In the hallway of TD Garden that leads to the locker rooms, there is a mural painted on the walls depicting great Celtics players and teams of the past. Every year when the San Antonio Spurs come through Boston, Gregg Popovich positions himself under the image of John Havlicek for his pregame media scrum. It’s only fitting since Pop keeps a photo of Havlicek on the desk in his office.
Every year the assembled media in Boston is treated to a command Pop performance. He held court for 17 minutes before Monday night’s game against the Celtics. Here are the highlights for this week’s List.
Manu forever: Fifteen years ago this week, the great Manu Ginobili began his NBA career. There was some uncertainty as to whether Manu would return for his 16th season, but he’s back again at age 40 for one more run through the league.
“For us, he’s like the fiber and the background and the spirit of the team along with Patty Mills and Tony (Parker) and Timmy (Duncan),” Pop said. “Now it’s shifting to LaMarcus and Kawhi, that kind of thing. In the meantime, he’s like a pacifier. You know how you’re kid looks for a pacifier, I look for Manu. When I see him in the gym I feel better.”
It wasn’t always that way.
“In the beginning, he would do some things that I thought were unnecessary until that point came when he came to me and said, ‘I am Manu. This is what I do.’ I said, ‘OK, you go ahead and try to save one or two of those passes per game and I’m going to shut up one or two times when they happen during the game.’ We came to this compromise and it’s been lovey dovey ever since.”
The LaMarcus conundrum: Speaking of compromises, Pop went into detail on his offseason relationship mending with LaMarcus Aldridge after the big man asked for a trade. Over lunch, they worked through their issues. Aldridge asked why Pop hadn’t cursed him out yet. Pop told Aldridge that he wanted him to stay.
“I want to see what I can do to understand what you’re feeling because intellectually I really wanted to know,” Popovich said. “That hasn’t happened very often in our program. I really wanted to know what the deal was. He was open and transparent about it and it’s really for the good of the whole group.”
The issue, according to Pop, was that he tried to over-coach the big man.
“My big mistake was I tried to coach him on the offensive end too much,” Pop said. “I was going to be this hellacious coach and give him this move and that move and have him to do this and do that and what I did was confuse the young man. We ironed that out and I let him play his game on the offensive end. I don’t say anything to him. He knows what to do, that’s what he’s used to doing, and that’s fine. That’s worked out better.”
Aldridge was averaging almost 25.7 points before Monday’s team-wide clunker.
This is a tired team: The Spurs were playing their fourth road game in six nights, a run that began with last Wednesday against the Heat. It showed in a 14-point loss in which they were a step slow most of the night. It’s ironic the team that pushed the envelope the most on resting players has been dealt a difficult schedule hand right out of the gates.
In response to the rash of DNP-rests that hit the league last season, the NBA put in new guidelines mandating teams put their best players on the court for road games and national television appearances.
“Frankly, I think it’s a little bit cloudy,” Popovich said. “But it’s all done in good faith to make fans feel like they’re seeing what they want to see for their money, which I understand. I’m just glad I was never one of those guys who rested people. The schedule is great. The way they’ve reduced back to backs and four in five nights, Adam (Silver) listened. It speaks a lot for how much he cares about the players and the league. The fans are important too and we’ve got to understand that.
“On the TV games the only thing I wonder about is how far down the list does it go? Are they going to tell us which ones are the marquee players? I guess we’ll know if we don’t play them and the fine comes.”
Leonard isn’t the only injured player: Point guard Tony Parker had offseason surgery to repair a ruptured quad tendon, which sounds like a hell of a thing for a 35-year-old to come back from at this stage of his career. Parker is set to begin a rehab assignment in the G-League and should be back soonish.
In his absence, the Spurs have relied on Dejounte Murray, a quick-as-hell 21-year-old with a suspect outside shot who is learning the nuances of the position. Behind Murray is the peerless Patty Mills, who is one of the league’s top reserves.
Mills would be starting for most teams, but Pop wants to see what he has with Murray while not disrupting his killer bench lineups. That’s been a hallmark of his program, as he likes to call it.
“I want (Murray) to understand that starting out he has the type of gifts that can make him an elite defender,” Popovich said. “He should start his game with that while [shooting guru] Chip Engelland works on his shot.”
Pop really like Brad Stevens: Told that Stevens had some nice things to say about him, Pop didn’t skip a beat.
“I don’t think that much of him,” Pop said. “But I’m glad he thinks well about me. I enjoy that because I want to be larger than everyone around me and I enjoy making them smaller.”
Chuckles all around, to which Pop supplied the headline: “Pop disses Stevens.”
“He is a special person — and that’s on and off the court,” Pop continued. “He is very intelligent. Intelligence is fine, but if it doesn’t come along with incisiveness and judgment and emotional maturity it doesn’t do you much good and he’s got all those things. Not that many people have that. It shows the way he handles people, the way he coaches. He’s going to be a great one before it’s all over with, and he’s already a helluva coach.”
Milestones and legacies: Pop is one win away from tying Phil Jackson for sixth on the all-time wins list. This is clearly on his mind.
“Yes, it’s the most important thing in my life,” he said. “Even my grandchildren can take a hike. What I might do when I retire, what kind of wine I’m going to have with dinner, all those things pale by comparison when I think about how many wins I have. I hope I can coach long enough to have more than anyone has ever had them. I want more than everybody.”
And with that, the Spurs went out and lost their third straight game. Even that didn’t bother his mood too much. “We actually played better,” Pop said after the game. “Even though we got our ass kicked.”