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Richard Jefferson (left) and DeJuan Blair (with George Hill, right) are still finding their way in San Antonio.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

Remade Spurs staying calm despite sputtering start

Posted Nov 11 2009 10:09AM

The San Antonio Spurs are finding their version of Extreme Home Makeover to require a lot more than a hammer, nails and a dose of TV magic.

A large measure of patience, it seems, is going to be required, though a roll of duct tape and some defense wouldn't hurt.

After bringing in six new players and running their payroll up to a franchise-record $80.1 million over the summer, the Spurs were supposedly primed for takeoff and an instant challenge to the defending champion Lakers in the Western Conference.

Instead the Spurs are spinning their wheels, trying to gain traction and a sense of purpose, sitting at an uncomfortable and unsure 3-3. They've played three road games so far and lost them all, the last two by double digits in Utah and Portland. After a summer of caution and rest for their core players, the Spurs already have had two of their Big Three -- Tim Duncan and Tony Parker -- sit out games with sprained ankles, while the third -- Manu Ginobili -- is getting rabies shots.

"We usually start slow," said coach Gregg Popovich.

Indeed, in a footrace, San Antonio would likely spot the proverbial tortoise a lead. Just last year the Spurs started 0-3 before getting up off the floor. Then again, the season ended with a first-round elimination from the playoffs for only the second time since Duncan joined the franchise in 1997. That was the impetus for team owner Peter Holt's willingness to loosen the purse strings on the traditionally frugal franchise and blow clean through the luxury tax barrier to get back into the championship mix.

On paper this is a completely different team with the addition of former All-Stars Antonio McDyess and Theo Ratliff -- as well as solid veteran Richard Jefferson -- giving the Spurs perhaps the most talent they've ever had. On the court, the Spurs have been drastically dissimilar to their usual defensive selves, currently ranking 25th in opponents' shooting percentage (.486) and 20th in points allowed (102.5).

"We've got to play better defense," said Ginobili. "We were talking before the season started about trying to be the best team in the league defensively and we're not even close. Teams are shooting 55 to 60 percent against us and getting 100 every time. So we've got a long way to go in that regard."

Through the first half-dozen games, the Spurs have been a step slow defensively, too often allowing penetration easily into the lane. Even a soft bunch like the Toronto Raptors were able to take the ball in for layups, short turnarounds and jump hooks in a 131-124 San Antonio win that was so freewheeling it might as well have been played with the old ABA ball. That game, at least, the Spurs had the excuse of being without the ailing Duncan and Parker. But it has been a troublesome trait even with the full complement. Getting the new faces to sync with the older ones has proved problematic.

"It's probably tougher on the defensive end," Popovich said. "Everybody likes to score. All of these guys have been scoring all of their lives, even if they're not the best pro scorer. I'm sure they scored in college or high school. Guys know how to do that for the most part. They have to learn plays and all that. But it's tougher for a team to come together and trust each other at the defensive end.

"We've been outplayed very physically. We've been getting outhustled and in general people have been competing for more of the 48 minutes than we have up to this point."

It was, of course, never going to be as simple as plugging the likes of newcomer veterans Jefferson, McDyess, Ratliff and rookie DeJuan Blair into the lineup. Note the bumpy starts in Cleveland, Portland and New Orleans with teams that made significant changes during the offseason.

"A lot of teams are going through growing pains right now, whether they've been together forever or whether they're putting some new pieces together," Duncan said. "It's all about getting through those early season jitters and trying to figure out what exactly your team is made of and how you're going to play.

"We're a veteran team, but we have a bunch of new guys. Veteran or not, we still have a bunch of stuff to learn. We have a lot of players to implement into what we do and get used to what they do."

The Spurs always have been able to ignore the need for speedy starts and take the long view. They traditionally don't get fully warmed up until they take their annual Rodeo Trip around the All-Star break in the middle of February.

That's why they never panic about when it will all come together.

"Whenever it does," said Popovich with a shrug. "It might be next week. It might be in January. It might be Feb. 27th. You can't make it come together. It will or it won't."

Of course, for $80.1 million, it better.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.

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