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On basketball

He’s not against popping off

Coach frequently speaks his mind

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / January 6, 2011

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Gregg Popovich would be funny, only he isn’t joking. The Spurs coach offers brutal honesty sprinkled with humor, but don’t mistake it for jokes.

Asked why he pulled four of his starters with 3:11 remaining and his team trailing the Knicks by 11 points Tuesday night, Popovich said, “I didn’t think we were going to win. I could tell you a fib if you want.’’

For a team that is 29-6 following a 105-103 loss to the Celtics last night at TD Garden, Popovich talks as if the Spurs are fighting for the eighth seed. There is little praise and much criticism stuffed inside of a wry personality that makes Popovich unpopular in some NBA circles.

He is not personable with reporters, he doesn’t cooperate well with those between-quarter interviews during nationally televised games, and he doesn’t laud his players or completely protect them in the media.

Popovich was horrified by his team’s defense Tuesday night and conceded defeat because he was convinced the Spurs could not stop the Knicks consistently enough to make a run.

“I don’t know,’’ he said when asked why his team is erratic defensively. “If I knew, we’d play good defense all the time.

“In the five games before [Tuesday], we were outstanding, playing fantastic D. The five games before that, we sucked. So we don’t have consistency defensively the way the Celtics do.

“We had numerous people who guarded no one [Tuesday]. Right now, I think we’re a good basketball team, but we really have to step up defensively. Luckily it’s a little bit early, maybe I can get these things across.’’

But Popovich wins because even the most accomplished player — Tim Duncan — buys into his system, accepts the harsh assessment, and puts more effort into execution.

And when Popovich has an issue with execution, he has no issue expressing his disdain. For example, he pulled DeJuan Blair 1 minute and 54 seconds into last night’s game to have a chat, then put him back in a few ticks later.

And at the 9:36 mark of the first quarter with the Spurs trailing, 7-4, Popovich called a timeout to chew out All-Star Manu Ginobili. After Paul Pierce drained an uncontested 3-pointer, Popovich called another timeout, his second in the first 3:50 of the game.

“He wants the team to execute the game plan,’’ Ginobili said with a smile. “And we didn’t start like that.’’

There is nothing but sincerity in these acts. Popovich is the ultimate self-deprecator concerning his team, despite its stellar record and three All-Stars in the starting lineup. What has made the Spurs successful — with four titles in the last 12 years — is humility and a workmanlike attitude.

San Antonio has built its franchise around Duncan, Tony Parker, and Ginobili, while shuttling secondary players in and out. The Spurs are tops in the league in international scouting, and rarely miss on draft picks or free agent signings.

After a poor first season in San Antonio, Richard Jefferson opted out of his contract and appeared gone, but he signed an extension last summer and has been one of the league’s better comeback stories.

When league pundits believed the Spurs were done after losing to the Suns in the Western Conference semifinals last season, they simply ramped up their roster by bringing in unheralded Gary Neal from Europe, while Popovich decided to reduce the pressure on the aging Duncan by relying more on youngsters.

Duncan is averaging career lows in scoring and minutes, and last night finished with 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 32 minutes.

“Timmy’s had a wonderful year,’’ Popovich said after the game. “He’s not going to do all those things he has in past years. He’s a very intelligent player, very smart. He always makes pretty damn good decisions.’’

Popovich is not convinced of his team’s prowess. He offers little adulation or credit for returning to their role as major factors in the Western Conference.

“We’re going to come back to center,’’ he said. “We’re not the Chicago Bulls of Michael [Jordan’s] era. We had a good run in the beginning, and that worries me.

“Great. Congratulate yourself on a good start. But we’re going to win 50 games or something like that, 48 games or 52 games. For me, it comes down to how hungry the group is. But the 29-5 pace, that’s not going to continue. That’s silly.’’

And consecutive losses only give Popovich more ammunition with which to motivate his players. They understand that titles aren’t won in January.

“We’re very hard on ourselves, we’re not satisfied with where we are,’’ Duncan said. “Honestly, I don’t really care what our record is. It’s how we’re playing through stretches. We’re going to hang our hat on the last two losses and the kind of defense we’re playing. We’re definitely not satisfied with what we have right now.’’

So until June, Popovich will continue his tirades and brooding. And only for a few seconds after winning a title will he smile and reflect, then it’s on to next season.

The Spurs are a franchise that doesn’t look back, and eventually Duncan will be in their rearview mirror. But as long as Duncan is there, Popovich is going to get the best out of him with little consideration for his feelings.

That’s the Popovich way and he doesn’t plan on changing, which is good for the league.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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