The San Antonio Spurs have a reputation for playing harder and more consistently in the second half of each regular season. It appears their annual surge has begun.
The Spurs go for their 10th win in 11 games as they host the Atlanta Hawks on Monday.
The Western Conference is loaded with title contenders, boasting nine teams with winning percentages of .600 or better. After a disappointing stretch during which they went 11-13 from Dec. 11-Jan. 29, the defending NBA champion Spurs are back among the conference's elite.
San Antonio snapped a three-game losing streak with an 84-81 victory at Phoenix on Jan. 31 for the first of nine wins in 10 games. Its only defeat in that stretch was a 98-90 loss at league-best Boston on Feb. 10.
The Spurs matched a season high with their fifth straight win by beating Southwest Division rival New Orleans 98-89 on Saturday night. They pulled into a tie with the Hornets atop the division.
"(Spurs players) know what the situation is going down the stretch with so many great teams in the West," coach Gregg Popovich said. "You can end up first through ninth as far as seeding goes. You can't really decide that you're going to turn it on a little bit later, it's got to be turned on now."
The Spurs won 25 of their final 31 regular-season games last season en route to their fourth NBA title in nine seasons. They also won 23 of their last 30 games in 2005-06 when they finished with a West-leading 63 victories.
Manu Ginobili has been a key to San Antonio's recent success. After a long stint coming off the bench, he rejoined the starting lineup the game before the Spurs beat Phoenix to start their run. He's averaging 25.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists since then, including 34.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists while shooting 64.0 percent from the field during the team's current win streak.
"Manu is one of the great players in the game," Spurs reserve forward Robert Horry said after Ginobili had 30 points, six boards and a career-high 12 assists in Saturday's victory. "He definitely better be player of the month in my eyes. He's been playing fantastic. Without him, I think we would be losing five or six games in a row."
The Spurs will go for their first six-game win streak of the season as they meet the Hawks (22-31), who are hoping last week's trade for point guard Mike Bibby can help them put together their own second half surge.
Atlanta, however, has lost seven of eight, including three of four since it acquired Bibby from Sacramento during last weekend's All-Star break. Bibby had 18 points and nine assists with four 3-pointers on Saturday, but the Hawks lost 100-94 at Utah to fall to 1-4 on their six-game road trip heading into Monday's finale.
"We had lapses in the game and that really hurt us," Bibby said. "We've got to learn to play hard at all times. You know, if we play hard all 48 minutes, then we win this game."
The Hawks will likely need a full 48-minute effort to end their drought in San Antonio, where they've lost nine straight games since a 109-89 victory on Feb. 15, 1997.
Overall, the Spurs have won 15 of the teams' last 18 meetings, including a 95-83 victory in Atlanta on Nov. 20.
San Antonio guard Tony Parker, who's slowly being worked back into the Spurs lineup as he continues to recover from a heel injury, had 31 points and nine assists in that game. Joe Johnson led Atlanta with 20 points.
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