Full disclosure: I thought the Golden State Warriors would force a Game 7 in their Western Conference semifinals matchup against the San Antonio Spurs. The reasons for this matter little, I was wrong.
But watching the Spurs compete reminded me of who they are and why they’re so tough to beat in a seven-game series. You have to be more disciplined than they are; you have to execute the fundamentals of the game better than they do and that’s not going to happen very often over the course of seven games.
The culture of the Spurs is what makes them great. They might be the best example of what a team is all about in the NBA. The Nuggets use teamwork to beat you, the Thunder (when Russell Westbrook is healthy) play as a unit and the Miami Heat are capable of beating you a number of ways when their great skill plays as one, but the Spurs seem to play as a team better and more consistently than most.
It all starts with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Even after all these years, this triumvirate has afforded Gregg Popovich a luxury that most coaches typically don’t have: they allow themselves to be coached, even screamed at.
Watching Game 6 reminded me of what humility can do for a player and an organization when their best players care more about winning than they do scoring points.
Gregg Popovich screams at everybody. It doesn’t matter who you are, Tim Duncan (whom he benched for the last 4:38 of the game), Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker. He screams at them all. And if he screams at these players and gets in their grill (because of their humility), what excuse does Kawai Leonard, Tiago Splitter or Danny Green have if they reject Pop’s rebuke?
You want to talk about culture within an organization? Talk about your most respected and best players and how they handle being dressed down in front of thousands/millions of people/viewers?
But that’s the culture of the San Antonio Spurs; that’s who they are.
It’s this dynamic — where Pop coaches everybody the same — that makes the Spurs the NBA’s version of the New England Patriots. Popovich has the same luxury Bill Belichick has in New England: your best, most respected player(s), allow themselves to be coached. And if it’s good enough for Tom Brady, what’s your problem rook?
And what does that truth translate into for the Spurs? Unselfish, team-oriented basketball. The Spurs had 27-assists on 33 made baskets; they had 5 players in double figures; and they played the best defense I’ve seen from them in the post-season so far. Their rotations were near perfect. The Warriors got very few easy baskets and every shot was seemingly contested.
Gregg Popovich owes much of his career to Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Not because of how many points they have scored, not because of the effort they give on the floor, not because of their talent, but because of their humility. These players have been great for a long, long time and their humility has established a culture within the Spurs organization that has set a standard for years.
Enjoy it and appreciate it now; I don’t think we’ll be seeing this dynamic very often in the years to come.