Column: Spurs' Popovich turns opener into game of two halves, then wins the one that matters

One reason the Spurs always get called "boring" may be because we rarely see the most important guy on the team do his best work.

That would be coach Gregg Popovich, who played every bit as big a role in stealing Game 1 from the Heat as his shape-shifting point guard, Tony Parker, or ageless Tim Duncan did Thursday night. Popovich won't get nearly as much credit as either of his stars — coaches never do — but also because that's the way the Spurs operate.

Parker rounded the entire Miami defense in the closing seconds, from left side to right, alternately out of control and then finally back in possession of the ball with a Harlem Globetrotter-caliber, down-on-one-knee dribble maneuver. The clock read 0:05 by the time he had both feet underneath him. As LeBron James flew by, left arm swooping in anticipation of blocking the shot, Parker rose, double-pumped and ended the whole improbable sequence with a just-as-improbable 16-foot shot bank shot that rolled around the rim and dropped.

"Tony did everything wrong, then did everything right — all in the same possession," James marveled afterward.

You could say the Spurs did the same over the course of a game. They absorbed more body blows in the opening half than was reflected in the 52-49 deficit they took into the locker room at intermission. But in the second half, and especially the decisive fourth quarter, San Antonio was the team dictating the tempo with smart, opportunistic defense and just enough poise and patience on the offensive end to knock out the defending champions 92-88.

A half-hour later, someone asked Popovich where he found the discipline to stick with his game plan after that confidence-draining first half.

"One second guesses oneself often in the heat of these games — whether you stick with a certain strategy or change it.

"We stuck with the basics," he added a moment later, "and found some ways to score."

Not exactly.

At the end, the Spurs shot just 41 percent from the floor and were outrebounded 54-47. But if anything, the way they started made those numbers look reasonable. Talk about a tale of two halves.

Duncan missed his first five shots of the game, but finished with 20 points. The Spurs turned the ball over four times in the first half, but zero the rest of the way, tying an NBA Finals record in the bargain.

Miami went in the opposite direction. Miami's shooters made six 3-pointers in the opening half, but only two in the second. The Heat cobbled together nine points off fast breaks in the first half, but none after that. Dwyane Wade had 13 points in the first half, but just four in the second. He and Chris Bosh, who finished with 13, combined for exactly two in the final quarter, which San Antonio handily won 26-13.

The Spurs exploited matchups and choked off Miami's attack with such efficiency that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra elected to play the final three minutes or so with a lineup packed with shooters and lacking a point guard. That gave James, one of the best defenders in the NBA, the task of guarding Parker. None of what San Antonio did was a surprise. That nearly all of it worked shouldn't have been.

"The Spurs are the Spurs," James said. "They're going to put you in positions where you feel uncomfortable offensively and defensively, and every time you make a mistake, they're going to capitalize on it."

Losing the first game of a playoff series in the era of the big three hasn't been a big deal in Miami. The Heat have done it three times before and gone on to sweep four straight each time it happened. This time, though, there is good reason to panic.

The Spurs aren't the Pacers, who weren't experienced, deep, talented or disciplined enough to play quality basketball every night. And once Popovich figures out how to take away a piece of an opponent's game, it's generally gone for good.

James couldn't go into the post for easy baskets Thursday night — as he did against Indiana — because the Spurs effectively doubled him all night. That likely won't change. Once San Antonio figured out the spacing that yielded so much room at the perimeter for Ray Allen, Mike Miller and Norris Cole in the first half, the Spurs took that away, too. Just as troubling, the wear and tear from the Pacers series took its toll on the Heat in the final quarter and the finals schedule leaves precious little room for rest.

After the loss, James, Wade and Spoelstra each talked about watching film from this one and making the necessary adjustments on the fly. But there's a reason the Spurs have won all four of the finals they reached, and it's Popovich. With time to scout and focus on just one opponent, he's like New England's Bill Belichick, already two moves ahead.

You could see that when Spoelstra matched James against Parker at the end of the game. Instead of attacking him one-on-one, Parker swung the ball to teammates or ran through a series of screens, where James' bulk and power actually proved to be a disadvantage.

"We knew at some point they'd do that," Duncan said matter-of-factly. "We're a team that makes adjustments. That's what Pop does."

Not that he'd admit it.

Asked about how his team managed to go the entire second half without a turnover, the coach said it was a mystery to him, too.

"I have no clue. Sometimes you have turnovers, sometimes you don't. We don't do 'no-turnover drills,'" Popovich said. "I don't know what those are."

Neither does anyone else. But if you were going to bet anyone could, well, Popovich would top the list.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at) and follow him at