SAN ANTONIO — The game against the Cleveland Cavaliers had tipped off only 10 seconds earlier, but as soon as Jae Crowder’s 3-pointer fell through the basket, San Antonio guard Danny Green knew what was coming. The Spurs hadn’t even run an offensive play yet, but as soon as he crossed half-court, Green began walking toward the bench, knowing that his coach would call a timeout.
To most watching that nationally televised game in January, the stoppage 14 seconds in seemed out of place. It marked the quickest timeout in an NBA game in almost three years,1 according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. But to Green, it was nothing new. He’s come to expect this sort of thing from Gregg Popovich, who’s called more abrupt timeouts than anyone in recent years — in some cases to shout at Green specifically.2
“You want the clean version or the unedited version of what he’s telling us?” a smiling Green asked me after a recent practice. “In a nutshell, when he calls us over that quickly, it’s to say: ‘Wake up — get your head out of your butt. This is a big game. You can’t fall asleep on defense and fail to execute on the very first play of the game.’ He uses language that’s a little stronger than that, but if he has to call timeout that early, it’s pretty much to chew you out for not really being in the game mentally yet.”
Popovich, the longest-tenured coach in American professional sports, has never been shy about burning an early timeout to get his point across. In fact, the Spurs have called 50 percent more timeouts during the first two minutes of games than the next closest team over the past 10 regular seasons, according to analysts Vincent Johnson and Ken Woolums of ESPN Stats & Info. Popovich has called an NBA-high five timeouts within the first two minutes of a game this season — an eye-popping number given that more than a third of the teams in the league haven’t used even one such timeout — and is currently on pace to call more than he ever has in a single season.3
|San Antonio Spurs||30|
|Golden State Warriors||18|
In a way, the numbers highlight the degree to which this has been an unusually trying year for a Spurs club that’s widely considered the gold standard for consistency in pro sports. San Antonio has reached the playoffs in 20 consecutive seasons — a span in which it won five NBA titles — largely because of its unparalleled injury prevention and perhaps also its ability to enjoy peace and quiet from the drama that threatens so many other franchises.
But that hasn’t been the case this year — particularly with injuries. It’s no coincidence that San Antonio, after a rough 6-11 patch over the past 17 games, finds itself in an unfamiliar battle for one of the West’s last playoff spots.4 All this while being unsure of when and whether franchise cornerstone and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard will come back from a troubling quad injury that’s kept him out nearly the entire season.
“If you have different lineups every night and different players, it’s going to be more challenging,” said Popovich, whose team still boasts the third-best defense in the NBA this season. “But you know, quit your crying and just play. And that’s what we’ve done. No one’s crying. No one’s making any excuses. Everybody has problems they have to overcome with their teams.
“With us, it’s been the injuries. And it’s very disappointing because we wanted to pick up where we left off last year after 61 wins and going to the conference finals. We had really high hopes. Even without Tony and Kawhi to start, we did very well. Then we kind of hit a wall.”
Popovich attributes some of that stagnation to “running out of fuel,” a nod to the less-experienced players he’s had to lean on more than he expected to heading into the season.
The surplus of youngsters — and the challenging nature of the season — may explain why Pop has been so quick to call timeouts this season compared with others. Aside from having a military-like focus on the details, he has seemingly felt more of a need to point out veteran players’ miscues so they aren’t repeated by reserves who could someday replace them as the team’s leaders.
“He expects us, as veterans who’ve been here long enough, to know these things. To lead more, and to do more,” Green said. “Our leash is exactly the same as everyone else’s. Maybe even shorter. So it’s on us to get those (younger) guys in gear as well. The timeouts are kind of designed to say, ‘If these (starters) can fall in line and take the criticism, you better fall in line, too.’”
Popovich said there was no true rhyme or reason to the nature of his timeout calls, other than something looking out of place. “It’s just by the seat of my pants,” he told me. “If I see something that’s particularly egregious based on what our game plan was supposed to be, then I try to do something to get them focused a little bit quicker. It mostly depends on the level of execution deficit, I suppose.”5
Popovich’s dedication to precision and his highly choreographed style haven’t always gone over perfectly with his players, of course. Creative playmakers Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, both of whom figure to reach the Hall of Fame someday, have said it took time for them to adjust to Popovich.
But the 69-year-old has never been shy about deviating from established coaching norms — sometimes in ways that aren’t immediately recognizable. In the past, Popovich would call timeouts a minute or two ahead of first-quarter commercial breaks that were scheduled to happen anyway — a practice that allowed him to sit his starters and buy them a little bit of extra rest. He’d then bring those players back much earlier in the second quarter than most opponents would, often allowing the Spurs to dominate second periods as a result. (Something easier to recognize: He isn’t afraid to sub all five of his starters out at once if he’s unhappy with effort or execution.)
Popovich also doesn’t hesitate to let his players do some of the coaching from time to time. He allowed Parker to walk into the coaches’ huddle during a timeout, then sent Parker to relay the plan to his teammates on the bench — an occurrence that wouldn’t have been that unusual had it not been during the NBA Finals.6
Popovich’s tinkering this season may have been for naught if Leonard doesn’t return. The Spurs have begun to look like a car that had just enough gas to get home but then had to make a run to the store while still on fumes. Similar to last season, Leonard was the difference between San Antonio potentially contending in the playoffs and simply being another solid NBA team.
But regardless of whether the Spurs make the playoffs, one thing is clear: Popovich will always get his points about precision across to his players — even if it means calling a timeout 14 seconds into a game to do so.
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