MIAMI – During his team’s Game 3 rout of the Heat, Gregg Popovich was shown on TV talking to his players while they were in the process of burying Miami with a stirring offensive display.
“When you’re open, let it fly,” the Spurs’ coach told them. “Put your name in the paper.”
A day later, Spurs guard Gary Neal was asked about that bit of encouragement.
“That’s what you guys hear,” Neal said with a chuckle, implying the give-and-take isn’t always so sunny.
In his 17th season coaching the Spurs and his fifth NBA Finals, Popovich is having one breakout series, with this team one win from another title entering Game 7 on Thursday night.
It’s also been a banner finals for Popovich in the interview room. He has spent almost two weeks now being questioned about the health of Tony Parker, the Spurs’ defensive strategy against LeBron James and Danny Green’s remarkable 3-point shooting.
At times, he’s illuminating, as when he spoke admiringly of James’ ability to drown out criticism when things aren’t going his way. At other times, he’s funny, his dry wit and deadpan delivery drawing laughs when least expected.
Mostly, however, he’s combative, sarcastic or just plain dismissive. Mostly, he’s just been Pop.
Whether he’s dragged kicking and screaming into those live television interviews during games or he’s having his teeth pulled during postgame news conferences, Popovich has been as irascible as ever.
“Pop is always funny to me” Green said. “So when I watch his press conferences, they kind of give me a good chuckle.”
One more win means Popovich will have his fifth championship. One more win means he also won’t have to do anymore news conferences for quite some time. Would winning the trophy mean more to him than ending those news conferences? Hard to say.
Some of Pop’s greatest hits from these finals:
The good Pop: When an 11-year-old Latino boy who sang the national anthem before Game 3 was the subject of racist remarks on Twitter, Popovich leapt to the defense of Sebastien De La Cruz.
“He’s a class act,” Popovich said. “Way more mature than most his age. And as much as those comments by the idiots saddens you about your country, he makes you feel the future could be very bright.”
The dismissive Pop: Popovich was asked after a 109-93 loss in Game 4 why Manu Ginobili had been so ineffective to that point in the series.
“I don’t know,” he said. “If I knew that I would have already fixed it.”
The instructive Pop: In illustrating the maturation of James before Game 2, Pop relished a chance to send a couple digs toward his favorite targets in the media.
“He’s a grown man. He doesn’t need any of you to tell him anything,” he said. “He knows more than all of you put together. He understands the game. If he makes a pass and you all think he should have shot it, or he shoots it and you think he should have made a pass, your opinions mean nothing to him, as they should not mean anything to him.”
The combative Pop: When the Heat went small and won big in Game 4, a reporter wanted to know if Popovich thought smaller lineups were a growing trend across the NBA. Nice try.
“You’re not serious,” he said. “You want me to talk about the state of the NBA?”
The enlightening Pop: While decrying the lack of job security in the coaching profession these days, Popovich let everyone know why he thought the Spurs were so successful.
“The continuity I think breeds, it breeds trust, it breeds camaraderie, it breeds a feeling of responsibility that each member holds towards the other,” he said. “The ability to be excited for each other’s success, not to develop territory and walls but to stay participatory. To be able to discuss, to argue and come out at the end on the same page with the same passion and the same goals.
“And I think without continuity that’s pretty impossible because all the immediate tendencies of instant success starts to take over, and that just breeds failure.”
The funny Pop: Popovich was asked to compare Green to former standout Bruce Bowen after Game 5.
“I guess they both are similar in the fact that neither one of them has any moves,” he said. “They just shoot it. They don’t really dribble or do anything else.”
The phlegmatic Pop: On why he switched which end of the court his offense started at on the road this season: “I was bored.”
The unsympathetic Pop: It is well known that Popovich rode Parker hard when he first came to the NBA from France as a 19-year-old point guard. That subject came up after Parker led the Spurs to a win in Game 1.
“Are you related to Tony? Are you concerned I treated him badly? You seem very concerned about Tony’s treatment,” Popovich said. “Tony makes $900 million a year. ... He’s fine.”
The stubborn Pop: No matter how many ways it has been asked, Popovich won’t concede to the success the Spurs have had in making things difficult for James. Is that maybe because he doesn’t want to make James angry?
“You’re digging really deep,” Popovich said. “You must need to write an article by 4 o’clock today or something.”
The confounded Pop: After Parker was injured in Game 3, one reporter wondered if Popovich would “mail in” Game 4 by resting Parker in hopes of having him at full strength for Games 5, 6 and 7.
“I have to tell you that phrase ‘mail in Game 4,’ it confuses my whole brain,” he said. “I don’t think I can think past that comment. I would like to help you, but I don’t know how to help you.”
The helpful Pop: When Popovich walked up to a group of reporters at the morning shootaround before Game 4, no one immediately asked a question.
“Do you want me to think of the questions, too?”