I feel like I would have to watch Tuesday’s Spurs-Knicks game at least three times to figure out what the heck happened. I sympathize with Graydon Gordian of the Spurs-themed blog 48 Minutes of Hell, who attended San Antonio’s 128-115 loss in New York and wrote later that his notes for the entire third quarter were made up of a single sentence: “I have no idea.”
I joked on Twitter afterward that perhaps Gregg Popovich had given his players a one-night-only blank check to indulge all of their defensive bad habits, just for fun or to get them out of the team’s collective system. You want to switch every time Wilson Chandler slips a screen, leaving a guard defending Chandler and a big man defending Raymond Felton? Go ahead. Want to duck under every Amar’e Stoudemire ball screen, yielding open jumpers any time the Knicks want them? Fine. Just for tonight. (Of course, that latter strategy isn’t faulty on its own, given that the Spurs clearly preferred allowing Felton to shoot long two-pointers over the alternative of helping aggressively off the Knicks’ roll man and allowing openings all over the court.)
But the decision that folks will remember is Popovich’s move to pull his starters and wave the white flag with 3:13 left and the Knicks ahead 122-111. And the situation wasn’t even that dire, because Tony Parker was at the line for two shots when Popovich started his parade of subs; the Spurs would have been within nine had Parker made both free throws. (He made 1-of-2.) But Popovich apparently believed the Spurs had little chance of coming back and decided to rest his core players for the bigger picture — which starts Wednesday in Boston with the completion of the back-to-back.
A couple of hours later, almost the exact opposite situation played out in Sacramento, as an Atlanta lineup consisting of Josh Smith, Jamal Crawford, one decent bench player (Zaza Pachulia) and two fringe rotation guys (Maurice Evans and Damien Wilkins) allowed a dead Kings team to trim a 20-point lead to 12 (94-82) by the 3:32 mark of the fourth quarter. Atlanta coach Larry Drew re-inserted four starters to secure the win — a decision he clearly wasn’t thrilled about making.
Drew’s move is something you see all the time, and something I’d like to see coaches do a bit less of in the regular season, if only to see what would happen. Tinker with Bill James’ little “Is your lead safe?” toy (meant for college hoops, it should be noted) and you’ll learn that the leads the Knicks and Hawks enjoyed weren’t close to being collapse-proof at the time Popovich and Drew made their respective decisions. But the odds were heavily in favor of the leading team holding on, and I wonder how much a team’s record would really change if coaches went to their deep benches a bit earlier in blowouts. I frown when I see Aging Veteran With Knee Troubles X on the floor with his team up by 20 at the four-minute mark of the fourth quarter, though I understand why coaches feel the need to secure every win. It reminds me a bit of baseball managers who use their most important middle reliever to protect a seven-run lead in the eighth inning.
Popovich’s move shouldn’t have surprised anyone. It’s classic Popovich, and fits with his history of resting Tim Duncan on back-to-backs, limiting the minutes of his stars and refusing to get caught up in the alleged importance of a regular-season game (see the Spurs’ previous loss in Orlando for another example). I don’t know of any definitive resource for calculating the odds of coming back from a 10-point deficit with three minutes left, but Popovich did his own risk/reward calculations and came to a defensible conclusion — a conclusion that is easier to defend when you’re already 29-4 and have a playoff pedigree.