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Super Bowl 50

Sun, Feb 7, 2016

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National Columnist

Popovich, Duncan, Spurs had best change or OKC will take Finals trip


OKLAHOMA CITY -- Do something, Gregg Popovich. Same goes for you, Tim Duncan. Do something. Anything. Do more than what you guys did as the Western Conference finals shifted to Oklahoma City, and I'm not just talking geographically.

This series is now knotted at two games each and the Spurs remain in possession of the home-court edge, but the momentum and the mojo and the nasty have shifted to the Thunder. They took a series that was slipping away after two games in San Antonio, and they grabbed it by the throat. And they are squeezing.

More on Thunder-Spurs

Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan? They're choking.

Now they head back to San Antonio for Game 5 and maybe they can breathe there. Maybe it's just that simple. Maybe home-court advantage is everything in this series, and while outsiders like me scream and shriek after every game as if it matters, maybe this series is destined to go seven games, each team holding serve at home, the Spurs ultimately winning the seventh game to advance to the NBA Finals.


But if I'm Gregg Popovich or Tim Duncan, I'm not betting this opportunity, maybe this one last chance with this group of aging stars, on a maybe. How could they? That 20-game winning streak, it's over. And it's over in a bad, bad way. The Spurs got run out of the Thunder's building in Game 3, then got pushed around for most of Game 4, and now we should assume that a return home for Game 5 will make all those boo-boos better?

That's childish, and Gregg Popovich is no child. But he is one stubborn man. He has a lot of Tony La Russa in him, good and bad. He really does seem to be smarter than most people. And he really does seem to know it. He does not appreciate criticism or suggestions, because who are you? You're not the guy who won all those NBA titles in San Antonio. You're not the guy who won 20 games in a row. Pop's the man. You don't have to genuflect, but don't question his tactics.

I tried, of course. I tried for nearly a week, asking Popovich every chance I got, "Why isn't DeJuan Blair playing?" I didn't just ask after the Spurs started losing games, though I did that as well. But I also asked after the Spurs won Game 2 to take a 2-0 series edge, noting to Popovich that the Spurs were winning so it wasn't a second-guess so much as it was an honest question:

Why isn't DeJuan Blair playing?

He wouldn't say, his non-answer all but saying, Who are you?

Understand, the Spurs played 66 regular-season games this year -- and before slipping to the end of the bench, Blair had started 62 of them. On a per-minute basis, he has been as productive as any Spurs big man other than Duncan, and more productive than most. And as a relevant aside, DeJuan Blair has had some of his biggest games as a pro against the Thunder, including a 28-point, 21-rebound monstrosity and a 22-and-11 masterpiece. But Blair has been reduced to garbage minutes in the playoffs, when he plays at all. Why? No idea. Popovich wouldn't say.

Look, Blair isn't the difference in this series, so if I see you on the message boards below dismissing the entire premise of this story on those grounds -- That idiot thinks DeJuan Blair is the difference! -- I'll know you stopped reading before you got here. Blair isn't going to win or lose this series, but he represents Popovich's willingness to do something. Anything. And to change on the fly, in the middle of a playoff series, out of recognition that the 20-game winning streak is long gone -- and that the Spurs are now two losses from elimination.

Tim Duncan spent a lot of time watching Serge Ibaka score in Game 4. (Getty Images)  
Tim Duncan spent a lot of time watching Serge Ibaka score in Game 4. (Getty Images)  
Popovich is stubborn, though. Danny Green has started all four games against the Thunder, even though he has been mediocre in one of them (Game 2) and lousy in the other three. And even after all that, Green was on the court to start the second half of Game 4, after a first half when he was 0 for 4 from beyond the 3-point line. When the third quarter began, the Spurs were down 12 points. When Green went to the bench after six minutes, the Spurs remained down 12 points. With Green gone -- and with DeJuan Blair, finally, on the court at another position -- the third quarter ended with the Spurs within four points.

If Green starts Game 5, well, you'll know Popovich coaches by superstition. He starts the same shooting guard, benches the same power forward, probably eats the same game-day meal and wears the same socks.

If only he could do something to get into the shoes of Tim Duncan.

Duncan is the most important player in franchise history, the greatest player in franchise history, all of that. He could have retired four years ago and been a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But what he has done doesn't give him a free pass for what he is not doing in this series. What is he not doing?

Playing well. Or tough.

Duncan has always been more finesse than force, but he was bad for Games 1 and 2 (8 for 26 from the floor), putrid for Game 3 (11 points, two rebounds) and then deceptively damaging in Game 4. The stats show Duncan had 21 points and eight rebounds on Saturday, a solid game, but the stats also show that the Thunder's big men destroyed Duncan on the other end. Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison shot 25 times and made 22. Duncan isn't responsible for all of that, obviously, but he was on the court for 36 minutes of Game 4, and he spent all 36 of those minutes defending one of the Thunder's three big men. And he got abused for 36 minutes.

Whatever Duncan did in Game 4, much like whatever he has been doing all series, hasn't worked. It's not working, Tim. Same goes for you, Gregg Popovich. Whatever you're doing? It's not working. Not for two games in a row. Not even close.

Do I honestly expect Gregg Popovich to change his ways in the 48 hours between Game 4 and Game 5? No. I don't. But I will use his words against him, words he used like a scalpel before Game 4 when nobody in the San Antonio media had a question for him because they know better. Why ask Popovich a pregame question when it's not absolutely necessary? He has the sport figured out, so why put yourself out there on a limb when all he'll do is cut it off?

So anyway, before Game 4, a reporter from some other locale wanted to talk to Popovich about mid-series adjustments in general. When an adjustment works, Popovich was asked, does a coach tend to stick with that adjustment for the next game -- or go back to what worked earlier in the season?

"I'm going to guess," Popovich said, "that usually if things work, you pretty much stick with them."

Dry, droll, and true.

But what about when things aren't working, Pop? You pretty much going to stick with them anyway?

Or are you going to do something?

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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