Things Done Changed – Gregg Popovich is 3-3 coaching in Game 7s. He won his first at home on basketball’s biggest stage in an 81-74 defensive masterpiece against the Detroit Pistons to closeout the bloodbath that was also known as the 2005 NBA Finals and capture our third NBA title. Manu Ginobili, the most beloved Spur that Pop has ever coached, was magnificent in the championship-clinching victory tallying 23 points (8-13 from the field, 5-5 from the line), five rebounds, four assists, and one steal. Coach Pop lost his second Game 7 the following season again at home, this time battling our Texas arch rival Dallas Mavericks in the 2006 Western Conference Semifinals. In that series, we stormed back from being down three games to one and would’ve closed out the Mavs with a Manu three in the last minute, except for future Hall-of-Famer Dirk Nowitzki having other ideas. We dropped a heartbreaker that night in overtime 119-111 largely due to Nowitzki’s heroic 37 points, 15 rebound, three assist, one block, and one steal performance. Popovich coached his first-ever road Game 7 in his third winner-take-all contest in the 2008 Western Conference Semifinals against the New Orleans Hornets. After being 0-3 playing in New Orleans heading into Game 7, the Spurs closed out the Chris Paul-led scrappy Hornets 91-82. Manu once again led the way with 26 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Back on basketball’s biggest stage, Coach Pop came up short in his second road (fourth overall) Game 7 in the 2013 NBA Finals, losing the game and the title 95-88 to the Miami Heat. Considering we’d just experienced the most painful loss in franchise history 48 hours earlier, it was a masterful coaching effort by Pop and a valiant effort by the Spurs but, ultimately, LeBron James’ 37 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steal were just too much to overcome. In Pop and the Spurs very next playoff series, we served our rivals from Dallas some revenge for 2006, winning Pop’s 5th Game 7 at home 119-96 in the 2014 Western Conference First Round against the Mavericks. Tony Parker played a dominant offensive game scoring 32 points en route to series win and ultimately our 5th title. The next season, once again in a Western Conference First Round Game 7 situation, Coach Pop and the Spurs, this time on the road (after dropping from the 3-seed to the 6-seed on the final day of the regular season with a no-show performance ironically in New Orleans) dropped another heartbreaker 111-109 to the Los Angeles Clippers. Chris Paul capped his 27 point, six assists performance with the game winner, a shot that was literally millimeters away from being blocked. So yes, all told, Coach Pop is 3-3 in Game 7s. The more perceptive among you may have noticed a pattern to Pop’s 3-3 Game 7 record. For those of you that don’t want to take the time to go back and re-read the paragraph in order to figure out the pattern, here it is: winning then losing then winning then losing then winning then losing. I’m no master code cracker, but it seems to me that according to the pattern, Gregg Popovich’s next Game 7 should be a win. Of course (full disclosure), there was one constant in all of Coach Pop’s previous six Game 7’s that will unfortunately be noticeably absent for his seventh: The Greatest Power Forward of All-Time. Let’s pause for a moment and pay our respects…
Happy Birthday, TD! I hope you had an awesome b-day on Thursday. How’d you like the party the San Antonio Spurs threw for you at the AT&T Center Thursday night? I know, right? That party was lit. Anyway, I actually have something else to discuss with you. I know you have the 21 USVI Duncan Relief Fund, your auto shop, kickboxing, and your wonderful family keeping you busy, but just in case all of that isn’t adequately filling up your retirement calendar, I know of a nice little pickup basketball game that some of your friends will be playing here in Denver tonight. I’m sure they’d be happy to get the help of a 24.7 point, 12 rebound, 2.7 assist, 1.3 block, 1 steal power forward performance during tonight’s Mile High run. So do you wanna come through? What’s that? You’re not going to be able to get here to Denver on short notice? Okay, gotcha. No worries, I totally understand. I know you’re super busy. It was worth a shot, though, right? It’s still all good that you can’t get up here in time because one of your former teammates told me that as a belated b-day gift, he’s going to honor you with his best attempt at an impersonation and put everything he’s got into channeling your greatness from the moment the first ball gets checked until we turn out the lights because there’s no challengers left to get next. Speaking of which, LA also asked me to tell you, “Happy Birthday, Old Man.” Okay, cool. I’ll let him know you said, “thanks.” Alright, Timmy. It’s been good catching up. Sorry to let you go but I’ve got a blog post to finish writing. Enjoy the rest of your birthday celebration. Let’s talk again soon but in case we don’t cross paths before it, I’m looking forward to seeing you the September after next in Springfield, MA.
