SAN ANTONIO -- A media session with Gregg Popovich often resembles a scene out of Seinfeld. Budding reporters discover quickly and sometimes harshly that Popovich does not suffer fools well.
On Seinfeld, the Spurs coach would be the "The Soup Nazi," reducing customers to quivering wimps with a wicked glare and a voice thick with sarcasm.
The Popovich who became a television replay sensation after Game 2 of the Spurs-Suns series -- the one who invoked phrases from the Alamo and the Gipper to ridicule some of the questions he was asked -- was not in the house Friday night, however.
After the proud Spurs -- winners of four titles since 1999 -- were humbled on their home floor by the Suns, 110-96, to fall behind 3-0 in a best-of-7 series, Popovich sounded resigned to his team's fate.
"We needed to have more people playing better for sure," Popovich said. "We had too many people that did not have great games. In general, their patience and execution in the first half was impressive and their second group's play in the second half was also very impressive."
The Spurs seemed ready at the opening tip. It took them one quarter and less than four minutes of the second quarter to build an 18-point lead at 39-21.
But the Suns never abandoned their game plan, chipped away at the lead and then in the fourth quarter, Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry unveiled a strategy that was as strange as it proved to be successful.
In a little more than six minutes, however, the reserves -- led by Goran Dragic, Nash's backup who the Suns acquired from the Spurs in a 2008 trade -- turned a one-point deficit into an 11-point lead.
Dragic did a very nice imitation of Utah point guard Deron Williams, penetrating, dunking and shooting acrobatic 3-pointers. He scored an amazing 23 points in the period and played so well that Gentry continued to let Nash sit until 3:17 was left in the game. At that point, Nash replaced Leandro Barbosa. Dragic, a two-year veteran from Slovenia, wasn't about to come out of the game.
|Backup Goran Dragic comes up with 23 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter. (AP)|
"When we put him in the game, we told him to be aggressive," Gentry said. "Even at the risk of making some mistakes, we told him to be aggressive. I think everyone forgets what a great athlete he is. He's as fast as anyone on the team."
Barbosa also played well, adding seven points as the Suns reserves had 33 of the 39 points in the last period while the Spurs had only 24. Stoudemire and Richardson did not play in the fourth quarter.
"He found every crease," Popovich said of Dragic, who had 26 points. "It might extend Steve's career five or six more years if Goran can keep playing like that."
Mercifully, no one asked Popovich after the game about the Spurs' chances of coming back. No NBA team has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit -- a fact that is repeated so often that it has become the equivalent of a cliche.
The Spurs owed their fate Friday to two shortcomings -- one that has plagued them the entire season and the other shocking.
After the Spurs had built that 18-point lead in the second quarter, the Spurs went to the free-throw line and missed seven consecutive attempts. By the time that streak ended, they were ahead by only 11.
"Missing seven free throws in a row is not a good thing," Popovich said. "I thought that really changed the momentum of the game. We were playing very well defensively and offensively and we gave up a great opportunity by leaving nine points at the free-throw line in the first half and seven in a row."
The Spurs ended the game making only 16 of 28 from the line and the worst offender, again, was Tim Duncan, who was 5 of 12. Duncan has made only 48 percent of his free-throw attempts in the playoffs.
The second problem, however, was unusual for the Spurs -- at least when they play the rest of the NBA. Somehow, they have been solved by the Suns.
In the regular season, the Spurs were eighth in the NBA in fewest points allowed with 96.8 a game. In their first playoff series against the Mavericks, each time San Antonio held Dallas to fewer than 100 points, the Spurs won.
Against the Suns, however, their defense has been shredded. The two teams have played six games this year and the Spurs have yet to hold the Suns to fewer than 110 points. A team that has epitomized defense for more than a decade simply cannot stop the best offensive team in basketball.
Game 4 of the series will be played Sunday and the Suns -- who very few analysts expected to be one of the final four teams playing this season -- no doubt have the momentum and talent to end the series. Popovich knows that. If he had no magic speeches before, he surely has none now.