By Jeff Dengate

LYON, FRANCE, Oct. 1, 2006 -- Notice to Dallas, Phoenix, Houston and any other Western Conference hopefuls is hereby served; The road to the 2007 Larry O'Brien Trophy runs through the Alamo.

The reasons are two-fold: First, a perennial Southwestern power, San Antonio, is looking to rebound from a painful Game 7 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in last year's Western Conference playoffs. Second, Tim Duncan -- said to have come into camp in the best shape in years -- is finally healthy.

Tim Duncan entered camp healthy and with a bit of redemption on his mind.
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"This is one of Timmy's best summers," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's probably in the best shape he's been in since his first two years in the league. He came to work about a month and a half ago. He's been working on the track and on the hill and in the weight room. He really took it hard last year, not winning the whole thing when we had an opportunity to do that, a team good enough to do that. We didn't make it happen. So, he's doing everything he can to be his best."

The little pain and suffering Timmy did running that hill is nothing compared to the feelings he had watching the in-state-rival Dallas Mavericks celebrate on the Spurs' home court in May.

After falling behind three games to one in the best of seven series, the Spurs forced a Game 7 on their own court, in which they erased a 20-point deficit and, holding a late three-point lead, looked as though they may pull off the improbable. But a Dirk Nowitzki three-point play forced OT, when the Mavericks opened a gap and advanced to the Western Conference Finals against Phoenix.

Fast forward four months, when the Spurs start with a clean slate, hoping to avoid a similar fate this season.

"I'm happy to be back," Spurs point guard Tony Parker said, "It's been a long time. We had a tough loss against the Mavericks and now we've got a lot of motivation to try to get back to where we were in 2005."

"We always believe we have a shot," backcourt mate Manu Ginobili echoed. "We have a great team. Last year was pretty close so we don't want to let another opportunity go."

That opportunity leads to one place, center court with Commissioner Stern, hoisting the championship trophy. But there are other good, hungry teams out there seeking the same treasure and thinking they can do what Dallas did a year ago.

A broken finger that kept Tony Parker out of the World Championship is fully healed.
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"It's impossible to win championships every year," Pop said, "and it's little things that win them and lose them for you. When you feel you're good enough to win a championship and you don't, and things are so close, that hurts more. If you go out and get your butt kicked and the other team beats you every game -- beats you to death -- well, then you know you're not good enough. You sleep pretty well. But when you know you're good enough and you lose a squeaker, that sticks with you a little longer."

It's stuck with Duncan this long, and, based on what his coach says, it will probably be a major driving force for the two-time regular season and three-time Finals MVP.

"I think he's going to be more aggressive and more demonstrative, offensively, than he has been," Pop said, "and not depend on others so much. I think he's going to be putting a lot more of it on himself, offensively."

But, Duncan doesn't have to do it all himself. Everybody is back healthy, including Parker, who broke his finger tip preparing for this summer's World Championship with the French national team. Parker was cleared to resume play and took part in today's practice.

"Tony's been doing everything," his coach said. "He got a final X-ray on his finger in San Antonio. They said it's healed. So, as we get him into shape, he'll play. I expect him to play in these games (in Lyon and Paris)."

"The finger's doing great," Parker agreed. "I'm back 100 percent. The X-ray was good. The bone is back to normal. So hopefully I can stay healthy for the rest of the season."

That's a goal of not only Parker but one the Spurs coaching staff has for all of the team's players as they go through two-a-day practices here in France. As of now, the only players hampered at all are Robert Horry, struggling with a shoulder injury and an Achilles issue, and Beno Udrih, who strained a hamstring in recent weeks. Both players are doubtful to participate in either game here in France.

Injuries aside, however, the team is using the week to get into shape and get to know each other a little better. There are a number of new faces, as the team's roster currently stands at 20 players.

"Just about everybody came (to camp) in pretty good shape," Popovich said, "but they're not ready to play. So we want to get into shape. Secondly, to acclimate the four or five new players and get them to understand the system. If we can do that during training camp, then we'll be ready in November when the games start."

"It's going to take a week at least," Parker assessed, "for everybody to get back in shape and for all the new guys to get to know Pop and our system, to see how we're going to jell and the chemistry. It's going to take some time, but overall we've got the same core of guys so I think we're going to be pretty fast in how we're going to play and be ready for the two games."

That core of guys doesn't include those four or five new faces, much like the team's November roster probably won't; the team must trim it to no more than 15 players -- 12 active and three inactive.

But, for now, everybody from Duncan to 14-year veteran Horry to Jamar Smith, looking for his first regular-season NBA action, is all united for a common goal: taking the first steps on the road to an NBA title.



NOTES:

  • The players and coaches seemed truly excited to get training camp underway, whether it be in the Texas heat or a stone's throw from the French Alps and wine country. But, tuning up for the season in France is nothing new to the Spurs, who made a trip here in the fall of 2003 after winning their second NBA title.

    "We came here for like a week," Parker said, "and we had one exhibition game against Memphis. Everything went great. So, I don't think (being in France) will be a problem (for the team)."

    Coach Popovich, though, ammended that statement ever so slightly.

    "It's even better this time because we get to see not just Paris but another part of the country here in Lyon."

  • Remember the name Francisco Elson. It's not really a secret, but the fourth-year center, who spent his first three seasons in Denver, could have a breakout season. He's one of three big men -- 6-10 Jackie Butler and 6-11 Jared Reiner -- added to the team's roster to provide relief for Duncan in place of the departed Rasho Nesterovic and Nazr Mohammed.

    In a game-type situation during today's practice, Elson was all over the floor, hitting a short hook shot in the lane, followed by a long jumper from the right wing. Moments later, he missed a dunk in transition when he was fouled, but, after hitting both freebies, he got back down the floor to deflect Butler's pass out of the post.

    During the stretch, Duncan was resting comfortably on the sidelines. So, it's that effort and production Elson will need to give Pop on an 82-game basis if he wants to stay on the floor when TD's off it. So far, so good on day one.