Posted Nov 5 2009 12:26PM
There's a kid-like skip in the giddyup of the old-gun Spurs these days. It even shows in their quick draws -- at least judging by Manu Ginobili's manual dexterity around flying rodents.
Bat rejections aside, though, San Antonio's mainstays needed a little pick-me-up. Now they have it.
"They're excited about the new faces and the addition of talent, the athleticism," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of the enduring trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili. "New faces always bring a different sort of outlook. We had a very good summer on paper and now we have to see if it translates into good team play as the year progresses."
The Spurs were after a summer facelift a little more permanent than Botox, so owner Peter Holt opened his wallet, a noteworthy move for a franchise that guards the bottom line as much as the baseline.
A scorer in his prime (Richard Jefferson), a playoff-hardened vet (Antonio McDyess) and a rookie steal (DeJuan Blair) joined a core that was virtually untouched. Last-season's surprise trio -- Roger Mason, Matt Bonner and George Hill -- remain valuable contributors but don't have to carry nearly the same burden.
Don't forget, the Spurs were good last season. Just not good enough. They picked up another Southwest Division title, but that means little in the Alamo City. (All the division titles are listed on one banner at the AT&T Center.) The first-round exit at the hands of the upstate Mavericks had a built-in excuse -- Ginobili was injured -- but the Spurs' front office knew that bringing back the same group, even healthy, wouldn't stack up with the league's elite.
The Spurs didn't need a culture change. More like a culture adjustment.
"You should never get tired or bored of winning, but I think they knew that they needed something," Jefferson said. "In the past, they always had enough. With other teams in the league getting better and younger, I think the Spurs for the first time in 10 years felt like they needed to make some key additions.
"The lift is more of the team and the players like what was brought in. We all get along. We're all on the same page."
The Spurs opened with a statement rout over New Orleans before being ambushed in Chicago. All the good vibes and good press -- this columnist picked San Antonio to win it all -- goes only so far. At some point, adversity promises to strike, bat-like.
Even if these Spurs are better equipped to deal with an injury or a losing skid -- or rabies -- there's something to be gained for going through all that. Jefferson, for one, is actually ready to see what happens when life hands the Spurs lemons.
"You look forward to it because that's when the season starts," he said. "It's no different than the playoffs. The playoffs don't start until you lose your first home game. Now it's a matter of really playing.
"Once that first hiccup comes and you have to man up, you have a three-game losing streak with Boston and Cleveland back-to-back on the road in front of you, that's when you see what you're made of."
The kids put a serious scare into the champs Tuesday night in Oklahoma City. The Lakers needed overtime and an extra push late from an ailing Kobe Bryant to beat the Thunder in overtime.
As much as the loss stung -- Kevin Durant was as down as he's ever been after the loss -- the Thunder's 2-2 start is turning some heads. Even in Oklahoma City's two losses, the league's second-youngest team took a pair of Western Conference heavyweights (Portland was the other) to the wire.
The average age for OKC's players on opening night was 25 years and 130 days. Only the Grizzlies (25 and 92 days) checked in younger. The starting lineup -- Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, Thabo Sefolosha and Nenad Krstic -- can't rent a car, averaging out at 23 years old.
Eight players on the roster are 23 or younger. General manager Sam Presti has assembled a roster loaded with upside and short on dead weight.
"I'd rather be young, young, young and have talented young guys knowing that if you develop them in the right way, they're going to get better," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, "instead of having veteran guys that don't care, that just want to continue to play just because it's a good salary.
"I like the guys that we have here. We have a good group, but we have to continue to focus on getting better and our guys are doing it. They're coachable guys and they get along and they challenge each other every day in practice."
At some point they'll grow up, right?
"It's going to be a while before we can say old, old, old," Brooks added. "It's a great opportunity that I have and it's a great opportunity for our guys. They understand that every night you better get better."
The 76ers are fourth in the league in shooting percentage (48.4) and seventh in scoring (105) . It seems that Eddie Jordan's system, the Princeton offense, is at least working out OK in Philadelphia.
"It is," said swingman Jason Kapono, who's drilling a healthy 42 percent from 3-point range. "It's a young team, an athletic team. We can get out on fastbreak and play defense. It's a good style that really suits us. It's just a matter of how quickly everyone gets down the reads and the feel for the flow."
Even with the promising early returns, Kapono admitted that running the offense isn't quite natural yet. Not that the Sixers expected the switch from the traditional pro sets (pick-and-rolls, post-ups) to the constant motion of the Princeton to grab hold with one training camp and preseason. "It's robotic," Kapono said.
"Running a whole new style is going to take time, so chemistry is always going to be the part that lags," Kapono added. "As long as we can stay consistent and play hard and bring the focus and the attitude to learn and get better, then we should pick it up quicker than people think."
It hasn't all been roses, even if five Sixers are averaging in double figures. Andre Iguodala leads the way, which should be expected, but second-year big man Marreese Speights is scoring more off the bench than Elton Brand. That's not a good thing.
And Philly can't stop anyone right now. The Sixers have allowed more points (109.5) through the first week than all but four other teams. Jordan's defense needs the tweak right now.
"While I don't think Manu has any interest in stomping on bluebonnets, burning pecan trees, or spitting on the Alamo, I think he should recognize how important these creatures are to our area."
-- San Antonio brewer Scott Metzger on Mexican free-tailed bats, recognized as the official flying mammal of Texas. Ginobili swatted one to its demise on Halloween. Metzger brews Freetail beer.
1. Get the feeling that this AI deal is not going to end well? Me too. We're talking about sixth man? Sixth man?
2. All Nash and the Suns wanted to do was run. So let 'em. They're not going to win a title, but this is their best chance to win. Thanks, Alvin.
3. D'Antoni has the Knicks running ... and they're a mess. Why would LeBron want any part of NY? Brooklyn? Well ...
4. D-Wade wasn't supposed to have any help. Nobody told Jermaine, Beasley, Haslem, Mario. Heck, Q-Rich hasn't been half-bad.
5. Is Rondo really an $11 million-a-year guy? The economic downturn apparently didn't hit Beantown.
AG: Ring ceremonies don't get old, even for old guys.
DF: It's a remarkable feeling to get that final stamp of approval, that what you accomplished last season was real. We're the best team in all of the NBA a season ago. It's something that, since I've been part of more than one, I look forward to for our fans to experience more than myself.
AG: Had to be sweeter after the seven-year drought?
DF: There's definitely a greater appreciation in many regards. You have to be conscious of staying in the moment and enjoying where you are, because there is no guarantee that next season or any year after we would share the same experience.
AG: Can you be as hungry after a title?
DF: It's different than last season because the hunger is not motivated by a loss. It's a hunger that will be continually generated and furnished from within our own locker room. We won't have to look somewhere else to stoke those fires.
Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here.
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