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In his eighth year at Pomona, 1986--87, Pop took the sabbatical permitted to professors and interned with Brown at Kansas. "It was obvious right away that he was the whole package," says Brown, now at SMU, his 13th head coaching post. "Pop has great character, great passion for the sport and great intelligence. Pretty much all you want." Brown didn't have a permanent spot for Popovich then, so Pop returned to Pomona and scheduled a game against the Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse just for the experience of it. His Sagehens lost 94--38 to the team that won the NCAA championship that season.
Popovich left the warm bosom of campus life for good in 1988, following Brown to become an assistant with the Spurs. The team's then owner, Red McCombs, let go Brown and his entire staff in 1992, and two years of franchise unrest ensued before Popovich—who went to Golden State as Don Nelson's assistant—returned as general manager. Pop jettisoned coach Bob Hill, installed himself, heard thousands of boos, built a team based on defensive principles, drafted Duncan, brought order to chaos, won a championship, closed the curtain and settled in for a long run as the pasha of the Republic of Pop.
OKAY, WATCH what they do here on defense against Oklahoma City," says Kings assistant Jim Eyen. "It's simple, but they do it almost every time." Eyen is in his room at the San Antonio Westin, studying film of the Spurs in preparation for an April 12 game at the AT&T Center. (San Antonio would win 108--101.) "You can see how much Parker is shading [Thunder point guard Russell] Westbrook to the sideline," says Eyen. "That's where their defense starts. They take you where they want you to go so they can load up. And once the ball is on the sideline they don't make it easy [for you] to reverse it. You almost never go one-on-one against them. You're going one-on-five."
Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant sets a pick for Westbrook, but Spurs swingman Kawhi Leonard switches and prevents a drive to the basket. "They're not always aggressive in switches," says Eyen. "You know how the Celtics always jump out and hedge hard? The Spurs play it a little softer, depend on their wits."
Now the 6'9" Durant has the 6'2" Parker guarding him. "But [the Spurs] recognize the mismatch right away," says Eyen. "See, here comes [forward Danny] Green to help. And look at the other defenders. Their eyes are on that ball."
The Spurs might be vulnerable to Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha cutting to the hoop from the weak side. "But look at Duncan back there," says Eyen. "He's shaded that way. If Sefolosha cuts, Tim will knock him out of the lane with his chest." The Spurs' de facto zone forces Durant to give it up to forward Nick Collison, who is just above the free throw line. Duncan steps up to guard him. "See Duncan in that position," says Eyen. "He's tracing the ball. They all do that. They all make it tough to make even the easy pass."
Collison swings it to Sefolosha, who has moved out on the perimeter to space the floor. "So the guy who ends up with the ball is the guy you want with the ball on the perimeter," says Eyen. Sure enough, the sequence ends with Sefolosha missing a shot. "They don't have a [Bruce] Bowen now, a real lockdown guy," Eyen says of the Spurs, "and Tim is no longer a shot-blocking force, although he's still damn good. But their team-defense concepts are just as strong as ever."
The Kings assistant switches to offense, cuing up a basic play, which begins with Duncan posting up on the right block. "Okay, Collison decides to front Duncan and keep him from getting the ball," says Eyen. "So what happens? [Spurs big man Tiago] Splitter reads it immediately and comes out to the high post. Parker gets it to him ... they already know what they're going to do ... Duncan pins Collison, gets the lob from Splitter ... and scores easily. So they penalize you for trying to play great defense.
"A lot of teams throw that entry pass directly from the wing. But the Spurs get it to the middle, because that's where it works. And see what else is happening on the weak side? The guys are all active, moving, staying aware of cutting lanes. So it's hard to load up on Duncan, because he will find someone for an even better shot."
It's not that the Spurs do anything magical. It's just that they do whatever they do consistently, from game to game, year to year, decade to decade. "The first thing I think about with them is that they're well drilled," says Eyen. "You know you have college teams, Kansas and Duke, that play a certain way? The NBA version is the Spurs. They are as close to a program as you have in the league."