Wednesday, Jan 8 at 1:39 PM
Meeting with the local media Saturday morning for the last time this season, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was wistful as he recounted how excruciatingly close his team came to winning the NBA championship.
But before he dove into his summation of the season, Popovich drew chuckles with his retort to a reporter who opened the session by asking him to do just that.
"My, I thought this was going to be quick," Popovich said.
Then he turned serious.
"I don't really want to do a soliloquy, but the elephant in the room is that we're all hurting because we had an opportunity to win a championship right in the palm of our hand, and it didn't happen," Popovich said. "So that hurts. It will dissipate over time, but right now it hurts everyone to varying degrees. It's quite understandable.
"But, intellectually, we also know that it was an amazing season, something to be really proud of these guys for. What they accomplished is something nobody expected, something that they can carry with them for a very long time and feel very satisfied about their effort and what they did as a team."
Up 3-2 against the Miami Heat in the Finals, the Spurs had a five-point lead with 28 seconds left in Game 6 before they squandered their chance to win the franchise's fifth NBA title.
Miami tied the game on a 3-pointer by Ray Allen with 5.2 seconds left in regulation and went on to hand the Spurs a gut-wrenching 103-100 loss in overtime. The Heat won their second consecutive title with a 95-88 victory in Game 7 two nights later.
The appearance in the Finals was the Spurs' first since 2007, when they won their fourth NBA crown in nine seasons.
While the Spurs' are still hurting after falling just short of their goal when it was within their grasp, Popovich said it's important that they look at the broader picture.
"Perspective is what helps us deal with life situations," Popovich said. "I told the team if this is worst thing that ever happens to them, they're going to live a pretty easy life. I told them I hope it is the worst thing that ever happens to them, because life throws us a lot of challenges in a lot of different ways. I truly believe that."
Popovich says Spurs will stay on course
The Spurs finished the regular season 58-24, extending their streak of 50-win seasons to 14. Seeded No. 2 in the Western Conference playoffs behind defending West champion Oklahoma City, the Silver & Black swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round and took out Golden State in the conference semifinals 4-2.
OKC was favored to advance to the Finals again, but the Thunder lost All-Star guard Russell Westbrook in their second playoff game and were eliminated by Memphis in the first round.
The Spurs, who lost to OKC in last year's West finals, swept Memphis in the conference finals to earn their fifth trip to the Finals.
"They stuck together as a group and really set a great example in a lot of different ways," Popovich said of his players. "I couldn't be more proud of them. It began in training camp when we committed to playing better defense and wanting to be the best team we could possibly be. And we did that. So it was a great year in a lot of ways."
Do the Spurs have a pressing need heading into next season, considering All-NBA first-team center Tim Duncan turned 37 in April and guard Manu Ginobili, who struggled in the Finals, will be 36 next month?
"Not really,” Popovich said. "Everybody always talks about trades and you're going to do this and you're going to do that. People have been telling us to get younger for the last 15 years, I think. We stopped listening to that a long time ago. At one point, I guess we will be too old. Who knows when that is?
"Going to the conference finals last year and the Finals this year kind of proves that something's going right. I think we'll just stay on course with the way we do things."
Popovich not sure if Leonard will attend USA Basketball camp
Popovich praised general manager R.C. Buford and his staff for surrounding the Big Three – Duncan, Ginobili and All-Star point guard Tony Parker – with role players who have contributed heavily to the team's success.
"I think the infusion of young talent that R.C. and his staff have provided has been great," Popovich said. "He deserves a lot of credit for bringing people into the program that either nobody else thought about or wanted. R.C. and his staff have been brilliant, and the team has been of such a character that they find a way to be the best that they can be.
"That means what it means. It might not be a championship. It might be. It might be the first round. It might be the third round. But that's what everybody out of 30 teams tries to do. We usually end up in a pretty good place compared to everybody else."
Popovich also lauded assistant coaches Chip Engelland and Chad Forcier for helping develop the team's young players.
The Spurs' core of young players is led by small forward Kawhi Leonard, who turns 22 on June 29. Leonard developed into one of the team's steadiest players in only his second season, and has been called the future star of the franchise.
Leonard has been invited to attend a USA Basketball mini-camp next month in Las Vegas, but a sore knee that bothered him throughout the season could preclude his participation.
"I need to talk to Kawhi and the doctors about that before we make a decision," Popovich said. "It's obviously an honor to be involved with USA Basketball in any way, shape or form. Kawhi is thrilled by the selection. But we need to talk to the doctors and make sure he's able to do it."
Popovich calls fans' support 'wonderful'
Leonard averaged 14.5 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.0 steals in the Finals, and finished with 19 points and 16 rebounds in Game 7.
"That's a really happy story," Popovich said when asked about Leonard's development. "You wouldn't know it looking at Kawhi's face, because it never changes. You don't know if he's happy or sad. His demeanor and his approach have been so mature beyond his years. He's basically a senior in college. He went through the Finals of the playoffs as if he was going to H-E-B to pick up dinner or something.
"He was unbelievable. That's both in his poise, in his skill development, which, again, Chip and Chad get credit for, and his reaction to wins, his reaction to losses. The way he mingled with teammates, the way he learned from them. Unbelievably coachable. Hard worker. He's going to be a future star, because he's like a babe in the woods still."
Leonard played two seasons at San Diego State before being selected by the Indiana Pacers with the 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft. The Pacers subsequently traded his draft rights to the Spurs for guard George Hill.
Already one of the Spurs' top defenders, Leonard is fast becoming a go-to player on offense.
"I don't even call plays for him and you see what he does out on the court," Popovich said. "He's just beginning to feel his way and he'll be getting the ball more and more as time goes on."
Popovich said it was "wonderful" to see more than 1,000 fans welcome the Spurs back to San Antonio at the airport Friday afternoon.
"When I saw the crowd, the first feeling I had was embarrassment," Popovich said. "We wanted to bring it home for them so badly, it was just embarrassing that we didn't get it done. Then as you look at them all, they just keep cheering. You realize, 'My gosh.' You really felt the love and the way they care for these guys and their team."