Don’t Sleep on the Spurs
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SECAUCUS, N.J., Feb. 26, 2007 – It seems a foregone conclusion that the NBA Finals will be Dallas or Phoenix and some poor, unfortunate Eastern Conference team, right?

Not so fast. Didn’t you ever hear the cautionary warning about counting your chickens while sitting at the table? Maybe I’ve mixed messages, but let me make this one clear: Don’t sleep on the San Antonio Spurs.

How can that be, you ask? Surely I can’t be serious? Haven’t I been watching hoops at all this season? And haven’t I seen the Mavs and Suns so clearly dominate the West through the first two-thirds of the season.

Yes, in all seriousness, I’ve witnessed the Spurs struggles, but I’ve also seen them in this position before. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich is well known for not being overly concerned with his team’s regular season record, but rather using it as an 82-game tune-up for when the real action gets underway. As long as his team continues to improve, well, it seems just fine by Pop if his team isn’t leading in the win-loss column when the calendar still reads February.

And who am I to second guess one of the game’s top decision makers, seeing as how he’s led his team to the Larry O’Brien trophy by kicking in the front door as well as slipping in the back.

“I think what is important is a group of men understanding that the real job is to get better as the season moves along and to be at your best at the end,” Popovich told USA Today’s David Dupree earlier this month. “Houston did it from behind, L.A. has done it both ways, we've done it both ways.”

During the 2002-03 season, the Spurs were a mere 38-17 before going on a late tear to finish the season with an NBA-best 60-22 record. They then marched through the field of 16, beating the Suns, Lakers, Mavericks and Nets, all in six games apiece, to win their second championship in the Tim Duncan era.

Two seasons later, the Spurs found themselves staring up at the Suns in the standings after Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire led a remarkable 33-game turnaround to finish with a league-high 62 wins. The teams met in the Conference Finals and, weathering an impressive 37 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game from Stoudemire, the Spurs cruised to a 4-1 series win before being stretched to a seventh game by the Pistons in the Finals.

If this year’s Spurs (38-18) are to hope for more hardware this year, they may have to do so in the role of underdog. It seems unlikely the team is going to finish the season 22-4 to hit the 60-win mark as in 2003, but, even if it did, that might not be enough as the Mavs could notch 70 Ws with the Suns tight on their heels.

A 10-game gap between the West’s best and the Spurs would hardly be considered as wide as, say, the 10-games that currently separate the Pistons and New Jersey Nets in the East. If paired in a seven-game series, nobody residing outside of the Garden State is likely to pick the Nets to upset Detroit. In the West, however, most would believe the Mavs to be the better team but couldn’t say with certainty they’d win a best-of-seven.

“Dallas has 10 solid guys they can go to,” Duncan told USA Today. “It’s a luxury. They’re playing better basketball than we are, but we'll take the matchup.”

While the teams had the top two records in the Western Conference a year ago, a wrinkle in the playoff seeding had them meeting in the Conference Semifinals because division winners were each guaranteed one of the top three seeds. That’s changed this year to only assure division winners one of the top four seeds, thus seeds 1 and 2 could go to teams from the same division. But, if the Spurs finish behind Utah – the Jazz is currently one game back of San Antonio – in the win column, the Texas rivals could again meet in the second round.

Before they get to the playoffs, however, the Spurs need to close the 2006-07 campaign with the physical and mental health to know they can compete with whichever Western Conference power they may face.

Last year, the Spurs took the Mavs the distance – and then some – despite the fact Duncan was hobbled by plantar fasciitis. Rallying back from a 3-1 deficit, San Antonio got 41 points, 15 boards and six assists from Duncan in Game 7, but it wasn’t enough as Dallas held on for the overtime victory at home.

This year, Duncan is healthy, but his team has never quite found its stride. That doesn’t seem to concern Detroit’s head coach Flip Saunders, who scoffed at the notion the Spurs are no longer a championship-caliber squad.

“You look at their last 20 to 25 games, they have a phenomenal record to gear up for the playoffs,” Saunders told Pistons.com. “That’s always been their trademark. They’re similar to us in that they know they can win on the road, so whether they’re the first seed, second seed, third seed or fourth seed, they feel they can go and beat anybody.”

Gearing up for the playoffs is now under way. The Spurs are riding a five-game win streak – matching their longest of the season – heading into tonight’s match with the Toronto Raptors. As is their custom, the Spurs are getting it done on the defensive end, giving up an average of only 82.6 points per game during the current five-game winning streak, holding four of those five opponents to fewer than 85 points.

So, while the Mavericks and Suns remain media darlings, their high-octane offenses as fun as ever to watch on a nightly basis, the Spurs continue to build for their annual postseason run, doing their tweaking in the shadows.

Come May, they may again prove that defense does indeed win championships. They, too, may prove wrong all of us who counted them out prematurely.