Saturday, July 13, 2024

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich misses game, but supports LeBron James’ record chase

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LOS ANGELES — A slightly odd situation unfolded on Sunday night: San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich spent a good chunk of his pregame press availability speaking about a player who would not play. An hour and a half later, Popovich surprisingly did not coach.

The Spurs-Lakers tilt on Sunday evening was missing arguably its two centerpieces: LeBron James missed his fourth straight game with what the Lakers have called a left adductor strain, while Popovich was a late scratch with an unspecified illness, according to a team spokesman. Assistant Brett Brown coached in Popovich’s stead.

James attended the game in street clothes. Though he’s now been out 11 days, including a span of four straight off days, coach Darvin Ham said the team is trying to be “as cautious as possible” with the injury – which is in the same area where James was injured in 2018 and missed significant time.

James participated in non-contact portions of practice in the last week, but Ham made a distinction between that activity – which he said included running and jumping – and playing an actual game.

“He’s staying in rhythm but again, what you do in a 1-on-0 workout or a 5-on-0 workout is a lot different than going in the game where you’re bumping bodies and change of speed, change of direction that’s not predictable and not as controlled as an individual workout,” he said. “So, again, there’s no need to be in a hurry with him. He’s going to definitely play a big bulk of games this season.”

The Lakers also were without Juan Toscano-Anderson, who missed his second straight game with mid-back soreness.

Assuming James does get back soon, he’ll continue his chase of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career regular season scoring record. James is 1,076 points behind the Laker legend, which he can reach within 44 games at his current scoring pace (24.9 ppg).

The NBA’s oldest active coach at 73 years old, Popovich said for a long time he would never have expected that anyone could break Abdul-Jabbar’s record: “ I always thought Kareem was like on another planet.” But if anyone could approach that orbit, he’s not surprised it’s James – someone with whom he’s shared mutual respect for a long time. The two grew close when Popovich was an assistant with USA Basketball (ultimately becoming head coach).

Popovich noted the irony that early on in James’ career, sports talking heads would say James should shoot when he passed, or passed when he shot. The Spurs coach registered such critiques as needlessly biased.

“It really would anger me because they would just deal with the negative, and it was sort of a fake negative in a way,” he said. “The guy was doing everything great, handled himself great, young kid with all of that attention doing what he was doing. I just thought he was wonderful and it would just annoy me.”

If anyone knows what it’s like to break one of the game’s hallowed records, it’s Popovich. Last season, he passed Don Nelson (1,336) for most coaching wins of all time. Even though the five-time title-winning coach is no stranger to milestones, leading up to the record, he resisted addressing it publicly in any way, only taking a moment to celebrate when he finally passed Nelson.

“With any record, you feel better when it’s over, right?” he said. “You don’t plan things like that. You’re not a little kid thinking that’s what you want to do someday. I wanted to be a spy. And now I’m talking about some win-record.”

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