Why Blazers are not same team as Houston series
The San Antonio Spurs have demolished the Portland Trail Blazers in three consecutive games.
They've shot well, defended well, taken care of the boards and yanked Portland completely out of its game. The Spurs have come at the Trail Blazers in waves, using at least 10 players every night to dismantle what was just a week ago a promising playoff run. Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills -- even Aron Baynes -- they've all had their moments.
But make no mistake, this San Antonio team is all about one man:
This is one of the best "teams" I can remember watching in my more than 30 years covering the NBA. They positively grind you down with their offensive execution, unselfishly passing up good shots so their teammates can get better ones. Watch the little things with them -- how many times they receive perfect passes from teammates then immediately get into the classic basketball "triple-threat" position of being ready to shoot, dribble or pass instantly. There are ball fakes constantly, picks all over the floor, flashes to the basket -- it's a template for both modern and traditional NBA offense.
Nobody -- NOBODY -- is doing it better anywhere in basketball than San Antonio has done it these past three games against Portland. The Trail Blazers have run into a juggernaut, a buzzsaw -- and are powerless to do anything about it. And I don't care if you're a Trail Blazer fan or not, you have to just tip your cap in admiration.
At the defensive end, the Spurs have contested way more Portland shots than Houston did. The Spurs have gotten a terrific one-on-one job from Tiago Splitter on LaMarcus Aldridge, have pressured Damian Lillard's penetrations and run the Trail Blazers off the three-point line. It's been so difficult for Portland to find its rhythm and pace.
The Spurs found themselves in Game 7 of the first round vs. Dallas and are at the top of their game. I'm not sure they can reasonably expect to play any better. Portland is not as bad as the Spurs have made it look, but with the way they're playing, they'd be doing this to just about any team in the league.
Behind all of this is Popovich, of course. He rules his domain with an iron fist and sharp tongue. He called a timeout Saturday night to read the riot act to two of his players who just happened to be Duncan and Parker. These are Hall of Fame players who Popovich was absolutely ripping. In today's basketball you don't normally see "stars" ripped by the coach even in high school -- let alone in the NBA. They will quit on you.
But not in San Antonio. The Spurs responded with a 9-0 run and the game was virtually over.
"He treats everybody the same," one of his reserves told me last week. And he said it with a broad smile. Players almost seem to thrive on it -- in some cases finally finding a coach willing to draw lines and set rules for everyone on the team -- AND THEN ENFORCE THEM. It's really not common in basketball today and, to be fair, Popovich is in a perfect basketball environment to make it stick. He has four championships under his belt, a general manager, R.C. Buford, who almost seems to share a brain with him and superstar players willing to fit into a team.
As cantankerous as he wants to be, as surly as he'd like you to think he is, Popovich is obviously soft at his core. Strict fathers always get away with the discipline if there's love underneath and there's little doubt Popovich loves his players -- and that they love him back. And isn't it ironic that the man's nickname is more than just shortening up his last name? He's "Pop."
The result is what you're seeing, Trail Blazer fans. This is old-school stuff. Real old-school -- the crusty coach who is going to have things his way, demanding the utmost from his players. And players, in return, giving all they have to earn the respect of the coach they learn to love after they quit hating him.
It's all about Gregg Popovich.