Before his team faced the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night, Gregg Popovich said he was “proud” of how the San Antonio Spurs’ injury-depleted counterparts have played during their seemingly lost season. And then Popovich and company ran the desperate home team out of Chesapeake Energy Arena by a score of 113-88 in a game the Thunder had to win to maintain grasp on the West’s eighth and final playoff spot.
It’s that time of year for the Spurs. Spurred by the continued dominance of ascendant superstar Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio did its best impression yet of the team that awed the basketball world en route to an eye-opening 4-1 NBA Finals win over the Miami Heat last June.
And though Popovich knows his group again showed how close it is to the brink of greatness, he still understands that Tuesday’s contest would have looked much different if Oklahoma City were at full strength – a reality he admitted after the game.
Via ESPN’s Royce Young:
No matter how you slice it, it is just not a fair fight. Nobody is going to give back the win. We are going to take the win and I thought we played well, but you just still feel badly when you see Kevin [Durant] in that chair out there and the other guys are hurt. It’s just not a fair fight.
Indeed. Pop is just saying what thousands of NBA across the country were thinking during Tuesday’s mismatch, but that hardly makes his comments any less honorable.
The five-time Coach of the Year is the ultimate respectable competitor. It wasn’t long ago, remember, that Popovich said he “enjoys” recalling big shots of the past that Kobe Bryant hit to knock his team from title contention. The Spurs can only play who’s on the schedule and in the lineup, of course, but it’s clear Popovich – the league’s foremost patriarch – would rather fight tooth and nail with a healthy Thunder squad than rout an overmatched one.
Unfortunately, though, Oklahoma City has been a shell of its 2012 Western Conference Champion self ever since the Heat defeated it to win a Larry O’Brien Trophy nearly three years ago. Russell Westbrook was sidelined for the 2013 postseason; Serge Ibaka missed the first two games of last year’s Conference Finals versus the Spurs; and Durant has been absent for this regular season’s majority and will sit-out the playoffs, too.
If the Thunder make it, that is.
Tuesday’s loss moved Scott Brooks’ team a half game behind the New Orleans Pelicans for the West’s final playoff berth, and Anthony Davis and company also hold the clubs’ head-to-head tie-breaker. With four games left on the schedule, Oklahoma City likely needs to win all of them to have a realistic shot at the postseason – and even that might not be enough.
Popovich, though, could help his foes get there on the season’s last day. The Spurs meet the Pelicans next Wednesday in a finale, and there’s a good chance San Antonio could be playing for crucial first round home court advantage despite having already gained a bid to late April basketball. Will Pop rest his regulars and effectively grant New Orleans a potentially playoff-garnering victory? Or play to win?
Time will tell. Considering his perspective on the Thunder, though, it’s obvious that Popovich wishes his choice wouldn’t have any say in the matter whatsoever. But that’s the cost of winning, a trade-off he and the Spurs have grown mighty comfortable with for the better part of two dynastic decades.