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Gregg Popovich explains benching all five starters after sluggish start to Game 3 against the Grizzlies

May 26, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

Spurs head coach Popovich directs his team against the Grizzlies during the fourth quarter in Game 3 of their NBA Western Conference final playoff basketball series in Memphis

The Spurs ended up with a compelling overtime victory in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, but it certainly didn’t start out as a game that would end in San Antonio’s favor.

Whether due to the extended layoff between games or because of the desperate nature of the Grizzlies, the Spurs were knocked on their heels from the opening tip, and were overwhelmed by a Memphis team that was clearly the aggressor.

As the Grizzlies forced seven turnovers in the game’s first seven minutes on the way to jumping out to a quick 11-point lead, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich didn’t at all like what he was seeing. But while most coaches would simply call time outs to try to right the ship while being fearful of messing with their regular rotations, Popovich felt that a more drastic measure was required in order to shake his team up.

After 7:07 had gone by in the first quarter and with his team trailing 16-5, Popovich subbed out all five of his starters at once. It was a bold move that didn’t pay immediate dividends; the Grizzlies extended their lead to as many as 18 points before the first quarter was through. But it got his team’s attention, and the Spurs began to chip away at the large deficit with the starters back in midway through the second quarter.

It would have been seen as a panic move by most, but Popovich is among the most tenured and respected coaches in the game, as well as someone whom his players completely trust. He is a member of a very small group of coaches who could get away with something like this without losing his players, and he explained the rationale for his unorthodox decision afterward.

“Well, to start the game, you all saw it; I don’t remember the stats,” Popovich said. “We had maybe eight turnovers in the first quarter. It looked like those five guys had been asleep since Tuesday, and so we thought we might as well get five different bodies out there and at least start to compete and not be as sloppy as that group looked. For whatever reason, I have no clue, but it was one of the worst starts I’ve ever seen. We just made the change and hoped we could sustain the hit, get the guys back in, and it was a real test of their character to continue to pound and pound and pound.  That’s what happened.

“Really proud of their ‑‑ not really their effort so much but their ability to mentally hang in and stick with each other and continue to play.”

Popovich knows his guys, and the move worked to perfection. San Antonio had cut the lead that was once 18 points down to just four by halftime, and the starters regained their focus the rest of the way.

  1. mydoghasfleez - May 26, 2013 at 8:19 AM

    Pop is the best at his job at the moment.

    • erckle31 - May 26, 2013 at 2:22 PM

      No doubt. The Spurs are the team that I have an irrational hate for, but the way they’ve been able to stay competitive and remain contenders after all these years is just crazy. I had a feeling they might be done after they got knocked out by the Grizz 2 years ago, and then again by the Thunder last year, but damn was I wrong. It’s been 6 years since their last ring, and they’re still going strong.

  2. jbeagles23 - May 26, 2013 at 8:44 AM

    Maybe ever. So underrated

  3. patfic15 - May 26, 2013 at 10:10 AM

    I take Pops over Phil. Not simply because his success is more present as he is coaching. I like Phil but he always had 2 of the top 5 players in the NBA on his teams excluding the Bryant/Gasoline ring which would’ve been the Celtics if Perk had been there.

    • andrewproughcfe - May 26, 2013 at 11:49 AM

      Phil always parachuted in to the perfect situation, and then bailed as soon as there were no more rings to be won. He would never be willing to suffer the long droughts without a title that Popovich has steered the team through. Popovich is growing old with his guys, and has gone through all the peaks and valleys with them.

      • jollyjoker2 - May 26, 2013 at 4:41 PM

        what are you folks smoking? Phil parachuted in? As I recall, the lakers were nothing before he arrived and got them titles. You ever see chicago any good prior to or after he left? He’s a good coach but I hardly would put him above phil. You put phil in miami or san antonia right now and he would have titles

  4. logisticalvoices - May 26, 2013 at 10:49 AM

    @patfic15: Apples and oranges I think. Both are tremendous coaches who are best suited for their situations. The zen master is perfect for managing so many characters and egos. Pop is the best at the mechanics of the game. Neither would be as successful with the other ones roster.

    • patfic15 - May 26, 2013 at 11:55 AM

      Great point.

  5. bknowledge - May 26, 2013 at 11:30 AM

    Brilliant.

    Sit all 5 starters halfway thru the first quarter…then you get to bring them back to start the second quarter… many teams normal rotation is to have their back-ups in to start the second quarter…wise…your starters get to reset their game against the other teams back-ups…

    Amazing team. Spurs are great!

  6. 1historian - May 26, 2013 at 12:35 PM

    What is there to “explain” about what he did?

    It worked.

    Next dumb question.

  7. mazblast - May 26, 2013 at 1:52 PM

    One thing I’ve always loved about Popovich is that his explanations aren’t nearly as long-winded as Phil’s, and never as self-serving and full of pseudo-Zen BS.

    He’s the ultimate non-self-promoter, and he’s the sport’s ultimate TEAM coach.

    He puts the team before the individuals, and he still wins in the era of the cult of personality in the league. No wonder David Stern hates him.

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