Gregg Popovich yells at his players during the first half against the Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
In Philadelphia, they “trust the process.” In Boston, where they are light years ahead in the NBA galaxy, it’s not the process but the system that matters.
And Brad Stevens has two mentors that have set the standard in two professional sports.
This past spring, Belichick was the guest of the Celtics and Stevens courtside at the end of the regular season and in the three home playoff games against Atlanta.
In the fall, Belichick invited Stevens to speak at his foundation’s event and said it was actually the 39-year-old Celtics coach who provided “a lot of insight” into coaching. Stevens said Belichick was very supportive and offered advice.
On Friday, one of the people Belichick respects the most in the coaching ranks, Gregg Popovich was in town. The two have had lengthy conversations in the past about coaching and what it is to manage modern day pro athletes. Belichick and Popovich are the two undisputed kings of coaching in their respective sports and Brad Stevens has a relationship with both.
Popovich has five rings and six NBA finals appearances with the Spurs and Belichick has four rings and six Super Bowl appearances with the Patriots.
Now that Stevens – in his fourth NBA season – is the coach of a team with expectations to make a run into the NBA stratosphere that includes perennial power San Antonio, Friday provided a good chance for Stevens to measure up to what Popovich has built over the last 20 years in San Antonio.
“I talk to him occasionally,” Stevens said before Friday’s matinee. “But I’ve said this before, he’s always been very kind, open and helpful whenever I’ve called or needed something. Couldn’t respect a coach or a person more.
“I just think they have a clear way of doing things with regard to every detail matters, every possession matters on both sides of the ball. They’ve always had an emphasis on skilled players but sometimes those guys come in different positions. And they’re just outstanding at what they do.”
What’s been remarkable over Popovich’s tenure in San Antonio – which began in 1996 – is the way the organization, through general manager R.C. Buford, has reloaded. They have replaced names like Sean Elliott, David Robinson and Tim Duncan with Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. They’ve held onto the likes of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and managed their minutes so that they’re useful come playoff time. And after Friday, they’re now 13-3 on the season, including a perfect 9-0 on the road.
“They do tweak and change based on their roster and personnel,” Stevens said. “They certainly have this year. And at the same time, there are a lot of things that look very similar. I just said I don’t know what their typical pregame on the road is, but to me it looks like they sleep, they eat, they probably go through your stuff, they execute you to death and then to leave your arena successful. And that’s usually what – in the first [nine] times they’ve played on the road – that’s what’s happened.”
And what does the 67-year-old Popovich think of the coach 28 years his junior and their relationship?
“Good. Good. Unless he’s been talking bad about me,” Popovich said without missing a beat. “It’s been great. I’ve enjoyed [it]. From Day 1 when he came into the league, we’ve talked several times and we’ve continued that. He’s a fine young mind, great character, one of the fine coaches in the league now already.”
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Tim Duncan the scout? Now that Tim Duncan is spending his first year of retirement hanging around the only team with which he spent his hall of fame career, the speculation has quickly begun that he might get into an expanded role with the Spurs.
Could Duncan have a more defined role with scouting and player development?
“I told him, I think I said it to the press too, he can have any job he wants. He can help R.C. [Buford], he can help me, he can help both of us, he can come once a week, once a month or every day,” Popovich said. “He gets to do whatever he wants. I mean every time we go to a meal we raise a glass, we toast and say ‘Thank you Timmy.’ He’s pretty much the man.
“He’s not there so you move on. You miss him, of course. I was with him for 20 years. It feels strange at times. I can’t enjoy him telling me what I’m doing wrong. He’s in the gym. He comes by to practice. He pretty much stays away from the games. He comes by and works out. He’s around.
“He’ll come in and put his arm around somebody Dejounte Murray or some younger guy and talk to him a little bit, which is kind of cool. He’ll talk with us, joke. It’ll probably go further than at some point. He’s too smart [to return to playing]. I could see him scouting, taking a trip some place.”
