With a 22-Season Playoff Streak Snapped, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs Leave the Bubble

With a 22-Season Playoff Streak Snapped, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs Leave the Bubble

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Criticizing the leadership of President Trump is a longstanding practice for Gregg Popovich. You almost expect it by now when the coach of the San Antonio Spurs gives an interview.

So it was quite a curveball when Popovich, on his last night in the N.B.A. bubble, decided to imitate Trump instead.

“That’s fake news,” Popovich said, insisting with faux indignation that San Antonio’s run of 22 consecutive playoff appearances had not just been halted.

“That’s total fake news,” Popovich continued. “Lots of guys have been telling me the streak hasn’t ended. I talk to people all the time. They call me. They tell me: ‘Pop, the streak didn’t end. It didn’t.’ I don’t know where you guys are getting this stuff.”

San Antonio’s remarkable streak did perish Thursday — before the team even took the floor in an eventual 118-112 loss to the Utah Jazz. Earlier victories by the Memphis Grizzlies and the Phoenix Suns had eliminated the Spurs from postseason consideration, leaving them one berth shy of a new league record for successive playoff appearances. Popovich, though, was feeling loose enough after San Antonio’s season was brought to its first postseason-free close since 1996-97 to show a playful side he only occasionally reveals in his often terse interactions with the news media.

Of greater consequence, Popovich also gave a strong indication that he intends to keep coaching the Spurs next season, despite the team’s 32-39 finish and his status, at 71, as the league’s oldest coach.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Popovich asked.

On elimination day at the N.B.A. bubble for five teams, it could thus be argued that no one, not even the Cinderella Suns, could claim the sort of upbeat exit that San Antonio surprisingly managed. Phoenix went a spotless 8-0 in its seeding games, best in the bubble, but the Suns also had to suffer through the agony of Portland’s 134-133 escape against the Nets in Thursday’s late game. The Trail Blazers’ victory sent them to Saturday’s Western Conference playoff play-in round against Memphis by the slimmest of margins — ahead of heartbroken Phoenix.

The Spurs, by contrast, arrived in Florida on July 9 without the injured former All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and convinced that there was no way they could turn their 22 consecutive trips to the postseason into 23. “No shot,” Popovich said.

Popovich thought so little of San Antonio’s chances that he responded to the injury loss of two more starters (Trey Lyles and Bryn Forbes) by handing a notebook to Patty Mills, his trusty reserve guard, and making Mills an assistant coach for five of the team’s eight games here. The Spurs wound up starting 5-2 before losing the meaningless Utah game on Thursday.

In his frequent interview sessions with reporters over the past month, Popovich developed a consistent routine. He would make near-daily statements to push for social justice and highlight voter suppression to “make sure that the momentum continues” for players and coaches determined to capitalize on the high-profile platform of the N.B.A. restart to amplify their messaging about systemic racism. He also would say repeatedly that the development of San Antonio’s young players was his only on-court interest.

Once San Antonio’s stay was officially over, though, it sure sounded as though all the recent talk around the team about Popovich being re-energized by the progress of younger players such as Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson had not been exaggerated.

“I’m more excited about that than anything you guys are talking about right now,” Popovich said of his team’s player-development gains. He asserted that San Antonio’s 22 postseasons in a row, starting with the selection of Tim Duncan with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 draft, doesn’t “enter my mind.”

The Spurs and the Suns, because they were in the race with Portland for a play-in spot to the end, were scheduled to fly home Friday. Thursday also marked the last taste of the bubble for Washington, Sacramento and New Orleans and its prized rookie Zion Williamson.

The Wizards, after an 0-7 launch, picked up their first win by beating Boston in Thursday’s noon tipoff and, thanks to such an early start, had landed at Dulles Airport by 7:30 p.m. The Kings were the next to depart, followed by the Pelicans, who qualified as the unquestioned disappointment of the bubble.

With Williamson watching in a mask as a courtside spectator, New Orleans lost to Orlando in a 9 p.m. tipoff, then was forced to make an immediate late-night flight home after the game. League rules mandated that the Pelicans, for safety reasons, could no longer stay on the league’s campus once they had been eliminated.

The N.B.A. invited 22 teams to Walt Disney World to reboot its coronavirus-interrupted season with a format critics insisted was conceived purely to create a pathway for Williamson and the Pelicans to knock Memphis out of the playoffs. Seven of the Pelicans’ eight games here were selected for national TV broadcasts; New Orleans went 2-6 and essentially finished 21st.

As a result, a difficult off-season for Pelicans management has arrived. There is widespread belief in N.B.A. coaching circles that the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, David Griffin, has already decided he wants to replace Coach Alvin Gentry — provided that ownership is prepared to swallow the estimated $5 million remaining on Gentry’s contract for next season. Williamson also seemed to acknowledge that playing at his listed weight of 285 pounds may have been a factor in the myriad injuries that limited him to 24 of New Orleans’ 72 games as a rookie. He said after Thursday’s morning shootaround that his off-season focus will be “getting my body where it needs to be.”

Popovich, of course, has license in San Antonio to coach as long as he wants, and he left the impression that he wants to stay on. It’s unclear if his scheduled gig to coach the United States at the Tokyo Olympics will happen next summer, after this summer’s Games were postponed, but carrying on with the Spurs makes sense on numerous fronts.

Further solidifying the Spurs’ post-Duncan roster would figure to be a Popovich priority before he makes his expected move into a Red Auerbach-style supervisory role. Continuing to coach in the N.B.A. likewise gives Popovich maximum volume on his social justice megaphone. Some who know him well even believe he is more keen on trying to pass his dear friend Don Nelson for the career record in regular-season victories than he would ever let on. Nelson’s lead is down to 58 wins.

It is safest to say that Popovich has coached so well for so much longer than modern coaches typically last that he deserves to go out in a much more traditional setting — meaning with actual fans and admirers allowed in the building.

“It’s truly an incredible run,” said Mark Cuban, whose Dallas Mavericks have had a fierce regional rivalry with Popovich and the Spurs almost from the moment Cuban bought his team in January 2000.

Expressing doubt that any future streak-minded franchise can match San Antonio’s 22 consecutive playoff appearances, Cuban said: “Amazing — there’s no other way to describe it.”

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