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Spurs quietly among league's best as season gets its legs

As tonight's matchup with Chicago nears (8 ET, NBA TV), San Antonio is again among the NBA's upper crust

POSTED: Nov 30, 2015 11:30 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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As usual, big man Tim Duncan remains an integral part of the Spurs' success in 2015-16.

— On the night Tim Duncan played his first game against the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan led all scorers with 29 points. Four future NBA head coaches -- Avery Johnson, Vinny Del Negro, Monty Williams and Steve Kerr -- combined to score 34.

Bobby Portis, the Chicago rookie who might find himself matched up against the legendary San Antonio Spurs big man for a few minutes Monday night at United Center (8 ET, NBA TV), was 2 years old on that Nov. 3, 1997 night in the Windy City. Duncan? He scored 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting and grabbed 22 rebounds in only his third NBA game.

That same guy scored 10 points, shot 5-of-9 and grabbed 18 rebounds -- 18! -- Friday against Atlanta. Eighteen years, 25 days and 1,585 regular-season and postseason NBA games later. Oh, and five championships and 1,113 victories later too, since that's what Duncan and the Spurs are all about.

"I do enjoy playing against one of the best teams, I think, in the history of the game," Bulls center Pau Gasol said Sunday. "They've been incredible for the last 15, 16, 17 years now since they won that first championship. So really impressive what they've done. I think everybody is trying to follow up on what they've accomplished. And building that culture, longevity. So yeah, I still do get very much motivated against a team that's always at the top of the league."

Look where the Spurs are again: 14-3, sort of using the frenzy over the unbeaten Golden State Warriors as cover to quietly position themselves once more near the top of the Western Conference. Seventeen months after the so-called "closure" of that fifth NBA title for this core group -- Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili (four rings), coach Gregg Popovich -- San Antonio again sits among the elite group of four or five teams considered most capable of winning the championship next June.

The big thing is the buy-in that that team has. They do such a good job of playing to their roles and to their strengths and getting guys the ball in the right spots on the floor and playing off it.

– Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg

Basketball mortality started trending big-time Sunday when Kobe Bryant announced that this season would be his last. And yet, here come the Spurs, Ginobili wooed back over the summer, Popovich renewed, Parker and Duncan refreshed. Their roster replenished. Their finish line still vague.

"The Spurs are a machine," Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg said. "The biggest thing with them is the consistency they have with their offense and their defense. Those guys have been together for so long. I think it's kind of the model that everyone is looking for, to be able to have that type of roster and sustain success while keeping your core group together as long as they have."

Hoiberg got to the NBA in 1995, one year before Popovich moved from the front office to the sidelines as Spurs coach, two years before he and the organization landed Duncan. Hoiberg played 10 NBA seasons, retired a decade ago due to heart issues, worked in Minnesota's front office, coached five seasons at Iowa State and now gets to face them again, all these years later. At least he hired his associate head coach, Jim Boylen, away from the Spurs to help.

"They're a fun team to watch the way that ball moves, as unselfish as they are," Hoiberg said. "They play to their strengths. They defend every night. It's a great team to try to model after. With Duncan as your centerpiece and with Ginobili and Parker as your three and then to add the pieces that they have with Kawhi Leonard and with Danny Green, they've just done an unbelievable job building that team and keeping it together."

For all the ooh's and ahh's the Spurs generated with the "beautiful basketball" they played in beating Miami Heat in the 2014 Finals, what they have done so far this season has been a return to the defensive-minded style of their early success under Popovich. His longtime lieutenant Mike Budenholzer, now coaching Atlanta, spoke of that after his Hawks succumbed in San Antonio Friday.

"Back to the David Robinson and Tim Duncan days," Budenholzer told reporters. "It's interesting. I don't think that's probably what any of us around the league maybe would have thought was going to happen. Probably we thought they would be just as good defensively and better offensively. Just better in general. They're doing a great job on the defensive end of the court. I do think sometimes figuring each other out may take a little longer offensively."

The Spurs added veteran bigs LaMarcus Aldridge and David West over the summer. Aldridge, 2015's plum free-agent signing, has seen his numbers droop (14.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 42.7 FG%) even more than expected in leaving his alpha-dog spot in Portland. West is a bit player warehoused for the playoffs. But the team again can flex size advantages at most spots when it wants, holding opponents to 7.3 fewer points per game this year.

In a league in which coaches are known for "this" style or "that," Popovich has adapted from defense to offense and back, probably a couple times over.

"I guess, when the league has gone small, they've kind of gone opposite and gone big to an extent with the lineups that they play," Hoiberg said. "They've got versatility. They can play small at times with Kawhi Leonard at the four. The big thing is the buy-in that that team has. They do such a good job of playing to their roles and to their strengths and getting guys the ball in the right spots on the floor and playing off it.

"It's very admirable what Gregg Popovich has done. He's the best coach in the game and I don't think you could get anybody to say otherwise."

Pardon Hoiberg if he sounds a little envious on the buy-in front. He's the new piece in Chicago, and despite the 9-5 start, the everyone's-back-this-year Bulls remain a work in progress. They are dealing with personnel limitations -- Gasol and Nikola Mirotic are stronger offensively, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson defensively, for instance -- and working through some style challenges.

It's unsettled enough to serve as a reminder that Gasol, when he had the chance to sign in July 2014 with San Antonio, opted instead for the Bulls. The lanky Spaniard would seem a perfect fit there, a prototype San Antonio player -- long, blessed with finesse, heady, international, adult.

He chose Chicago for a little more money, the lure of then-coach Tom Thibodeau, the charms of the city and what might have seemed like a smoother road in the East back to The Finals (other than that half-man, half-barricade in Cleveland). It didn't work out, either, when brother Marc Gasol drew interest from San Antonio before this season but re-signed with Memphis.

I do enjoy playing against one of the best teams, I think, in the history of the game. They've been incredible for the last 15, 16, 17 years now since they won that first championship.

– Chicago Bulls center Pau Gasol

"No [regrets]," Pau Gasol said Sunday. "Sometimes circumstances, timing stop things from happening. You kind of make your own path and you stick with your decisions. I had the opportunity to go there two years ago. Marc had the opportunity to go there this summer. Neither of us decided to go for whatever reason. Life goes on."

That doesn't mean Gasol -- a connoisseur of art, opera and other fine things in life -- cannot appreciate the qualities that have made the Spurs their own sort of masterpiece.

"The way they play. Their unselfishness. Their consistency. Their hunger," Gasol said, ticking through the list. "Chemistry that they've built. The culture. They have a great organization, the way they've set it up."

As for his matchups with Duncan over 13 seasons, going on 14, Gasol said: "I would say we've had some good battles where, for the most part, I think they had the upper hand. Except for a few years when I was with the Lakers where we were on top. For the most part, they have had the upper hand on every team in the league."

Present tense makes all that past glory even more special.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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