Posted Oct 11, 2012 10:09 AM
There was a time when anybody who dared come down the middle of the lane would have been greeted by the two-headed monster of Tim Duncan and David Robinson, blocking shots, banging bodies and leaving a few bruises.
There was a time when any hot-shot guard or fill-up-the-hoop perimeter player would have had to endure a night of bumping and grinding and pulling and shoving and maybe even a well-placed foot or elbow in just the right spot from the devilish Bruce Bowen.
There was a time when stepping out onto the court as a visiting player at the AT&T Center was like being slowly and steadily squeezed in a vise as the Spurs turned the handle.
In other words, there was a time when Gregg Popovich didn't have to ask for some nasty.
Those four championship banners that hang from the rafters were fastened there by defense -- cold, hard, relentless, as much a part of the atmosphere as the oxygen in their blood.
Now, if there is going to be a chance of adding a fifth this season, it is Popovich's belief that his team needs to channel or reclaim their snarling old selves.
"A lot of people still see us as the nice Spurs," said point guard Tony Parker. "This year, I think we need to play like we're hungry and we want it.
"We have to stop saying, 'Oh, we won a lot of championships and we'll come back,' " Parker said. "We have to play with more attitude. Like Pop said, more nasty, all season long."
The celebrated nasty comment came in a timeout huddle during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City and it worked as far as helping the Spurs to build a 2-0 lead in the series and stretch a winning streak to 20 games.
But in the end it was no more than a sugar high that eventually had San Antonio crashing with four consecutive losses and a sudden, stunning end to another unfulfilling season.
"There was an identity theft that took place in that playoff," Popovich said. "We played like the Spurs the first couple of games. Oklahoma City, I believe, learned from that and they played like we did offensively, sharing the ball and trusting their teammates, and we lost our identity. I want to make sure we understand that and get that back."
After several seasons of trying to save the wear and tear on 36-year-old Duncan and 35-year-old Manu Ginobili by monitoring their minutes, pushing the pace and emphasizing a wide-open offensive style, it is time for the defense to re-grow some teeth and the locker room to sharpen its claws.
The Spurs averaged 103.7 points per game last season, which ranked second-best in the NBA. But they finished in the bottom half when it came to points surrendered (96.5) and opponents' field goal percentage (44.8).
Popovich understands that Robinson now sits in the stands as AT&T Center's tallest cheerleader, the bow-tied Bowen sits in front of a camera as a TV analyst, and that aging Duncan and Ginobili are unable to turn back the clock on a nightly basis.
But he's expecting second-year forward Kawhi Leonard to improve on his standout rookie season now that he's getting a full training camp to prepare, for big man Tiago Splitter to take the next step in his development and for the veteran agitator Stephen Jackson to rub off like coarse sandpaper at the defensive end.
Jackson, in fact, suggested that his teammates would be wise to follow his lead in the attitude adjustment, becoming suffering-no-fools prickly and just plain mean.
Popovich opened Spurs camp by making his team sit through a video replay of the series against the Thunder, a rehash of the role reversal and the gut-punch pain of the loss. He wants them to remember it and stay with them like a thorn in their shoe.
In the past two seasons the Spurs won 61 games and then 50 last year in the lockout-shortened schedule, both best in the Western Conference, with a style that has been entertaining but unfulfilling.
"It think offensively we've been playing maybe our best basketball since I've been here, the way we move the ball and the way we score," Parker said. "We have so many weapons. Our bench is really good. I think offensively we may even be better than our championship years.
"But defensively we are very, very far (away). Defensively, when we won championships we were the best team in the NBA. ... Last year we were in the middle, 15 or 16 or something like that. That's not good enough if you want to go all the way."
So it's time to bring nasty back, without being asked.
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