Spurs’ Popovich on the verge of historic milestone

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is on the cusp of an NBA coaching milestone, but he would rather focus on his team’s need to play 48 minutes of defense and work to be at its best once the postseason rolls around.

Popovich, in his 21st season at the Spurs’ helm, can move to the top of the standings for most coaching wins with one franchise in league history when San Antonio battles the Denver Nuggets on Saturday at the AT&T Center in the Alamo City.

Popovich, who turned 68 on Jan. 28 and gives no indication of slowing down, has gone 1,127-496 since replacing Bob Hill as the Silver and Black’s coach on Dec. 10, 1996 (after the 18th game of the 1996-97 season) and tied former Utah coach Jerry Sloan when the Spurs beat Philadelphia 102-86 on Thursday.

“He’s in a different league than me,” Popovich said about Sloan. “When you get all those wins it’s just a longevity thing more than anything. So I’m thankful for having a job for a while.”

Sloan went 1,127-682 in 23 seasons with the Jazz. Popovich and Sloan have 332 more victories than legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach, who is third on the list with 795 wins. Popovich also has the most wins of any active coach in the league.

San Antonio has won all five of its championships with Popovich as coach, who took over the team after the 18th game of the 1996-97 season.

“Growing up, Jerry Sloan was one of the big names — watching the NBA Finals against (Michael) Jordan and stuff like that,” said Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who is in his 16th season with San Antonio.

“It’s amazing — and Pop’s going to keep going,” Parker added. “It looks like he’s not getting tired and he’s going to stop anytime soon. It’s very impressive to be a coach that long and keeping your team motivated and with the same message – it’s not easy.”

The Spurs (38-11) will face off with while on a two-game win streak, with Saturday’s outing the final contest of a four-game homestand. San Antonio will be away from home for the next eight games (and nine of its next 10) for their annual Rodeo Road Trip, facilitated by the takeover of the AT&T Center by the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo.

The Nuggets arrived in San Antonio in the wee hours of Saturday morning after beating Milwaukee 121-117 on Friday night in Denver. Nikola Jokic had 20 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists for his first career triple-double and Wilson Chandler had 21 points and eight rebounds and Kenneth Faried had 19 points and 11 rebounds for the Nuggets (22-27).

Denver played without forward and leading scorer Danilo Gallinari, who suffered a left groin injury in the Nuggets’ 119-99 loss to Memphis on Wednesday. He had an MRI done Thursday and announced on his Facebook page that results showed a first-degree pulled groin muscle. The post states that there is no firm date of his return “but we are very optimistic.”

“We’re not going to rush him back,” Denver coach Mike Malone said. “That’s an injury that can keep coming back if you don’t treat it the right way.”

The Nuggets welcomed the return of point guard Emmanuel Mudiay on Wednesday after he missed five games due to lower back soreness and he had 14 points, seven assists and six rebounds against the Grizzlies.

Denver’s plan was to play Mudiay just 20 minutes against Memphis, but Jameer Nelson’s ejection 4:07 into the game forced him into racking up 26 minutes of court time.

“I’m fine,” Mudiay said after the loss on Wednesday. “I was out there moving, so I needed to find out where I was.”

The Spurs are 2-0 against Denver this season, winning 127-99 on Jan. 5 in the Mile High City and 118-104 on Jan. 19 in San Antonio.