SAN ANTONIO — Gregg Popovich was reflective, loquacious, funny and even answered questions from the media without prompting.
It’s easy to say it was all a bit out of character for Popovich, but the circumstances were new to the San Antonio Spurs coach and all those who have followed them.
San Antonio was 28 seconds away from going a perfect 5 for 5 in the NBA Finals under Popovich when everything went wrong. The Miami Heat rallied from a five-point deficit to tie Game 6, eventually winning in overtime Tuesday and then closing out their second straight title Thursday with a victory in Game 7.
So, instead of preparing for a victory parade along the San Antonio River, the Spurs spent Saturday morning cleaning out their lockers at the team’s practice facility.
“I don’t really want to do a soliloquy, but the elephant in the room is that we’re all hurting because we had an opportunity to win a championship right in the palm of our hands and it didn’t happen,” Popovich said. “So, that hurts, and it will dissipate over time, but right now it hurts everyone to varying degrees.”
San Antonio never trailed in the NBA Finals previously under Popovich and Tim Duncan, but they also never faced a player like LeBron James, not even when they swept a then 22-year-old James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the 2007 championship.
James’ 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation helped tie Game 6 and his jumper with 1:43 left in overtime proved to be the winner in a 103-100 victory. He earned his second straight Finals MVP after finishing with 32 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists in Game 6 and 37 points and 12 boards in a 95-88 victory in Game 7.
Will losing the title in such heartbreaking fashion makes it tougher for the Spurs to rebound next season and compete for another title?
“That’s the kind of articles you guys write,” Popovich said, deflecting the question before cracking a smile, “that we always read. ... I read every one of them, I swear, I swear, I read every one.”
Popovich’s mood, along with the rest of the team, was lifted by the thousands of fans who greeted them at the airport Friday afternoon upon their return from Miami. The reception shamed, humbled, inspired and ultimately touched Popovich.
“I’ll be honest with you, when you saw the crowd, the first feeling I had was embarrassment,” Popovich. “We wanted to bring it home for them so badly. Was just embarrassed that we didn’t get it done and then as you look at them all and they just keep cheering you realize, my gosh, you really felt the love and the way they care for these guys and their team and then it did make it easier. Like, ‘Hey, they’re with us.’ “
Fans will likely be rooting for essentially the same team next season, which is good news for a franchise that won the Southwest Division title while reaching the postseason for the 16th consecutive year.
Along with All-Star point guard Tony Parker, the most critical returning player is Duncan, who revived his career with two strenuous offseasons. The 37-year-old forward has lost 30 pounds over the past two years, enabling him to earn All-NBA First Team honors for the first time in six years. He averaged 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and shot a career-best 82 percent on free throws this season.
“I have a contract that says I am,” Duncan said following Game 7 when asked if would return next season.
Asked specifically if he was planning on retiring, Duncan said, “Not right now.”
Manu Ginobili is another matter. His contract expires this summer and the 35-year-old guard was unsure of his plans following Game 7.
Ginobili battled injuries and a declining game all season, and those struggles only exacerbated in the postseason. He averaged 11.5 points in the playoffs, his lowest total since his rookie season in 2003, and he committed eight turnovers in the Game 6 loss.
Barring a career renaissance like Duncan is enjoying, Ginobili’s place amongst the team’s Big 3 is likely at an end.
If Ginobili doesn’t bounce back, the Spurs discovered a replacement in Kawhi Leonard.
After averaging 11.9 points and 6.0 rebounds in the regular season, the second-year forward averaged 13.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in the postseason while stymieing James defensively for much of the finals.
“(He is) unbelievably coachable, a hard worker,” Popovich said. “He’s going to be a future star because he’s like a babe in the woods, still. I don’t even call plays for him and you see what he does out on the court. He’s just beginning to feel his way and he will be getting the ball more and more as time goes on.”
Leonard was invited to play for USA Basketball, but his availability is in doubt because of chronic knee soreness he experienced in the final months of the season.
“It’s obviously an honor, to be involved in USA basketball in any way, shape or form and Kawhi is thrilled with the selection,” Popovich said, “but we need to talk to the doctors to make sure he is able to do it.”
Leonard’s continued development, along with those of younger players such as Danny Green, Gary Neal, Cory Joseph, Tiago Splitter and Nando De Colo will be key to the team’s continued success because the Spurs are not expected to make any major trades or free-agent signings.
“People have been telling us to get younger for the last 15 years, I think,” Popovich said. “So, we stopped listening to that a long time ago. At one point, I guess we will be too old, who knows when that is. Going to the conference finals last year and Finals this year kind of proves that something is going right.”
With that, Popovich figuratively doffed his San Antonio Spurs cap at the media that had gathered on a Saturday morning and went back into the team’s practice facility to continue working towards next season.
“Thanks for everything,” he said. “You guys were great all year long, and ladies, but I am happy I don’t have to do it again until September.”