Gregg Popovich waved the proverbial white flag in the San Antonio Spurs' 136-100 Game 2 debacle against the Golden State Warriors Tuesday night. And make no mistake about it — it was in his best interest. The Spurs were cooked from the start of the night’s affairs, and there was no hiding it.
“I think tonight, it’s not what I expected. I’m disappointed. The only way I can process it is, it’s not about O’s and X’s, or rebounds or turnovers or anything like that. I think we maybe felt it too much — Kawhi being gone — in the sense that, I don’t think they believed, and you have to believe,” Popovich said after the game. “I don’t think, as a group, they really did, which means a little bit feeling sorry for themselves. You know, psychologically, subconsciously — whatever psychobabble word you want to use.
“But that’s the way I process it. I don’t think they started the game with the belief, and it showed in the lack of edge, intensity, grunt — you know, that sort of thing. And that was disappointing, but when you’re playing a team as good as Golden State, you’re going to get embarrassed if that’s the way you come out. And we did. So I think that’s the deal, more than anything. We’ll put it away, go get a meal, and Game 3 I expect to see a different team.”
This is where things get interesting for San Antonio. Popovich is willing to throw in the towel more quickly than any coach in the league, even when you’re talking about a playoff series in which his team is pitted against one of the best basketball conglomerates we’ve ever seen. Sometimes it’s just best to move on, grab that little extra rest, get out of your own head and save face for the next game.
Popovich is as realistic as anyone you’ll ever meet, and his quotes following Game 2 spoke volumes: He realized very quickly his team — outside of Jonathon Simmons — wasn’t ready to compete in the brutal atmosphere of Oracle Arena that night. They were outmatched without their best player — arguably the best player in the series — and he knew the beast they were up against.
It’s difficult to blame them for that. LaMarcus Aldridge has received a ton of criticism for his performance in Game 2 (it was bad, to be fair), but does anyone realistically feel he would’ve made the difference in that game, even if he had been all-time great? Against that team? Probably not.
Popovich mentioned post-game that the Spurs need Aldridge to score and not be passive, and that is absolutely true. But that criticism is based more on principle than the outcome of the evening.
Despite what happened in Games 1 and 2, the Spurs have a reason to believe they can challenge the Dubs juggernaut. A 29-point win on opening night surely comes with the opening-night-for-a-new-team caveat, but it still counts; the last time the teams played during the regular season, San Antonio held a 22-point lead before going cold and blowing it, but still showed it could do damage against the Warriors’ orchestra of shot-making; and the Spurs were scoring at will and defending beautifully before their best player went down with another ankle injury almost midway through the third quarter of the first game of the conference finals.
And I go back to the idea of Popovich waving the white flag — surrendering, so to speak.
Golden State, once it’s found its rhythm, is impossible to stop. Popovich saw fairly quickly his team didn’t have it — that it was not ready to compete against a team like the Warriors on that night.
The thing he doesn’t tell the media is he’s willing to save it. When he acknowledges his team is in a situation that will not produce a winning outcome, he’ll bottle the leftover energy. He’ll “go get a meal” with his players and coaches, talk things over, then move on to the next day.
That’s essentially where the Spurs are right now. With the Leonard situation up in the air, San Antonio will not offer up any answers. Without him, they’re done; if he’s in the lineup, they still have a chance, albeit slim. Losing Kawhi at that point of the game was an incredible blow to a team that was running one of the best teams we’ve ever seen out of the gym. And yet, there’s still hope we’ll have a hell of a finish to the Western Conference Finals.
The Spurs were a ridiculous 36.2 points per 100 possessions better than the Warriors during the 24 minutes Leonard was on the floor in Game 1. Every time he touched the ball it seemed he could score however he pleased, and while Golden State tried to stay away from his defense, the very act of removing one player from its offensive firing squad changes the way that offense operates.
But that’s the big question, isn’t it? Is Kawhi healthy enough to be a factor in this series going forward? We won’t know until Saturday.
There is a giant uphill climb for San Antonio after it blew its lead in the opening game, but this is a good home team. And furthermore, don’t be influenced by the final score of the second game of the series. Popovich is perfectly fine with folding his hand when he can tell things aren’t going well, especially when his players have already folded theirs. It looks more ugly on the surface than it actually is.
The Spurs are in trouble, to be sure. Golden State is as potent and dangerous a team as you will ever see in the NBA. But if San Antonio has its MVP candidate back in the lineup on its home floor, you can bet those players will start to “believe” again, much like they did in Game 1.
Popovich waved the white flag for one night, and the reaction was understandable. The Warriors were and are favored in this series for a very good reason, and they can make you look awful when you’re not ready to compete against them, especially without your best player.
But the Spurs are better than what you saw Tuesday. Much better. And if Leonard is healthy enough to go, this thing could still be a series by the time Sunday morning rolls around. Given how generally uneventful these playoffs have been, we can only hope, right? The viewing public deserves an interesting round of basketball.