The last time the San Antonio Spurs played the Mavericks, it was Game No. 82 last season – the final time Dirk Nowitzki would competitively step on a basketball court.
And so, when Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich strolled into American Airlines Center before Monday’s game, the first thing he saw was a giant picture of Nowitzki.
“When I came in, I thought I was done with this guy,” Popovich joked. “Now I got to look at him again before the game starts.”
Popovich, of course, was a big admirer of Nowitzki through more than two decades as the franchises battled each other many, many times.
“As we all know, he was a handful and he’s a class act,” Popovich said. “That’s why we honored him at our building (in the season finale in April).
“It’s always different coming onto a court when the star that was basically the backbone of the franchise is gone. It sort of gives you pause and makes you understand how fortunate you are to still be there I guess. Pretty soon I won’t be.”
Popovich added that with legends like Nowitzki and Tim Duncan and others retiring, the game isn’t the same.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not in good hands.
“I think the speed and size of players has gotten even more dramatic,” said Popovich, who is in his 24th season as Spurs coach. “These guys are so skilled now, from 5-11 to 7-4, they can all do many things on the court. It’s influenced the rules and the way we play in the league now.”
Of course, Popovich couldn’t resist a little jab at how good players of this generation have things.
“We’re all way more spoiled than we used to be,” he said. “Nobody gets up at four or five in the morning to get a plane to go to a city or anything like that. And there are meals everywhere. It’s unbelievable. The old guys that played shake their heads. How can (young players) complain about anything? The style and ease with which we have to do our job is much easier than it used to be.”
Assistant coach Duncan: Former Spur and frequent Maverick nemesis Tim Duncan now is an assistant on Popovich’s coaching staff.
Mavericks’ coach Rick Carlisle said he’s not surprised.
“I’ve heard how much he loves to be in the gym,” Carlisle said. “And that he’s stayed close to the game, even after he walked away. I’m not shocked by it.
“We’ve had some friendly exchanges over the years. I can’t say I really know him that well. But I certainly have great admiration for what he did in his career and what he stands for as a person. As (president) of the coaches’ association, we’re thrilled to have him. That’s a feather in our cap as an organization, for sure.”
Popovich said Duncan’s expertise comes in different ways from some coaches.
“He’s just starting, obviously, but he’s had so many experiences that his mere presence is valuable,” Popovich said. “When a young kid has Tim Duncan put an arm around them and guide them a certain way, give them advice, that’s way more important than what I can do. His demeanor is as it was as a player. His value right now is on the court with the guys, teaching.”
Pick your spots: The Mavericks came into Monday’s game averaging 11.3 offensive rebounds per game, which was good enough to put them among the top 10 in the NBA.
“We’ve been opportunistic,” Carlisle said. “You’ve got to gauge your opportunities. We have some guys who are very good at it. The key always is balance. If you’re going to crash a couple guys, the other three got to be back.
“They can’t be in limbo or no-man’s land. So, it’s philosophy that can be effective. It requires discipline. And you got to have the right guys to do it.”