Spurs had to foul there. And yet, inexplicably, the Spurs did not foul there.

That’s how San Antonio’s otherwise pleasantly surprising season ended—with time bleeding them out and the Spurs neglecting to apply a tourniquet. It was tough to watch. Here we had a franchise that’s constantly lauded for always doing things the right way that ended up doing something the exact wrong way at the worst possible moment. The Spurs should have fouled Jokic before the Nuggets brought the ball up the floor. They didn’t. Patty Mills was in position to foul Jamal Murray as the Nuggets came across half court. He didn’t. When Murray passed to Jokic, LaMarcus Aldridge should have immediately fouled. He didn’t. Instead, the Spurs watched dumbly as Jokic stood with the ball on the Nuggets logo and ran down most of what was left of the Spurs postseason. At one point, with about 14 seconds left, Murray ran toward and around Jokic with Mills on his hip. Mills all but collided with Jokic—and somehow still didn’t foul. The Spurs even let Murray hoist one last shot with the game all but over. Sure. At that point, why not?

I’ve watched that video on a near-endless loop and I keep waiting for it to turn out differently. You can see Pop on the court gesticulating and urging his guys to foul. He was far enough out on the floor that I wanted him to shove the ref aside and pull a Mike Tomlin and try to foul the Nuggets himself. That would have been better.

It sounded pretty loud there, but despite the noise, Mills and Aldridge should have known the situation without Popovich having to tell them. That’s something else I don’t get.

Aldridge said he knew how much time was on the clock, understood the situation and “should have [fouled]. I didn’t. Nothing else to say about it.” J.R. Smith would cringe at that explanation. Of course, Aldridge wasn’t the only Spur who screwed up. Mills and the other three guys on the floor are just as culpable, and they’ll have all offseason to think about not taking the obvious and only option available that could have extended their season—even if it was only for a few seconds longer. Which brings us to the final thing I do not get: Pop’s postgame press conference.

The very first question, rightly, was about what happened at the end of the game and why the Spurs didn’t foul. A reporter asked if there was a miscommunication.

“Well, obviously, he didn’t hear anybody because he didn’t foul,” Popovich said.

And that was it. Popovich was asked questions about the Spurs’ rough shooting night, San Antonio’s season, how good Jokic is, and whether or not he’ll be back to coach next season. All good questions. All necessary questions. But the fact that no one asked him any follow-ups about his team short-circuiting at the end is indefensible. Why did he need to hear you? Shouldn’t he have known the situation? What about Mills? What about everyone else on the floor? And by the way, hasn’t this happened before to your guys?

In fairness, it’s a tough spot to be in, and no one probably expected to be put in that situation. The long-term, near-constant success of the Spurs under Popovich doesn’t exactly prepare you for when something unexpected happens and everything goes sideways. The fact that the Spurs even got this far and dragged out the series opened them up to more potential scrutiny because Game 7s naturally invite added attention.

Still, in a media availability that lasted four and a half minutes—short for the postseason, and certainly short for a team that just got bounced in bizarre fashion—Popovich fielded just one question and offered exactly 10 words on a critical season-ending sequence. Sometimes Pop is philosophical and magnanimous, but after Game 7 he looked like he was in a not-fucking-around mood. I understand that Popovich is intimidating and gruff and that his style sometimes makes reporters reluctant to engage. I’ve been there. No one wants to have Pop dunk on them with the microphones on and the cameras rolling. It’s embarrassing—but so is rolling over and not trying. Someone absolutely must press Pop in that situation.

What a weird night. None of it made sense—except for the part when Pop seemed like he gave up. With about 10 seconds left, after a bunch of fruitless pointing and screaming, Popovich stopped doing all that and watched the season fade away. That might be the only part I do get. There’s only so much you can do, until you can’t do anymore. I bet he wishes he could have watched it on TV with a glass of wine, too.