On Thursday night, the heirs to Tim Duncan’s San Antonio playoff fortress gave the former king of Texas postseason basketball a spectacular 43rd birthday present, defeating the visiting Denver Nuggets 120-103 at home in Timmy’s house (aka the AT&T Center) to keep the season alive and force the first Game 7 of the post-Duncan era. With our backs against the wall and when we needed it the most, we finally got solid performances up and down the roster. As has often been the case in this series, our two stars led the charge. LaMarcus Aldridge came out of the gate in beast mode, scoring 13 points in the first quarter while setting the tone for the game with his intensity. LA finished his night with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists. Not to be outdone, DeMar DeRozan (mostly a facilitator in the first half) aggressively attacked the heart of Denver’s defense with an array of spectacular drives and pull up mid-range jumpers to score 12 points in the third quarter. DeMar finished with 25 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists. The player of the game, however, was Rudy Gay. Coming off the bench, Rudy had his best performance of the series contributing 19 points, four rebounds, and two assists in 28 tough-nosed minutes. Rudy’s production was so critical, he got the POTG nod but I really want to emphasize that this was special all-around team elimination game performance. All five starters shot better than 50 percent from the field (DeRozan [12-16], Aldridge [10-18], Forbes [5-8], Poeltl [4-6], and White [4-7]) and for the first time since Game 1 of this series, our bench outscored the Nuggets’ bench (36-13). Also for the first time since Game 1 of this series, the Spurs outshot Denver from deep going 10-24 (41.7 percent) compared to the Nuggets 6-24 (25 percent). While our shooters (with the exception of Patty [0-7]) made a marked improvement on three-point production (Rudy Gay [3-3], Derrick White [2-3], Bryn Forbes [2-4], Marco Belinelli [2-4]), I wouldn’t exactly call it the break-out three-point shooting performance that we’re overdue for in this series. That is good news heading into tonight. If things keep regressing to the mean (as they should) in Game 7, we can feel good that our shooters will make a huge impact from behind the arc in tonight’s winner-take-all contest. Now more overdue for a breakout performance than any other Spurs marksman, I fully expect Patty Mills to be leading that charge.
There is nothing else in basketball quite like a Game 7. The pressure and the intensity are impossible to replicate so until a player has actually been through one, it’s impossible for that player to truly know what to expect and fully appreciate the stakes. So how do the San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets stack up as far as prior Game 7 experience? I was curious to have the answer to this question so yesterday I did a little bit of research. First for the Spurs, DeMar DeRozan has the most Game 7 experience of any player in the series. For the 2014 Toronto Raptors, DeMar had 18 points (5-12 shooting) in 45 minutes in a First Round Game 7 loss to the Brooklyn Nets. In 2016, DeMar led the Raptors to a First Round Game 7 victory over the Indiana Pacers scoring 30 points (10-32 shooting) in 40 minutes. In the very next round, DeMar scored 28 points (12-29 shooting) in 35 minutes for the Raptors in a Eastern Conference Semifinals win over the Miami Heat. For the 2012 Memphis Grizzlies, Rudy Gay scored 19 points (7-15 shooting) in 40 minutes in a First Round Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. In the same game, Quincy Pondexter came off the Grizzlies’ bench scoring three points (1-2 shooting) in 13 minutes and Dante Cunningham also came off the Grizzlies’ bench scoring two points (1-2) shooting in three minutes. Quincy was also on the roster for the 2014 Memphis Grizzlies First Round Game 7 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, but was not active (out-for-the-season with a right foot injury). For the 2013 Chicago Bulls, Marco Belinelli had 24 points (8-14 shooting) in 41 minutes in a First Round Game 7 win over the Brooklyn Nets. In our infamous 2015 First Round Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, Marco had two points (0-2 shooting) in 18 minutes off of the bench. Patty Mills had six points (2-6 shooting) in 16 minutes off of the bench in the same game. Patty was also on our roster during the 2013 NBA Finals but was not active for Game 7. Donatas Motiejunas was on the 2015 Houston Rockets roster when they won a Western Conference Semifinals Game 7 over the Los Angeles Clippers but he did not play (out-for-the-season with a back injury). Funnily enough, in his 13-year NBA career, LaMarcus Aldridge has never played in a Game 7. Tonight will be his first.
The only rotations players on the Nuggets roster with Game 7 experience are Paul Millsaps and Mason Plumlee. As a rookie for the 2007 Utah Jazz, Millsaps scored two points in seven minutes off the bench in a First Round Game 7 win against the Houston Rockets. For the 2014 Atlanta Hawks, Millsaps scored 15 points (6-21 shooting) in 44 minutes in a First Round Game 7 loss to the Indiana Pacers. As a rookie, Plumlee logged scored two points and logged 5 minutes for the 2014 Brooklyn Nets in their Western Conference First Round Game 7 victory over DeMar’s Raptors. Outside of the Nuggets’ rotation, a pre-injury Isaiah Thomas scored 29 points (9-21 shooting) in 40 minutes for the 2017 Boston Celtics in an Eastern Conference Semifinal Game 7 win against the Washington Wizards. Trey Lyles was on the roster of the 2017 Utah Jazz who won a First Round Game 7 against the Los Angeles Clippers but Trey did not enter that game. And that’s it. For most of Denver’s core of young players who are playing in their very first playoff series, obviously tonight is going to be their first Game 7 experience. All told, the Spurs have 15 Game 7s under our belt (counting Pop’s six) to the Nuggets four. Our players have logged 251 Game 7 minutes and scored 114 Game 7 points (led by DeMar’s 120 minutes and 76 points). Denver’s players have logged 96 Game 7 minutes and scored 48 Game 7 points (29 of those by Isaiah Thomas who is unlikely to see action tonight). When it comes to Game 7’s, the San Antonio Spurs have a distinct experience advantage over the Denver Nuggets.
