Pop's smarts keep Spurs in Game 5

Updated: June 21, 2005, 12:56 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN Insider

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Robert Horry hit the big shots, but the man who might have been the Spurs' MVP on Sunday didn't make any shots or grab any rebounds or block any shots.

Instead, it was coach Gregg Popovich's adjustments, both before the game and during, that enabled the Spurs to recover from two one-sided losses and steal Game 5 in Detroit. Even with his team missing free throws left and right and the Pistons making a slew of difficult shots down the stretch, those moves put San Antonio in a position to win.

Popovich's first challenge was to eliminate the plague of turnovers that led to so many easy transition points for the Pistons in Games 3 and 4. His two-pronged response was masterful. First, Popovich yanked backup point guard Beno Udrih from the rotation. With eight turnovers in 43 minutes, Udrih's miscues were playing right into Detroit's hands.

Instead, Manu Ginobili was his backup "point guard" in Game 5. Tony Parker played 45 of the 53 minutes, but when Parker went out, it was the two-headed guard of Manu Ginobili and Brent Barry that handled the ball and managed to keep it in the Spurs' hands most of the time.

At the same time, Popovich made a second adjustment – he would not allow any Spur other than Parker bring the ball up against Detroit's Lindsey Hunter. If Hunter guarded Ginobili, Barry would bring it up. If Hunter guarded Barry, Ginobili would bring it up. At one point, he even put Devin Brown in the game to bring the ball up because Hunter was matched up on Ginobili. Forced to play off the ball, Hunter couldn't force the Spurs into traps as he did the previous two games.

That doesn't necessarily show up in the Spurs' turnover stats – they still had 16. But rather than miscues bringing the ball up, San Antonio's turnovers were mostly of the dead-ball variety – offensive fouls, deflections out of bounds and the like. As a result, the Pistons ended up with only nine fast-break points, similar to their totals in the first two games.

Popovich also made an important adjustment at the defensive end. Late in the game he switched Bruce Bowen onto Chauncey Billups, who was destroying Tony Parker. Billups was a monster on Sunday, scoring 34 points and drawing "MVP" chants from the crowd. But with Bowen on him in the game's final six minutes, Billups shot 1-of-5. His only points in overtime came when Tim Duncan fouled him after a defensive rebound.

"Chauncey was making some tough shots on [Parker] and it was about me using my length against Chauncey," said Bowen. "I feel like I'm quick enough to try to stay in front of him, and at the same time put a hand up when he pulls up." That certainly proved to be the case, as Billups had been shooting right over the smaller Parker but had a much more difficult time getting a clean look against Bowen.

Additionally, the switch from Bowen to the quicker Parker seemed to throw Hamilton off his game. He had been moderately effective running away from Bowen to get mid-range jump shots in regulation, with 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting. But in the overtime, Parker held him to 0-for-3, including the key stop on the game's final play. Hamilton tried to bully the smaller Parker by backing him in on the final play, but since Hamilton is fairly frail himself, this wasn't playing to his strong suit.

However, those moves by Popovich pale in comparison to one last adjustment that nobody is talking about but is easily the most important: He stuck with Robert Horry. It's easy to call this a no-brainer in hindsight, but that greatly underestimates what a difficult decision this was.

In the first half, Horry looked completely overmatched. He played 15 minutes without scoring, missed all three shots, and looked terrified every time he went to the basket. The other Spurs had played extremely well, but the game was tied at halftime largely because Horry was keeping Detroit in the game.

"I was turning the ball over and blowing layups," said Horry. "I just told myself, 'You've got to come out and help the team play – you're worried about them contesting your 3s so much and you've got to just let it flow.'"

I talked to a Spurs official at halftime and he reinforced this point, lamenting the twin no-shows by Horry and Nazr Mohammed in the first half. But, he informed me, "I'd expect much more in the second half."

Indeed. Horry stepped into a phone booth late in the third quarter and put on his magical Big Shot Bob cape. Suddenly, he was raining 3s, driving to the basket with conviction and materializing at just the right time on the offensive glass.

"That was probably the greatest performance I've ever been a part of," said Spurs center Tim Duncan, but he wasn't surprised. "He's Big Shot Bob. He does whatever he wants."

If Popovich had yanked Horry after that dismal first half, nobody would have blamed him. He had plenty of options, too: Nazr Mohammed wasn't in foul trouble, Rasho Nesterovic had started for half a season and Glenn Robinson might have been able to steal a few minutes at power forward.

Instead, he left Horry in position to do his thing. And when Rasheed Wallace had one of the great playoff brain cramps, leaving a sizzling Horry wide open at the 3-point line while he doubled Manu Ginobili in the corner, it was Horry – not Nazr or Rasho or the Big Dog – who was there to make Detroit pay.

"It was supposed to be a pick-and-roll with [Duncan]," said Horry. "I saw Rasheed bite and I said, 'Oh, let me stay out here.' I just got the ball back – since I was shooting well I wanted to let it fly."

Horry's shot gave the Spurs a 3-2 series lead and in all likelihood will end up rewarding Popovich with his third NBA championship. The changes he made – to replace Udrih and avoid having his subs dribbling against Hunter – certainly proved important.

But sometimes it's the moves you don't make that are the best. Not yanking Robert Horry in Game 5 was a perfect example.

John Hollinger, author of "Pro Basketball Forecast 2004-05," is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider. Click here to contact John.