Posted Jan 28 2010 11:38AM
Never mind Punxsutawney Phil, that one-day-a-year-working groundhog with the great PR firm. In the NBA, you can usually tell February has arrived when the San Antonio Spurs poke their heads out of their burrow, appearing fit and ready to roll toward the playoffs.
But as Groundhog Day draws near this year, it's the Spurs who need to be poked with a stick and roused from their hibernation. A season that began with great hope is becoming mired in a bog of empty promise.
The Spurs got a 105-90 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night. But one victory does not end the concern in San Antonio.
The Spurs just broke a three-game losing streak at home with the win over the Hawks, the Spurs' longest skid in San Antonio since 1996-97, back when Tim Duncan was a senior at Wake Forest and the Spurs trodged through a 20-62 season.
Earlier this week, a report on Yahoo! Sports linked the Spurs in talks with the Phoenix Suns about All-Star center Amar'e Stoudemire. San Antonio management denied any conversations concerning Stoudemire. But if things don't turn around fast, it will only be the start, because nothing breeds rumor and panic like an underachieving contender.
The odd thing is that so much has gone right for the Spurs. Tim Duncan's knees have held up, he looks fitter overall and his game in all areas has returned to near MVP level. Rookie DeJuan Blair, a second-round pick, is a rebound-gobbler and appears to be a steal of the Draft. Manu Ginobili's troublesome ankle has slowly rounded into shape and lately he's been sound on the court. George Hill continues to bloom in the backcourt in his second season.
Yet the Spurs look nothing at all like the perennial contenders they normally are, though they were supposed to be reloaded and primed to challenge the Lakers in the West after an active -- and financially bold -- offseason.
The Spurs are 26-18 and in fifth place in the Western Conference, where 11 teams are currently above .500.
After watching the balance sheet scrupulously for all those seasons, the Spurs gambled to break through the luxury tax threshold when they traded for Richard Jefferson ($15 million) and signed Antonio McDyess ($4.5 million) to take their total payroll near $80 million and have not cashed in with victories. On top of that, point guard Tony Parker has been slowed at times with plantar fasciitis in his foot and limped off the floor Wednesday night with a sprained left ankle.
"You've got to play a lick of defense to win in this league," said coach Gregg Popovich. "We're scoring more points than we've ever scored in our lives. But our defense is really sub-par and it's killing us."
In back-to-back games during the current homestand, the Spurs gave up a 60-point second half to the Utah Jazz and a 61-point second half to the Houston Rockets in a pair of losses.
While they are scoring points (101.4 points per game, 11th in the NBA), the Spurs' offense has been often relying on outside shooting. In those stretches when those jumpers shots don't fall, they don't have the defense to weather the storms.
"We're not that defensive team right now," Duncan said. "We're built that way. Our state of mind is that way. We're just not getting the job done that way."
Popovich continues to be supportive and hopeful with Jefferson, who shot just 1-for-8 and scored only two points in a home loss to Chicago. Jefferson is averaging 12.5 points -- his lowest average since his rookie season -- and leaning heavily on perimeter jumpers.
"Richard's working with trying to be comfortable with everything," Popovich said. "He's a team player. He wants to fit in. His game has been a little bit up and down lately, but he's going to be fine."
The thought coming into the season was that the high-flying Jefferson would be able to run free in the open court, finishing with dunks and layups in the transition game, which would not only boost the offense, but reduce the burden on Duncan.
But Parker, even when healthy, is not the same kind of running point guard as Jason Kidd, who often threw lob passes that Jefferson flushed home in New Jersey. When Parker gets out in the running game, his most effective play is usually finishing himself and that leaves Jefferson out of the mix.
For his part, McDyess -- who's been in and out of the starting lineup -- simply seems lost. He has confided to some around the organization that he's puzzled over the fact that he still does not feel comfortable in the lineup even though the season is half gone.
Popovich has used 12 different starting lineups this season while doing more juggling than a carnival act.
"They're competing," the coach said. "That's got nothing to do with the losses or the wins. Guys always compete."
At this point, the Spurs are like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces don't fit together. Which is why the rumors and the losses mount.
"We've been wasting opportunities," Ginobili said. "We've played tons of games at home and have let opportunities get away.
"It's going to get uphill in the second half (of the season) because we're going to be playing on the road against good teams. We're definitely going to have to do better if we want to keep our chances of being a contender or being up there in the Western Conference.
"If we look at the standings, we are not that bad. But considering the potential we have, how good we can be, I would give us a 6 or 7 (rating). We've got to get to 10."
Everyone in the NBA is accustomed to seeing the Spurs make their move around the same time as Punxsutawney Phil. Trouble is, they've already had I Got You Babe stuck in their heads and have been re-living Groundhog Day for weeks.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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