The gold standard in defense:
The Celtics got an up-close and personal look at Kawhi Leonard, the two-time defending NBA defensive player of the year and the player who stands between Avery Bradley and the top of the class among NBA defenders.
Did the Spurs anticipate Leonard becoming what he’s turned into when they traded for the 16th overall pick out San Diego State on draft night in 2011?
“No, we’d be exaggerating if we knew what he was going to be, kind of like Manu,” Popovich said. “We didn’t know Manu was going to be Manu, or Tony [was going to be] Tony. It just worked out for us. We needed size when we made that trade, because it didn’t make sense for us to have Tony, Manu and George Hill out there. They were just too small. We were looking for size, and RC and his group did a great job targeting Kawhi.
“After they do that, they drag me into the room and we sit and watch film and decide if that makes sense. Right up to the last minute, I think [Kawhi] was the 15th pick, we were on the phone right up until that point trying to figure if we really wanted to do it or not. George Hill was one of my favorite players of all-time and we’re still involved together with some charity stuff and off-court activities so it was really difficult, but Kawhi had such size and we thought he had the foot speed to go ahead and move from an inside player to a 3 position so we decided to roll the dice. We did and found out that he has the same attitude that Tim Duncan has. He comes early, he stays late, he wants to be great. He’s just a sponge.”
Isaiah Thomas gets the Pop seal of approval: Popovich is just the latest NBA opponent to show some love for the Celtics point guard who has made the most out of getting little to none in his first four years in the league. Thomas had 24 points and eight assists Friday in the Spurs’ win. Thomas had two more highlight moves, one on a alley-oop to Avery Bradley for a dunk in the first quarter that prompted a timeout from Popovich. The second was a layup has he was falling to the court in the second quarter.
“It’s hard to keep up with him,” Popovich said. “He’s a tricky little dude. He’s got a lot of ways to score, find the open man if that’s appropriate. He’s just tough to stick with. He’s very clever with the way he scores.”
Remember David Lee? His dunk over Kelly Olynyk midway through the third quarter Friday was a not-so subtle reminder of the toughness that 33-year-old gives the Spurs off the bench. The dunk was also a metaphor what Lee gives the Spurs and what Olynyk does not. Clearly, Olynyk is a 7-foot finesse forward who spaces the floor and shoots threes. Lee is a physical player in the paint that defends and rebounds.
“It did not work out the way I wanted it to, these things sometimes happen,” Lee said after Friday’s 109-103 Spurs’ win. “Obviously, I really respect the people and the organization, the guys on the team. I make sure to say hello to every single guy on the team before the game as well as the coaching staff. Said hello to Brad, so there are no hard feelings on my end. I believe it is the same way on their end. Obviously, when the ball is thrown up it is different, both teams want to win. But it still felt good to come back here to see familiar faces.
“You learn from things you do not do well in your career. With that being said, I came in here and was a good leadership guy for them, was still positive with all the young guys. It is not like I came in here and protested and asked to be traded. It is a situation that occurred and I thought my attitude was great. Did not play well the first few games of the season and they shifted who they wanted to play.”
When the Celtics waived him (and his $15 million cap hit) at the trade deadline last year, they knew he was likely going to land on a playoff team looking for exactly what he gave the Mavericks on the way to the playoffs last year and the Spurs this season. Brad Stevens even texted him congratulations. It was a bumpy road in Boston, with Lee getting benched for the last two months of his stay in Boston.
Lee signed this summer with the Spurs for two years and $3.1 million. On Friday, Lee had 15 points and 12 rebounds in 17 highly productive minutes off the bench in the 109-103 San Antonio win.
“Yeah he’s played really well,” Stevens said postgame Friday. “You saw that towards the end of last year when he was playing with Dallas and he’s been a really good fit. Somedays they go with guys and we’ve talked about that a little bit around here like somedays those guys have it going and he really rolls with him.”