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Western Conference Insider: Popovich teaching more than ever

By Art Garcia,
Posted Nov 26 2008 11:52AM

Gregg Popovich was strolling over to the assembled media at one end of the Spurs practice facility when he made a quick detour. Tom James, the team's PR rep, had already begun gathering the press for the post-shootaround chat.

Pop, though, had some newfound business. Coming across Roger Mason, San Antonio's bearded skipper put his arm around the guard and used the time to pass along a quick pointer. Basketball in hand, Pop then demonstrated a move for Mason that ended with a bounce pass to no one.

There's always time to do a little extra teaching ... especially this season.

"When you have a situation like ours, you have to 'coach' more than you might want to," Spurs guard Michael Finley said. "When you've been around with a consistent group, a coach can pretty much go out there and just direct them in the right path.

"Now [Popovich] has to coach a little bit more, be more of a teacher on the sidelines, put us in different sets and control the game from a coaching standpoint, which he's capable of doing. It's a challenge for him and a challenge for the team."

Those who only see Popovich's gruff exterior -- hardly softened, even by the grey beard -- and focus on the gruff postgame answers sell his methods short. This isn't a rigid, do-it-my-way-or-the-highway coach from another era. He's not Woody Hayes.

He also hasn't just lucked into this. Sure, he's coached two Hall-of-Fame centers picked No. 1 (Tim Duncan and David Robinson) and another two draft-day finds (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) perhaps destined for basketball's highest individual honor.

But Popovich is, at his core, an uncompromising teacher. A true coach who works, strains, to get the most out of individual players and his team. Players go through San Antonio's system and either extend their careers or revitalize them.

Think about this group: Robert Horry, Steve Kerr, Stephen Jackson, Bruce Bowen, Danny Ferry, Terry Porter, Steve Smith, Mario Elie, Michael Finley, Derek Anderson and Speedy Claxton. Needing a change of scenery for a myriad of reasons, they each found homes and produced in San Antonio.

Milking a few extra years out of crusty NBA vets is one thing. Turning rookies and unsung newcomers into rotation regulars hits other end of the spectrum. Mason and George Hill top that list. Those two took on huge roles during the absences of Parker and Ginobili, who came back Monday as San Antonio climbed over .500 for the first time this season.

Coach Gregg Popovich has gotten help from veterans like Michael Finley (left) to get his message across.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

Hill, a late first-rounder out of IUPUI, found himself starting at point guard in just his fourth NBA game. The summer's unheralded free-agent find out of Washington, Mason has started the last nine, including two straight at the point with Hill's return to the second unit. Taking out Ginobili's one game, Mason and Hill are third and fourth, respectively, on the team in scoring behind Duncan and Parker.

Talk about your quick learners. It's a new dynamic for Pop.

"It's different in the sense that when you have the young kids that we're trying to work into the program," he explained, "one says things to them that maybe you haven't said to the veterans in a while because they've already gotten certain things and understand the system."

From the outside looking in, the Spurs had been on cruise control the last few years. The league's oldest team needed an infusion of fresh bodies to remain in the hunt for another title.

"We went to the Western Conference finals last year," Popovich reminded. "That's not terrible, but at the same time as we see guys get up in age, we need to bring in young people.

"The weird thing about this is if given a choice, you wouldn't want to do a transition with the injuries. You'd like to have your group and then stick them in where you want to stick them and do it that way, so it's been a little bit weird having them play as many minutes as they're playing right now. But overall it's been very enjoyable."

Pop and his staff aren't doing it alone. Those Spurs dripping with institutional knowledge, from Duncan on down, are quick to lend a hand without any prodding. Mason has peppered Finley with questions. Jacque Vaughn, even though he's competing with Hill for minutes, has gone out of his way to help the rookie.

"Character guys want people on their team to be successful because it's good for the whole," Popovich said. "They don't worry about what it means for them individually."

Pop finds a way to balance both. Good teachers unusually do.

Brooks' new diet

Scott Brooks spent a sleepless night preparing for his first NBA game as the main man on the sidelines. Thunder coach P.J. Carlesimo got the ax after Friday night's loss to the Hornets and Brooks learned on the team plane that he'd replace his former boss the following night in New Orleans.

Luckily, Brooks had a two-day break for his second outing.

"It's a great way to lose weight," Brooks joked before Oklahoma City played host to Phoenix on Tuesday night. "I've lost five pounds in the last three days. I wake up in the middle of the night more often now."

His admissions don't end there. Brooks confessed his nervousness to the team before his first game.

"I believe in telling the players how I feel and I want them to tell me how they feel," he said. "And I've told them, if you're not nervous then you don't care about what you do. As a player I was nervous for every game from sixth grade on.

"And I think if you're passionate about what you do you should be nervous. You should want to do well and produce."

OKC (1-14) is 0-2 so far under Brooks, but is showing signs of fight after blowouts became routine under Carlesimo. Brooks has changed the starting lineup, most notably moving Kevin Durant to his natural small forward position, and tightened the rotation.

The Thunder gave New Orleans a run before fading down the stretch and led the Suns by 11 going into the fourth quarter before falling 99-98 on Matt Barnes' late 3-pointer.


• Look out Suns, here comes Al Jefferson. The Wolves power forward averaged 30.5 points in four games against Phoenix last season, including 35.5 in Minnesota's two wins. The Suns visit the Target Center tonight.

• Nuggets coach George Karl on the recommitment to defense since acquiring Chauncey Billups: "There are very few possessions that Kenyon, Chauncey or even Melo don't have an attitude that we have to do it the right way."

• Chris Paul is stealing his way into the record book. CP3 has recorded a steal in 96 consecutive games, nine short of Alvin Robertson's NBA record of 105 straight.

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