Posted Mar 28 2010 11:20AM
Gregg Popovich admitted his first thoughts when Michael Finley asked to be released were: "What a jerk."
Pop was kidding. Maybe.
"I was quite surprised when he said that," San Antonio's coach said. "I didn't know whether to be sensitive about it, be hurt about it or angry about it or 'Michael, you know what you're doing? That's not you.' I had all those kinds of thoughts.
"And then when a day or two passed, I looked at it on the complete other side. Think about it as a player, your career is winding down and this team isn't going to play you, and the thing you want most is to keep playing, so how do you wrong a guy for figuring out how to keep playing somewhere."
The Spurs don't make it a practice of wronging players, and Popovich's change in perspective mirrored Finley's. Perhaps the most respected guy inside San Antonio's locker room, Finley came to his decision nearly as quickly as Popovich and with a comparable amount of soul searching.
The 15-year veteran and former two-time All-Star, a staple in San Antonio's rotation since 2005, was buried at the end of the bench. And that wasn't about to change. After missing nearly two months with a badly sprained ankle, Finley was getting only spot minutes. The depth chart consisted of Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Roger Mason, George Hill and Keith Bogans. Finley knew where he sat.
That's what he did for much of February. So he did what many in his position consider, but few go through with. He asked to be released from a good team, a franchise he's won his only title with, for the chance to sign somewhere else in time for the playoffs. He seriously began thinking about asking out only a week before the March 1 deadline to remain playoff eligible.
Then he went to Pop. There weren't any demands.
"It wasn't just me," Finley said. "It was a mutual-separation agreement between me and the Spurs, and it was a difficult one. It was just something that I thought needed to be talked about. A lot of people don't understand, but if San Antonio would have refused to waive me, I still would have been happy to continue with that team. I just didn't feel I was part of their championship formula."
The Celtics gave him that chance. The Spurs released Finley at the deadline and after a brief recruitment by Doc Rivers, he signed with Boston on March 5. He turned 37 two days later.
"I wanted to be a part of a team that I thought had a legitimate chance of being a championship-caliber team," Finley said. "The interest was mutual from Boston, and a lot of teams, but I just decided on Boston. I thought it fit me and what I thought I was looking for at the time."
Popovich hasn't looked back, either.
"I don't have any ill will about it," he said. "I think in the same position, I may have tried to do the same damn thing. If I was a pro who was about to end my career sometime soon and there was someone offering me time to play, I think I'd want to do it, too."
Finley arrived in Boston without any promises of playing time or guarantees of a place in the rotation. But the Celtics have history of bringing in vets during the season, having done so in recent years with Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown. Finley fits the bill.
"Another shot, another shooter," Rivers said. "He's really been shooting the ball well for us, spacing the floor. Another great guy in the locker room -- I don't think you can have enough of those -- the experience, the ability at the end of the game. If you put him on the floor and the ball happens to swing to him, he's not going to hesitate to shoot the ball."
Finley hasn't. As one of the reserves behind Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, Finley has found the stroke missing in San Antonio. He is shooting a robust 55 percent from the floor, 43 percent from beyond the arc, and averaging nearly six points and 14 minutes.
It's not a starring role, but it's a consistent one and Finley is making the most of it. The Spurs aren't surprised. Finley has blended in quickly in Beantown, just as he did in San Antonio. After years of being a face of the franchise in Dallas, Finley slipped into the background behind Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. He's doing the same now with Kevin Garnett, Allen and Pierce.
The Celtics, though, aren't exactly the Spurs Northeast.
"It's a looser atmosphere from practice, travel, games," Finley said diplomatically, surveying the personalities in Boston's locker room. "It's just looser, but the intensity to win and focus is similar."
Finley's former teammates visit the TD Garden on Sunday night. The Spurs are fighting for seeding at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race. The Celtics have the Atlantic Division wrapped up and are trying to hold off Atlanta for third in the East.
Finley appears to have upgraded his standing and the expense of his old compadres. Popovich and the Spurs don't seem to mind anymore. They know it beats sitting.
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