MEMPHIS — Tuned in to this year’s Presidential primaries, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on Wednesday responded to a question about Spurs assistant general manager Scott Layden’s rumored hiring as general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves by turning the question on his interrogator.
“Where did you hear that?” he said. “Is it true? See how you turn the questioning back? You don’t have to answer it. I’ve been watching the political stuff on TV. I’m not stupid.”
One of the more socially aware coaches in all of professional sports, Gregg Popovich talks politics with his players on a regular basis. Basketball, he preaches, is hardly as important as real life.
So when Manu Ginobili, LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green were asked how difficult it will be to maintain a proper level of focus and intensity for Game 3 of their first-round playoff series against a Memphis Grizzlies team they had just humiliated in Games 1 and 2, their answers were so similar, they seemed programmed.
“They are physical,” Ginobili said. “That’s the type of team they are, and playing at home they increase that energy.”
“They are a really good defensive team, no doubt about it,” Green said.
“They’re competitive and they’re physical, and they’ve played hard,” Aldridge said.
Can it really be coincidence all three Spurs lauded the Grizzlies’ defensive excellence and physicality?
Maybe not, especially when you consider the warning Popovich sent to Spurs players and fans.
“Memphis is a very good defensive team,” the Spurs coach said. “They’ve got a lot of pride. (Coach Dave Joerger) has done a great job keeping them afloat and I expect a very difficult contest on Friday night.”
Does Popovich school his players on messaging the way campaign consultants advise those politicians willing to listen?
“Do we all say the same thing?” Green answered, a sly smile curling the corners of his mouth. “No, no talking points. We are all on the same page. We all know what each other are thinking.”
In truth, Popovich’s ability to convince his players to fear a team that scored only 142 points in the first two games of the best-of-seven series is one of the traits that makes him the great coach he is universally recognized to be.
The vow offered by Memphis forward Matt Barnes after Tuesday’s Game 2 blowout – “I just want to go down swinging … So long as we go down swinging, who cares what happens?” – also plays into Popovich’s “expect a tough game” narrative.
Memphis became one of the Western Conference’s better teams when it stiffened its “grit and grind” defense behind NBA All-Defensive first-teamers Tony Allen and Marc Gasol. Knee surgery has sidelined Gasol but Allen remains, and everyone who plays for Joerger is required to buy into the hard-nosed ethos. Their 14 steals in Game 2 was a season high by any Spurs opponent this season and the biggest factor in the 19 Spurs turnovers that furrowed Popovich’s brow afterwards.
His players understand the need to tighten their offensive execution.
“Only for moments we moved the ball the way we want to,” Ginobili said. “That’s the main concern. We have to play better offense, less turnovers, find the open teammates. Usual stuff, but two things we haven’t done really well in the first two games.
“It’s going to show if we’re able to keep that (mental) edge. At home we did. Even if we were not sharp enough offensively, we brought the edge. We were energetic. Now we’ve got to bring it and match that up with them, for sure.”
Green offered a similar critique of the Spurs’ Game 2 passing and ball handling.
“Just got to be more crisp, better with the ball, better decisions, making the easy pass, sharper cuts, sharper passes, being strong with the ball,” he said.
And then there was Aldridge’s critique.
“Just try to take care of the ball, try to be strong with the ball, make smart passes, don’t try to make the ‘Manu pass’ too many times out there, and just try to be physical,” the All-Star big man said.
More talking points from a coach known for injecting life lessons into his game critiques?
“He talks about (politics),” Green said. “He’ll talk about that. Basketball, he will give us some criticisms, but, for the most part, try to get us all on the same page. But I think being around each other the whole year, we kind of know, hearing the same things over and over, we know what we have to do to get things done.”
The Spurs’ definition of “getting things done” is finishing off the Grizzlies in Games 3 and 4.
One game at a time, to be sure.
As for Scott Layden, the highly regarded Spurs assistant GM will indeed depart the team to run his own basketball operations department in Minnesota, as Popovich likely knew when he side-stepped the question on Wednesday.
Let the speculation begin about Layden’s successor.
Don’t ask Popovich and expect an answer.
*Top Image: Coach Gregg Popovich gathers his players for a 20-second timeout during Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the AT&T Center in San Antonio on April 19, 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.