Popovich was asked to pinpoint the moment he could sense that lack of belief. Keep in mind, the Spurs were down by 17 points after the first quarter and later trailed by as many as 41.
“Oh, geez,” Popovich said, adding, “Come on.”
That pretty much summed up his evening. Leonard’s absence was significant, of course. He missed the game with a sprained left ankle — around tipoff, Popovich suspected that Leonard was ordering dinner back at the team hotel — and his status for Game 3 on Saturday in San Antonio is unclear. But given the extended layoff, it would be surprising if he did not play.
As for Popovich’s frustration with his team’s mind-set, it is worth noting some of his statements before Game 2. On Monday, as he railed against Pachulia, alleging that he had caused Leonard’s injury because of a “dangerous” and “unsportsmanlike” defensive closeout, Popovich also seemed to lament his team’s wayward fortunes without his best player.
“We’ve had a pretty damn good season,” Popovich said at Monday’s practice. “We’ve played fairly well in the playoffs. I think we’re getting better, and we’re up by 23 points in the third quarter against Golden State, and Kawhi goes down, just like that, and you want to know if our chances are less, and you want to know how we feel?”
His point was that the Spurs did not feel great. The loss of Leonard was seismic, or at least that was the message that Popovich wanted to convey to the public.
And while it was another fiery performance by Popovich, it was not necessarily going to inspire much confidence among his remaining players as they prepared for Game 2. Sure enough, that game turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“We came out kind of flat,” the Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge said. “They came out ready to go.”
After scoring 28 points in Game 1, Aldridge disappeared in Game 2. He finished with 8 points while shooting 4 of 11 from the field.
He said that he had wanted to work to get his teammates more involved, but that it had probably been the wrong approach. He vowed not to make the same mistake again.
“LaMarcus has to score for us,” Popovich said. “He can’t be timid. He turned down shots in the first quarter. He can’t do it. You’ve got to score. Scoring has to come from someplace. I think he’s got a major responsibility in Game 3 to come out and get something done, whether it’s for himself or for teammates. If they come after him, he has to find somebody or take good shots. He’s got to do it.”
The Spurs are making their 20th straight appearance in the playoffs under Popovich, who has coached them to five championships. They are not accustomed to being embarrassed the way they were Tuesday night. But Popovich did recall facing the Detroit Pistons in the N.B.A. finals in 2005, and being routed in back-to-back road games. The Spurs wound up winning that series in Game 7.
“It’s a long series,” the Spurs’ Patty Mills said on Tuesday night. “Now we’re going back home, so there are still a lot of reasons to believe. We’re just going to keep pounding on that. There’s nothing else to do.”
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