Originally posted on Fox Sports Southwest  |  Last updated 5/30/12
The word nasty and its cousin filthy are enjoying a renaissance of sorts in sports linguistics. No longer relegated to describing how little boys feel about peas or tea parties, nasty has come to describe the phenomenon of being so good it is almost naughty. Filthy slider. Nasty defense. So it was all kinds of word-genius during a Game 1 timeout when cameras caught Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dropping this on what until that point had been a shockingly docile San Antonio team: "I want some nasty.". This became an immediate phenomenon with "I want some nasty" T-shirts popping up, as well as gifs on the Internet. I do not know what we love more the phrase, or the phrase coming from Pop. We have been so focused on what Popovich said that we have missed the real genius. His players listen. Even now, after all these years and championships and speeches, they listen. If Pop says he wants nasty, he gets nasty, because he has earned the trust of every guy on the Spurs team. The truth is, a lot of coaches can deliver a good speech, an Aaron Sorkin-esque bit of dialogue about fighting for that inch, or clear eyes-full heart being incapable of losing or taking this to their graves. Words are easy, and they can be faked. What was most impressive, at least to me, was how every eye in that Spurs huddle was trained on Popovich as he talked of how "its not supposed to be easy. Every round gets tougher." It was a smart read by him. San Antonio did look a little timid, a little shocked, like, "How is Oklahoma City in this game?" Pop snapped them from this. Maybe most telling, though, was all of his best and biggest players were not just listening but, judging by what immediately followed, asking themselves, "How can I be nastier?" Timmy Duncan answered by taking a charge, the 36-year-old hitting the floor as if his were the body inhabited by those young Thunder players. In the aftermath of a Spurs win and then another we now have seen 20 in a row there is a tendency toward hyperbole and big statements. Best franchise, best player, best coach. And with Phil Jackson at least temporarily retired, Popovich certainly is the best coach in the NBA now. Maybe he was when Jackson was coaching and we just failed to notice. Why he never really gets his due is why the Spurs rarely do. We are stupid, or hypocritical or both. We say we love old-school, team-first play, yet we have ignored San Antonio almost all season. We notice now only because the Spurs are flirting with a championship long after their window demands it. How Pop has done this is by adapting to fit his personnel, going from a Duncan-centric defensive team to a Parker-led offensive juggernaut. Pops also created a culture thats all about basketball and winning. No nonsense whatsoever; whereas, just about everybody else has a little nonsense. Absolutely some of this is a testament to the guys Pop has on his team: Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker All-Stars and future Hall of Famers with rings and accolades willing to listen to him rant, preach and demand. It is also a testament to Pop and his coaching abilities that they do. They listen because he has a track record of being right. He tells them to do something, and that something leads to winning. For any young coach wondering what Pops secret is, there is none. No shortcut, no gimmick. It is about doing the work and slowly earning the right to be in their face. Players do not listen to the words. They listen to the man. And this, ultimately, is why Pop is so unbelievably successful. He has buy-in at every level from his players. Everybody listens. Everybody tries. Nobody is sulking, or blowing him off, or going all Russell Westbrook on him. He says get nasty, and they do. This is not to say Oklahoma Citys Scott Brooks is not a great coach or capable of being one. He is funny as hell, the kind of guy you could talk basketball with for hours. He has done a really good job of growing up with his team. His problem is he is coaching young men, and they are still learning. Not the game; they are infinitely talented in Oklahoma City. They are learning if they can trust Brooks, if what he says is true, if he is worth listening to and, in those moments when he says something hard or they dont agree with, if they will follow him anyway. This is where they are in San Antonio. This is why when Pop says, "I want some nasty," he gets nasty. "I said that?" Pop asked after Game 1 when his nasty comment was delivered back to him. "The heat of the game, you know, stuff comes out of my mouth and sometimes its embarrassing." Do not get lost on the words. They are only words. What makes Popovich so great, and his team so successful, is not what he says but, rather, that his players listen even when he talks nasty.
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