JOAQUIN HENSON: HAPPY POP'S DAY

New Jersey, USA, June 15, 2003 by Joaquin M. Henson (Star) It was an early celebration of Father’s Day for San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich who’s called Pop by friends and foes alike.

Today is Father’s Day and last Friday night (yesterday morning, Manila), Pop steered his family of Spurs to a masterful 93-83 win over the New Jersey Nets in Game 5 of the National Basketball Association (NBA) best-of-7 Finals at the Continental Airlines Arena here. A father couldn’t have been prouder of his sons who took the cue from Pop to stick it to the Nets on the road.

Never mind if Kenyon Martin played sick. That’s no excuse. He missed practice the day before because of flu-like symptoms. Martin compiled four points, nine rebounds, and three blocked shots in 38 minutes but committed eight of the Nets’ 16 turnovers. His mind was not in focus. He lacked aggressiveness. He didn’t attack the hole with ferocity–the reason why he never went to the line.

Nets coach Byron Scott complimented Martin for his effort but admitted K-Mart wasn’t his usual self. He disclosed that early in the game, Martin motioned to be taken out to rest.

"He was feeling the effects of his illness," said Scott. "He was dead tired. But with a little rest, I think he’ll be 100 percent for Game 6."

The Spurs’ victory was huge. Now, San Antonio has a twice-to-beat advantage. Popovich has two chances to win just one for the clincher. Game 6 will be played in San Antonio and Game 7, if necessary, will also be played on the Spurs’ homecourt.

That means to bag the championship the Nets must beat the Spurs twice in a row on the road–a tall order.

Scott, however, said he’s not surrendering. "It was a tough loss," moaned Scott after Friday’s setback. "We didn’t get the job done. It was a golden opportunity for us. They went with the zone and we didn’t react. We were passive. We didn’t make our shots. Now, we’re in a must-win situation. It’s not an impossible situation we’re in. We’ve just got to concentrate on winning Game 6 before thinking of Game 7."

Scott’s inability to adjust to Popovich’s checkmate-like strokes killed the Nets. Unlike in Game 4, Popovich used the 3-2 zone defense extensively last Friday. And why not? It worked like a charm for the Spurs in Game 3 which San Antonio won, 84-79, on the road.

Popovich displayed his genius when he brought in deadly shooter Steve Kerr with 9:02 left and the Nets coming off a 4-0 burst to trim the deficit from nine to five. Kerr figured prominently in the funeral rites as he stole the ball and drained a triple to push the lead up to seven. He later hit a 15-footer to bring back the gap to nine and hit a free throw to stretch it to 10, time down to 34.9 ticks.

Popovich kept Scott on the defensive much of the way. He threw a three-guard formation that wreaked havoc on the Nets’ offense. Scott adjusted by sending Martin and Aaron Williams to play low–they’re a lot more mobile than Jason Collins or Dikembe Mutombo against the 3-2 zone. Popovich read Scott’s move quickly and readjusted the defense to man. Before Scott knew it, Popovich had the Nets dangling on a string like a puppet. Scott was always a step late in making adjustments.

The Spurs’ bench stepped up to push the Nets’ backs against the wall. Malik Rose and Manu Ginobili each scored in twin digits. San Antonio’s relievers scored 35 points to the Nets’ 16. That was a big plus, considering starters Stephen Jackson, Bruce Bowen, and Tony Parker struggled offensively, combining for 8-of-24.

Jason Kidd played in spurts. He shot 12 in the first quarter, zero in the second, 14 in the third, and three in the fourth. When the Spurs buckled down to their stifling 3-2 zone in the payoff period, Kidd was lost. The Nets couldn’t execute the screen-roll or isolation for Kidd who never took a field goal attempt in the last 12 minutes. His last three points came from the stripe.

As usual, Popovich refused to reveal what buttons he pushed to regain the driver’s seat. He insisted the Spurs did nothing different in Game 5. Popovich should tell that to the Marines or the Air Force where he learned military intelligence tactics.

But the adjustments were clear. Bowen on Kidd down the stretch. Switching man to zone to man to confuse Scott. Playing three guards. Working Tim Duncan up against Martin and low against Collins. Rotating his shock troopers to keep the Nets under pressure.

Popovich may be arrogant, rude, and obnoxious. But you’ve got to give him credit. He’s not the NBA’s coach of the year for nothing. His subtle strokes of genius are lethal and if the opposing coach takes too long to read what he’s up against, sometimes it’s too late to adjust.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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