The San Antonio Spurs had lost three straight games and weren't looking much like the defending champions the last time they visited the Phoenix Suns, but they still pulled out an "ugly" win.
The Spurs have been on quite a roll ever since, while the Suns would gladly settle for any win they can get.
San Antonio looks to rebound from its first loss in 12 games on Sunday when it travels to Phoenix, which is trying to avoid its longest home losing streak in four years.
The Spurs (43-18) were 7-8 in 2008 when they faced the Suns (40-22) on Jan. 31, and appeared on their way to their first losing month since going 6-8 in February 1999. Though it was far from a masterpiece - both teams shot under 40 percent - San Antonio scored 29 fourth-quarter points in a come-from-behind, 84-81 win.
"We'll win them ugly. We've never been known for winning games pretty," Tim Duncan said after finishing with 16 points and 17 rebounds. "It was a good win for us, a good game for us to steal and hopefully a momentum builder."
Duncan's hopes came true. The victory in Phoenix sparked a stretch of 15 wins in 17 games for the Spurs, who had won 11 straight before losing 109-96 at Denver on Friday.
Manu Ginobili led San Antonio with 24 points Friday and is averaging a career-high 20.7 this season. He played some of his best basketball during the winning streak, twice scoring at least 40 points and averaging 26.3 in the 11 victories.
Ginobili has scored 18.5 per game against the Suns this season, but has shot just 27.3 percent. Duncan has averaged 26.0 points and 17.0 rebounds in the teams' two meetings.
Even though San Antonio has the same record it had through 61 games a year ago, coach Gregg Popovich thinks his team has a lot of work to do if it's going to defend its title.
"We're not at the same level we were at last year at this time, even though we seem to be situated relatively well in the West," said Popovich, whose Spurs are a half-game behind the conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers. "This team isn't as good as last year's team. We have significant improvement that we have to make both mentally and physically if we're going to be able to contend for the championship."
The Suns made a bold move last month that general manager Steve Kerr believed could make them championship favorites, dealing four-time All-Star Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to Miami for Shaquille O'Neal.
With a nine-game sample to judge, the results aren't looking favorable. Phoenix is allowing 113.2 points per game since O'Neal has joined the lineup while going 3-6, including four losses in its last five.
Besides looking to avoid losing three straight for the first time this season, the Suns are trying to stop a three-game skid at home. That losing streak is their first at US Airways Center since dropping three in a row in February 2007, but they have not lost four straight at home since March 6-19, 2004, during the season prior to re-acquiring two-time MVP Steve Nash.
O'Neal's presence in the post has not provided the defensive boost the Suns hoped for, having allowed 126 points in each of their last two games. Two days after a loss in Denver on Wednesday, Phoenix was outscored 41-24 in the fourth quarter as it blew a nine-point lead en route to a 126-118 defeat to Utah.
"We've just somehow got to find a way to defend a little bit better," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "All the things we did for the trade are happening, but we haven't been able to stop people."
Opponents are shooting 50.5 percent from the field against Phoenix since O'Neal has been in uniform.
His addition, however, has not gotten in the way of Amare Stoudemire, who has averaged 28.9 points in the last nine games and scored 37 in the loss to the Jazz.
Stoudemire averaged 26.4 points when Phoenix lost to the Spurs in six games in the Western Conference semifinals last spring, but is averaging only 17.6 in his last five regular-season games against San Antonio.
"We've got to man-up," Stoudemire said. "We've got to dig inside our chests and find that heart that's in there beating.''
Nash has averaged 13.5 points and 9.5 assists against the Spurs this season, shooting just 34.6 percent.
San Antonio has won 12 of its last 16 regular-season meetings against the Suns, taking five of eight in Phoenix.
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