Posted Jan 2 2011 3:21PM
SAN ANTONIO -- The question received a predictable eye roll and exasperated sigh from Gregg Popovich. Are the Spurs thinking about 70? Yes, as in 70 wins.
"No, Jesus," San Antonio's no-nonsense coach replied. "You still drunk?"
Spurs opponents are the ones often feeling flattened by a post-New Year hangover. Popovich's 15th team is off to the best start in franchise annals, owns the league's best record by a startling four games and, to be fair, is on a 72-win pace.
"I wouldn't give it a moment's thought -- now or ever," Popovich added when pressed on 70. "I just think it's a ridiculous thought."
Not that Pop is thinking about that, or much else these days in regards to numbers. He claims not to pay much heed to San Antonio's surprising offensive prowess -- top five in scoring, field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage -- and really could care less about any run at history or the 1996 Chicago Bulls.
"I don't try to figure things out," Popovich said. "Just play each day, go to practice, go to the game and the stats are what they are. I didn't plan on being as low as we are defensively."
That's the only possible chink in the armor with the season's halfway point about two weeks away, and those dents appear to be getting banged out. San Antonio sits middle of the pack in most defensive categories, which is surprising for a team that's forged an identity for more than a decade by locking foes down.
But guess what? The Spurs had perhaps their most impressive defensive performance of the season Saturday in destroying Oklahoma City by 27 points. The Thunder, limited to a paltry 33-percent shooting, came into the evening with the Western Conference's fourth-best record and leading the Northwest Division.
Since a 22-point loss at Orlando on Dec. 23, the Spurs have turned up the heat on the defensive end. It was after that game that Popovich made a point during a film session to show the team where its defensive numbers rank within the league. Pop then listed the top four defensive teams this season.
"They were the teams that were in the Finals the last few years," Richard Jefferson said.
Point taken. San Antonio has allowed in order during its four-game winning streak 80 points (Washington), 82 (L.A. Lakers), 93 (Dallas) and 74 (Oklahoma City). Only the Mavericks shot better than 40 percent, and that was 42.7.
"Hopefully, it turns into a trend," Manu Ginobili said of the defensive uptick.
And don't forget these Spurs run and shoot 3s, and look good doing it. Tim Duncan is the team's fourth-leading scorer -- fourth! -- and they're better because of the Hall of Famer's unselfishness. Ginobili and Tony Parker are back at All-Star level. George Hill and rookie-find Gary Neal are dynamic options off the bench.
The Spurs are beating teams because teams can't keep up with the Spurs. Strange, we know.
"This change in style has been happening for a while, but this year it's taken another step," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "And also they're healthy. This team hasn't been this healthy in years. It took them a while to get to that point, but it's been very fruitful."
Thunder coach Scott Brooks couldn't help but gush about the job Popovich has done.
"He's the best," Brooks said. "Every year he brings something new to their team and this year they're as fast as any team. They move the ball better than any team. They're a 3-point shooting threat every time down court.
"And when things don't go well, they still have Duncan. They don't seem to have to use him often, but he can still score 20 and 15 rebounds a game."
Duncan just happened to drop 21 and nine on the Thunder in three quarters of work. His drop in production -- averaging career lows in points (13.6) and boards (9.4) -- can't be viewed as diminishing skills. Carlisle and Brooks both virtually guaranteed that Duncan would make another All-Star team next month, and since the coaches decide the reserves, it's a pretty safe bet No. 21 joins his peers in Los Angeles.
The Spurs just don't need Duncan to carry the load every night anymore. Unlike Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas or Kobe Bryant with the Lakers, the Spurs can survive many nights with Duncan playing a supporting role. Again, strange.
"You can't transition away from a Hall of Famer," Hill said. "That's almost impossible. We know we can't focus on Tim. We know we have other great players that can make plays."
Thunder star Kevin Durant recalled the first meeting against San Antonio this season, a mid-November game in which Duncan scored just six.
"You looked over at the bench after they were up 10 or 12 and he was the happiest guy on the bench," Durant said of Duncan. "A young player like myself, and us as a team, we can learn from that. A guy that's a Hall of Famer, has won championships, has [six] points and contributes to a win by being a great teammate."
And then Duncan can have nights like Saturday where he knocks down 10 of 15 shots and leaves the Thunder's interior defenders looking helpless.
"They figure out ways to win and when they need him to join in the party, they give it to him," Brooks said.
Brooks called the Spurs the "best team in basketball" several times Saturday, and he wouldn't find much argument right now. San Antonio is a team steamrolling to homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, but is 70 possible? Maybe. Just don't ask Pop.
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