Posted Jan 13 2010 12:50PM
The Spurs rolled into Tuesday night's game with the Lakers having beaten just one team with a winning record since November. One. Major holidays have passed. A new decade began.
They came out having doubled that number, but what exactly did they learn? As San Antonio skipper Gregg Popovich noted after the 20-point whipping of the "wounded" Lakers -- Pau Gasol was out and Kobe Bryant left in the third quarter with back spasms -- "everybody needs a win against a good team."
The Spurs are a team many thought was best equipped to challenge the NBA champs in the Western Conference. But before they can even think of matching up with the fully loaded Lakers, don't the Spurs need to enjoy some success over the Mavericks and Nuggets and Suns and Blazers?
"If we have the best record in the NBA versus teams above .500, are they going to give us an award for the month? Are they going to give us a championship? No, no," Richard Jefferson countered. "Our job is to continue getting better until the playoffs start."
Putting a finger on why the Spurs haven't gotten it done against the closest neighbors in the standings takes more than one finger.
"It's a lot of different things," Tim Duncan said. "Our experience. We just haven't put a game together the right way. Defensively we're not where we need to be. Offensively we're kind of up and down. There's a lot of things we need to learn right now as a team. Hopefully we can clean those things up in the coming games."
San Antonio embarks on a four-game road trip Wednesday night at thorn-in-its-side Oklahoma City. Also on the trek are resurgent Memphis and New Orleans before returning for a six-game homestand to close out January. Then it's the yearly, character-building Rodeo Trip, this time an eight-game affair wrapped around the All-Star break.
For a team that's only 6-7 outside of South Texas, the two trips should provide some answers. One former coach who watches the Spurs regularly said they look "old," adding that even 27-year-old Tony Parker is showing signs of slowing down. (Parker scored 22 points against the Lakers, though he admitted to TNT's David Aldridge that, "I just think I've played too much basketball." ) A longtime observer of the team believes there just isn't enough "nasty" on defense.
That was Bruce Bowen's territory before he traded elbows for bowties. Many in the Alamo City are pining for injured Warriors guard Raja Bell, who's been linked to the Spurs in various Internet trade reports. Bell, though, won't be healthy until after the Feb. 18 trade deadline. Will the Spurs be willing to pull the trigger and deal rotation pieces -- Roger Mason Jr., Matt Bonner? -- for someone who might not even be ready for the playoffs?
Keith Bogans has been offered up as a poor man's Bowen. Bogans and George Hill hounded Kobe on Tuesday, but Bryant's back and fractured index finger may have been more bothersome than San Antonio's top two perimeter defenders.
Still, just beating the champs is a first step. Everybody needs a win against a good team.
"Confidence-wise it will help," Duncan said. "Just to see things working will help. All those things can help, but it's a process. It's obviously one that every one of us wants to accelerate ... but it is what it is. It's going to take its time."
Popovich doesn't believe his team takes anyone lightly. The Spurs are 16-4 against teams with losing records.
"On any given night anybody can beat anybody because if you don't bring juice-wise, energy-wise in the NBA, you're going to lose," he said. "So I depend on the character of our group to bring that every night.
"We may play well, we may play poorly, but we're going to being the juice and they energy and we're going to compete."
Kevin Durant doesn't shy away from his responsibility as the Thunder's franchise player. Even at the tender age of 21, No. 35 embraces the role. He always has.
"I feel right at home," Durant said. "I've been a leader since I was 10 years old playing on the AAU teams, so it's nothing different. I know I'm young, but as long as we're learning together and we listen to each other, it's pretty easy."
Easy describes his demeanor. Easy doesn't describe how to defend him. The NBA's fourth-leading scorer and probable first-time All-Star has scored at least 30 in nine of his last 11 starts, hitting 40 twice.
"You aren't stopping a guy like Kevin Durant, you just try and contain him," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. "His has matured in the league. He needed to go through the league and get some of those bumps and bruises. He is on track to have a lot of success for this Oklahoma City team."
The Thunder check in seventh in the West at 21-16, only two wins shy of last year's win total.
Pointing out the Lakers are No. 1 isn't as easy these days. Not only have they lost three of four, but Kobe Bryant is playing with a fractured index finger on his shooting hand. The pain in his finger doesn't go away if he hits a few shots.
"No, not at all," Bryant said. "Depending on where it is, the pain just stays consistently. If I get whacked on it then it makes it worse, obviously. The next couple games after that it stays sore, but it depends. It's a sliding scale."
Not that opponents are purposely trying to go after his injury. "I don't think so," Kobe added with a straight face. "They're a little intimated by me."
Bryant was asked that, in the wake of his latest finger trauma, if his array of left-handed shots ever surprise him. "I've been shooting left-handed shots since I was like four, so I'm pretty comfortable shooting," he said. "It's kinda nothing to me."
Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich didn't know what hit him this past Friday. It was a forearm from Bucks forward Hakim Warrick to Hinrich's head and it left a black eye.
"That was the first altercation I've been in," Warrick said. "I've been a peacemaker a couple times, but that was my first time in the middle of it."
After being fouled by Luke Ridnour near the 3-point line, Hinrich continued to the basket. Warrick delivered his blow, shoving ensued among several parties, and four technicals followed. Warrick laughed off the entire episode.
"It was just one of those plays where I reached for the ball after [the whistle]," Warrick said. "I guess he thought that I hit him or something. It was a little bit of an overreaction. It was out of nowhere, he just turned on a switch and came and pushed me. I didn't know what was going on, next thing I know, everybody was back pushing each other, so it was funny to me."
"They brought it back together again. Putin must be on their staff."
-- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on the Lakers. Pop joked years ago that trading Shaquille O'Neal was akin to breaking up the Soviet Union.
1. Why again does "gambling" need to be banned on flights? You can't legislate against stupidity.
2. All the fans evacuated FedEx Forum in the third quarter Tuesday night and didn't return when play resumed. Did the Grizzlies notice?
3. Let's give the All-Star voting to those who understand what TV viewers really want: NBC.
4. Oklahoma City might have the Haunted Hotel Advantage, but the Garden has been haunted by the ghost of Eddy Curry for years.
5. Tim Grover said Tracy McGrady is "100 percent ready to go." The Rockets feel the same way.
AG: You're going back to where your career started in Dallas.
EN: I'm vey excited. When I heard a rumor a while back I spoke to our coach [Kiki Vandeweghe] and flew back to New Jersey and got all my stuff together. Once I knew it was official I was ready to roll.
AG: What sort of reception do you think you'll get the first time you check in?
EN: I don't know. Well see. I am looking forward to that moment, putting the warm-ups on and stepping on floor. I can't wait.
AG: Does it feel like you never left Dallas?
EN: Denver was great for me, but I've always supported the Mavericks. I kept in touch with Mark [Cuban], Donnie [Nelson] and my friends on the team. I left the doors open because I always wanted to come back.
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