DALLAS -- Winning, yes. Rolling? Not quite.
Winning not enough for Pop
Not a problem, either, according to that famously mellow coach, Gregg Popovich.
This time of year, it's not too much of an exaggeration. After three championships with three different supporting casts around Tim Duncan, and only one of them won with the boost of a fast start, Popovich has coached himself to be as patient as his personality will allow until Christmas. He was naturally pleased to witness Thursday's 92-90 road escape against the Dallas Mavericks, especially after the San Antonio Spurs got throttled here by 19 points earlier in the month, but the visitors weren't at risk for a roasting from Pop even had they lost again.
The calendar has flipped to December, so it's coming. Pop usually unloads around the holidays with a rant that often involves publicly branding his team "soft," even though he never really means it.
Not this early, though. Not with Manu Ginobili freshly sidelined by an ankle injury and with newcomers Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel still adapting to their new lives as role players. For a bit longer, Pop is prepared to accept San Antonio ranking no higher than No. 5 in field-goal defense (.427) and points allowed per game (90.4). That's where the Spurs awoke Thursday in what Pop calls the "categories we usually cherish."
"I have to ask myself if that's unusual for our team, but it's hard for me to make a case to get after these guys in that sense, because we usually are slow starters," Popovich said. "So I'm just going to bide my time for a few weeks or a month, and one of two things will happen.
"Either we'll continue to win and the concentration will take care of itself, or we'll get our butts kicked a few times and it'll give me the juice to go after 'em. But it's hard for me to go after them now because of our history," he said.
San Antonio started 6-8 when it won its first championship in 1999. The 2002-03 title team started 11-7, and then last season's Spurs opened 20-5.
"The aberration," Pop said.
Pop contends that the current 12-3 launch isn't as good as it looks on paper and reels off a string of supposed trouble spots to back up the argument. He hasn't been happy with San Antonio's nightly turnover count (nearly 16 a game) or its weak-side defense and physicality. Easier to see is the Spurs' willingness to settle for playing in the half court instead of pushing in search of easy baskets, compared to the Spurs who last season gave themselves a new dimension with their fast-break efficiency.
Yet he runs through all of that very calmly. If you can allow yourself to play along and forget for a moment that just about any coach in the league would beg for San Antonio's problems -- and the ability to slot in Finley (15 handy points) for Ginobili or slap Bruce Bowen on Dirk Nowitzki (14 points on 3-for-13 shooting) for long stretches -- it's interesting stuff. It's a switch to hear the terminally intense Popovich admitting that, with a group that has to win it all to have a good season, he is forced to keep the grind in mind.
We saw it in training camp when the Spurs only went through one set of two-a-day practices, and we're still seeing it a month in.
Well aware that his veterans know as well as anyone how long the season can be, Popovich said: "These are intelligent guys. It's almost a counterintuitive thing. It hurts you [in November] because you know [what it takes]. When you get to the playoffs, because you know, it helps you. But early, I think it hurts you."
Which might explain why Popovich was so loose before Thursday's tip, long before Bowen blanketed Nowitzki on the final possession, that he readily volunteered a headline for his media audience.
Popovich has gone soft and it shows in his team.
"They know," he quickly added, "that I'm watching and thinking and ready to jump 'em."
Spurs guard Tony Parker drives to the basket for two of his season-high 30 points. San Antonio topped Dallas 92-90.
When the Rockets hired Jeff Van Gundy to succeed the legendary Rudy Tomjanovich, Van Gundy's reputation as an elite coach won him the opportunity. Only now, in a season expected to put that status up for evaluation, Van Gundy has been reduced to finger-crossing as much as he's coaching. Which makes it tough for anyone to nitpick his decision-making.
In their current state -- best described as openly praying that Tracy McGrady's iffy back doesn't get any worse -- Van Gundy and the Rockets can't prove anything. They're just trying to get back to respectable, having desperately needed a victory Tuesday night over Atlanta to hike their record to a meager 4-11.
"It's very humbling. I've learned that over the years. No one is above bad stretches," he said.
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