SAN FRANCISCO — Gregg Popovich stepped amid a throng of TV cameras and microphones at what is normally a banquet room inside a posh downtown hotel and might just as well have cleared fine china and chafing dishes off a table with one arm.
He labeled Zaza Pachulia’s stepping under Kawhi Leonard in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals as dangerous, dirty, inappropriate and even compared it to manslaughter.
“Who gives a damn what his intent was?”
This is where the Spurs are now in a playoff season of injuries that has gone from bad to worse to trying to find a few family heirlooms while sifting through the ashes.
Popovich made the requisite lineup changes and adjustments when Tony Parker was lost to a torn quadriceps tendon in Game 2 of the previous round against the Rockets. He pulled all the right strings and levers without Leonard in Game 6 at Houston to engineer a stunning, series-clinching 39-point rout.
Now Leonard’s left ankle is injured again. The Spurs blew a 23-point lead without their best player and MVP candidate in the last 20 minutes of the opener against the Golden State juggernaut and maybe all that’s left to do is the very loud shouting.
“I’m not a happy camper,” Popovich barked.
He’s also not a camper left with many more pieces of survival equipment left in his knapsack and so Popovich is left rubbing two sticks together to try to start a fire of emotion based on raw anger.
That’s not to say his opinions on the controversial play aren’t valid. Just that there are only so many crippling body blows one can withstand before a team and a season is brought to its knees.
In this long-awaited meeting of the two best Western Conference clubs, we will never know how things would have played out with both rosters at full strength, if all the MVP candidates lined up for a possible seven games.
It’s a series had opened with the Spurs as whopping 9-to-1 underdogs in the Las Vegas sports books, but certainly had more promise when San Antonio opened what was a 23-point lead when Leonard limped off the floor toward the locker room.
How many times can a 27-year-old journeyman Jonathon Simmons step into Leonard’s sneakers? How many times can Popovich send toothpick-skinny, 20-year-old rookie Dejounte Murray out onto the court against Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and the Warriors machine?
Not the Popovich wasn’t sincere in his comments, but it’s also likely that the Monday tirade was his equivalent of Grizzlies coach David Fizdale’s “take that for data” rant in the first round of the playoffs. Just as Fizdale was looking to light a spark under his Memphis team after two utter thrashings by the Spurs in the first two games of the playoffs, Popovich might as well pour gasoline onto the fire, light a match and see what happens.
Of course, the irony in attacking Pachulia for stepping beneath the feet of a jump-shooter is that Popovich was standing right next to and celebrating Bruce Bowen on the night his No. 12 Spurs jersey was raised to the rafters in San Antonio. During his eight years with the Spurs, Bowen not only earned recognition as an elite defender, but also a reputation as a player renowned for pulling the same stunt that Pachulia is now accused.
Ray Allen, Amar’e Stoudemire, Allen Iverson, Steve Francis and Wally Szczerbiak all at one time during his Spurs career that produced three championships called Bowen a dirty player.
Two-time MVP Steve Nash once said of Bowen: “There comes a point where you want to punch the guy.”
When Francis suffered an injury from landing on Bowen’s foot in November 2006, his then-Knicks coach Isiah Thomas said: “I’d beat the (expletive) out of somebody. That’s (expletive) murder.”
When Popovich called what Pachulia did a “totally unnatural close-out that the league has outlawed years ago,” he was actually referring to a warning phone call that Bowen received from the NBA office after the incident with Francis.
At the time, Bowen cracked: “I’ve got my own bat signal from (then league disciplinary czar) Stu Jackson.”
The point is that the Spurs are wounded, direly shorthanded, positively desperate and maybe their only hope is for a roaring, visceral wall of outrage and indignation to rain down on Zaza and the Warriors when they arrive in San Antonio for Games 3 and 4. No matter to Popovich if the basketball shoe is now on the other foot. You use what you have left.
“He’s not a guy that when he feels strongly about something or emotional about something to hide it or to bite his tongue,” said Spurs guard Danny Green. “We know what we expect from him. We know how he is, how emotional he can get. But it’s a serious, emotional time of the year. We know what’s at stake, the opportunity we have. There’s a good reason for it, for guys to be upset about it.”
It just might be all the Spurs have left.
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