Gregg Popovich thought he had seen it all in his 17 seasons as a coach in the National Basketball Association.
That is until his San Antonio Spurs exploded in the opening half of game three of the NBA finals, shooting a finals record 76 per cent.
“I don’t think we’ll shoot 76 per cent in a half ever again. That’s crazy,” Popovich said.
For a coach who often rebuffs interviewers with surly one-word answers, Popovich’s impromptu answer was refreshingly out of character.
But make no mistake, behind that gruff exterior is a coach who knows how to motivate and cares immensely about his players. The 65-year-old Popovich is a great decision maker who led the Spurs to the fifth title in franchise history Sunday as San Antonio wrapped up a five-game victory over the Miami Heat.
The Spurs stomped the two-time defending NBA champion Heat in the 2014 finals, shooting a finals record 52.7 percent from the field overall.
They put together two straight blowout wins in games three and four on the road before returning home to clinch the series with another lopsided 104-87 win.
This season Popovich has been able to mould the raw talent of Kawhi Leonard into the MVP of the finals. He also took Charlotte Bobcats castoff Boris Diaw and fit him perfectly into the Spurs’ system.
“As time evolves and you get older in the business you figure out what’s really important, and you don’t waste time trying to make people what they’re not going to be,” Popovich said.
“You’ve just got to figure out who people are and what they can give you and take advantage of their positives.
“You learn that you can’t make everything the way you think you might. You can’t make somebody great, so you don’t waste your time. You make a trade. You get rid of somebody.
“You make sure you’re bringing people in who fit in all the areas you want. Competitiveness and team play.”
Popovich likes to tell the story of when Manu Ginobili first arrived in San Antonio.
“I’ve learned to shut up more, and that probably is due to Manu Ginobili,” he said. “When he first came I was going to make him a heck of a player.
“And after 20 minutes I realized that he didn’t need me to do that. He was already a heck of a player.
“Sometimes being quiet and letting the player play is much more important than trying to be Mr. Coach and teach him this or teach him that.
“I didn’t make him a competitor and there is no way I could make him a non-competitor.”
Popovich believes communication is the key to any good relationship between coach and player.
“You take somebody like Danny Green, who we’ve worked with for a long time and actually cut him twice,” Popovich said. “When you see somebody develop and come into his own, you feel like you did something worthwhile.
“So it’s one of the sources of satisfaction in the business, if you can see a young player grow and become confident.”
This year Popovich led the Spurs to a NBA best 62-20 record, extending their streak of winning at least 50 games to a record 15-straight seasons.
Popovich had guided the Spurs to six NBA finals appearances.
NBA COACH OF THE YEAR
Popovich was named the NBA’s coach of the year in April. It is the third time he has earned the award, joining Pat Riley and Don Nelson as the only coaches to receive the Red Auerbach Trophy three times. He also won the award in the 2002-03 and 2011-12 seasons.
Popovich is the longest tenured active coach in the NBA, but in 1999 there were calls for his ouster after the Spurs got off to a rocky start to the lockout-shortened season.
San Antonio had lost five of seven including back-to-back double digit losses to Utah and Seattle.
The Spurs eventually turned it around, going on a 15-2 run in the playoffs. They topped it off by beating the New York Knicks in five games for their first NBA title.
Popovich says NBA owners are often too quick to pull the trigger on coaches when teams get off to poor starts or don’t live up high expectations.
“Guys get fired every year who are good coaches and it has got nothing to do with what they know or don’t know,” Popovich said.