This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill first-round NBA playoff game Thursday night. More a run-’em-off-the-court exhibition by the best team in the league, with all due respect to James Harden’s still-have-to-prove-it crew in Houston.
Yes, Golden State mopped the floor with the San Antonio Spurs in workmanlike fashion once again en route to a 3-0 series lead and what might well be a sweep on Sunday. That would surprise no one in this overmatched series between a 2 seed and a flawed, weaponless 7 seed.
But there haven’t been many games with the emotional backdrop of Game 3.
This contest was more noteworthy for who was not competing in the arena than who was.
No Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs’ best player was in New York rehabbing apparently the most serious quad injury in the history of sports.
No Steph Curry. The Warriors’ best player — or second- or third- or fourth-best, depending on the current level of play from Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — was in the house but in street clothes and in full cheerleader mode.
And mostly no Gregg Popovich.
The best coach arguably in NBA history — is it even arguable in this age of free agency for such a small-market team? — was missing from AT&T Center because of the death of his wife after an extended illness Wednesday.
Spurs fans probably need to get used to his absence. There’s a possibility that Pop has coached his last game for the Spurs.
That shouldn’t accompany a big, bold, blaring, World War III-size headline because I have no inside knowledge. This is sheer speculation, but many think it’s coming relatively soon. Selfishly, I hope Pop coaches forever. He might coach Game 4 in San Antonio on Sunday, but that would surprise me.
Consider this more a celebration of Pop. It might be too early to begin predicting the future of one of the most successful but guarded sports figures in history at this painful time in his private life. Years ago, Pop once mentioned the family dog had died during the middle of a playoff series and implored the media not to report it. That’s just Pop. Very private.
But there are contributing factors during this heartbreaking time in Pop’s life.
He’s 69. He’s a man with diverse interests outside basketball, including charity work that he never publicizes.
The Spurs could have their coach in waiting in Ettore Messina, his five-year, trusted, offensive-minded assistant, who, like Pop, has legendary status in Europe, where the mild-mannered Messina was a four-time coach of the year. Messina might interview for the Charlotte Hornets’ head coaching vacancy but respectfully said Thursday’s press conference wasn’t the time to address those rumors.
If San Antonio doesn’t promote Messina, who’s highly respected, he’s likely to get away.
But Pop and only Pop will decide when it’s time to step away.
This is a man who has never been reluctant to share his controversial opinions about politics and presidents as well as societal issues such as women’s marches. I applaud him for his very public if inflammatory stances, even though, in some corners, he went from immensely popular to intensely polarizing in these fractious times.
Maybe Pop has grown weary of the fight even though he has done such a brilliant job in defining the best sports franchise of modern times this side of the New England Patriots. He’s a man who loves to enjoy life whether it’s rich wines or distant travel.
He does have another job upcoming as well, as the current coach of the U.S. national team for the 2020 Olympics. Maybe he’ll pour his considerable energy and mile-deep basketball acumen into that task.
Some think he’d be hard-pressed to leave the Spurs’ cupboard this bare, given the murky status of his equally private superstar. Leonard and Pop talk regularly, and if anyone can smooth over this divide, it’s Pop. But it’s all behind the scenes, much as it was when he convinced LaMarcus Aldridge he didn’t need to leave after a turbulent first season in San Antonio and helped remake the power forward into the All-NBA player he has been this year.
In that vein, there was no public tribute or acknowledgment of the passing of Erin Popovich despite a nationwide outpouring of sympathy and condolences.
A somber, almost eerie tone seeped throughout the game from the black T-shirts the fans wore at AT&T Center to the heartfelt comments of the participants.
”It was strange looking down the sideline and not seeing Pop down there,” said an emotionally moved Steve Kerr, Golden State’s coach, who played for Pop and counts him among his best friends.
San Antonio players were emotionally fraught as well.
“The very few times I got a chance to encounter her, it was amazing,” Spurs forward Danny Green said. “She had a presence. You (reporters) are intimidated by Pop and probably scared of him, but her presence is probably the total opposite of that; just a joy to be around, lightened the room up and made you smile and made everybody feel comfortable.”
That said, these are uncomfortable, unsettling times for this fortress of a sports franchise. Its leader is missing and hurting. The future’s unclear.
Warriors at Spurs, 2:30 p.m., ABC