Unfortunately for us, the Nuggets have their own advantage tonight; this Game 7 is being played in Denver. Coming off of his monster 43 point, 12 rebound, and nine assist performance in a Game 6 losing effort, I’m sure Nicola Jokic is expecting to pick up right where he left off, this time with the luxury of a rowdy Pepsi Center crowd cheering him on. Much like Game 6, it may be part of Coach Pop’s game plan to continue to allow the Joker to get his points but try to take away his cutters and shooters in order to throw Denver out of its offensive rhythm. Then again, the Michael Malone-tagged Bobby Fischer of basketball may attack the Nugget’s king with a completely different strategy. Either way, the key to neutralizing Denver’s homeport advantage is for us to slow down the pace, protect the ball, and (no matter how well Jokic plays carrying his team) limit the Nugget’s fast break opportunities. I sat among the Denver fans last Tuesday during Game 5. There was a lot of nervous silence in the stands at the beginning of the game when we got out to a 9-4 lead. As soon as the Nuggets converted their first fast break and subsequently parlayed it into one of their lethal offensive blitzes the building erupted in noise and confidence. We can’t allow that to happen again tonight. Instead, if we can limit fast break opportunities, the pressure and stakes of needing to rely on superior half court execution to prevail should weigh on Denver’s young players and provide for a nervous rather than raucous Pepsi Center crowd. We need to set a tone that establishes the game will played at our pace from the opening tip tonight. Because we decisively control the experience advantage, the Nuggets may very well (in their lack of Game 7 experience) allow us to establish our pace. If they don’t, we need to use our experience-advantage to force them into it because their home-court advantage becomes infinitely more powerful when they’re allowed to get out and run. The crowd feeds off of pace and in return Denver plays better when they’re able to feed off of the crowd. If we allow Denver to turn this into a track meet, we’re probably in for a very long night. It’s going to be interesting to see what ultimately wins out between our experience advantage and their home court advantage but because this is the first Game 7 for seven of the Nugget’s nine rotation players compared to only four of our eight, I really like our chances to be the 29th team in league history to win Game 7 on the road.
The formula for completing the upset tonight and extending our season has three main ingredients. First, LaMarcus Aldridge needs to control the paint on both ends of the court the way Tim Duncan did in his first-ever Game 7. (You know, that one against the Pistons to win the 2005 title that we talked about earlier.) A trip to visit his former employer out in the Pacific Northwest is within reach and since I know that a trip down memory lane would be a lot of fun for LA, I’m confident he’s going to rise to the challenge. The second ingredient is DeMar DeRozan using his series-high three Game 7s of experience to impose his will on the Denver Nuggets by attacking down hill, drawing fouls, and knocking down his patented turnaround jumpers. Despite being on a two-game Game 7 winning streak (and being the best player in both of those games), there is an existing narrative that DeMar DeRozan is a playoff choker. Most of that criticism comes from DeMar’s Raptors repeatedly falling short against LeBron James, the game’s greatest active player. So while, in my opinion, the narrative is unfair, but it exists nevertheless. Tonight, free of the pressure that comes with putting an entire nation on your back, DeMar can silence the choker narrative and cunningly pass it along to Denver’s young superstars to see how they handle the annoyances that come with failing to meet expectations. After a season of getting to experience the competitiveness of Double D, I know he’s preparing to do exactly that. Finally, there’s Coach Pop. Nothing would be more Popiavellian (yes, with all respect due to Niccolò Machiavelli, I’m stealing this) than to devise a gameplay for tonight that steadily applies atmospheric pressure to Denver’s playoff oxygen until it eventually evaporates into the Mile High air. The old ball coach has seen and prevailed in every imaginable situation (including this one) and has had an entire season now to teach his first Duncan-Parker-Ginobili-less group of players since the 1996-97 season that the key to playoff success is to continue pounding the rock until it breaks. Tonight, with the greatest coach of all-time manning the sideline, the #BlackAndSilver will have the formula for breaking the formidable Denver Nugget rock into a thousand tiny pebbles. And if we follow that formula with attention to detail, competitiveness and execution, we will get to savor in the experience of watching every single last pebble drop from the highest-elevated Rocky Mountain peak back down to earth like a rolling stone.
Featured Image Source: Beats from Beijing