Quietly Making Noise

Gregg Popovich
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich has the Spurs heading in the right direction as they try to win their third NBA championship. (Mike Blake - Reuters)

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By Michael Wilbon
Monday, May 23, 2005

PHOENIX

There have been a half-dozen good subplots in the NBA playoffs so far, none of them involving the San Antonio Spurs. If it wasn't the Wizards winning a best-of-seven playoff series for the first time in almost a quarter-century it was Shaquille O'Neal's bruised thigh or the emergence of Dwyane Wade or Reggie Miller's dramatic final days. There was the drama of the Pistons and Pacers meeting again, what with the brawl and all. And of course, there's been the continuing fascination with the Phoenix Suns and how artfully they play the game, from Steve Nash to Amare Stoudemire.

But there's been barely a whisper about the San Antonio Spurs, the champs once-removed, a team that probably would have made it to the NBA Finals last year except for that Derek Fisher basket with four-tenths of a second left that gave the Lakers a Game 5 victory in San Antonio. You barely know the Spurs are in the playoffs as they've rolled through Denver in five games and Seattle in six.

"Flying under the radar is great," San Antonio's Bruce Bowen said Sunday. "I could care less if anybody talks about us. We're still doing what we try to do, which is win a championship."

And the Spurs took a large step toward that goal here Sunday, even though it's only Game 1 of the best-of-seven, Western Conference finals. Their 121-114 victory over Phoenix took away the Suns' home-court advantage and left the team with the best record in the West wondering about its energy level and what adjustments to make in time for Game 2 here Tuesday.

Who but the Spurs, the NBA equivalent of the New England Patriots, could start the game with 6-foot-11 Tim Duncan stepping out to guard the Suns' deep shooter, 6-6 Quentin Richardson? Coach Gregg Popovich, his staff and the Spurs players spent 10 hours studying film of the Suns after San Antonio beat Seattle in Game 6 on Thursday night. That's 10 hours of film study alone, figuring they'd fly to play Phoenix in less than 72 hours.

So on Sunday morning, before a game that tipped off 30 minutes past noon out here, Popovich wrote on the board that Duncan would be guarding Richardson and the slight Bowen would be guarding the powerful Shawn Marion. Bowen took one look at the board, as he recalled after the game, and said: "Okay. All right. So."

But Popovich can concoct these clever schemes because the Spurs practice long, they practice smart, and they practice with players who can retain. The Spurs don't keep fools or slackers. "There's no room for, 'I forgot. My bad, Coach,' " Bowen said. If Duncan is assigned to guard a three-point shooter, then that's what he has to do. "We play so many different defensive schemes," Robert Horry said, "we can incorporate them on the fly with not a whole lot of time to practice."

Actually, this worked in Duncan's favor, given he couldn't much plant or pivot with any certainty because of a badly sprained ankle. So instead of having to go up right away against the Suns' explosive Stoudemire, Duncan got to work himself into the game. And even though Phoenix backup Steven Hunter (nine points, eight rebounds) did a nice job on Duncan, nobody is going to stop Duncan for long, even with two bum ankles. So the league's most skilled big man wound up with 28 points, 15 rebounds and 4 assists in a team-high 40 minutes.

Richardson, meantime, was spooked the entire game. He and Marion were defended right out of Game 1. Richardson missed 6 of 9 shots, and Marion, who had 38 points to help close out the Mavericks the other night in Dallas, had one basket and a measly three points in Game 1. The Suns have no chance in this series if two starters come up small in any one game.

Asked about the effect San Antonio's clever defense had on Phoenix (which scored only 20 points in the first quarter), Duncan said: "It might have thrown them off for a couple of possessions. And whether it threw them off or not, they will be ready for it the next time. Whether we decide to go that way or not, it's all about adjustments on the fly."

This is where the Spurs really remind me of the Patriots. They'll exploit whatever matchups necessary to win. When the Patriots need to smother Peyton Manning, they do. When they need to score 35, they do. These Spurs can beat you, 81-75, as may be necessary in the NBA Finals against Detroit, or 121-114, which is necessary against the Suns.

Popovich admitted after Game 1 that he's been forced to play at a faster pace than he would like. "We're a pretty flexible team going between big and small because we have done it against so many teams all year. We're willing to be the chameleon. We usually change according to what other people do. We don't try to impose our will too much. We try to see what is out there and do what we think we need to do against what we're seeing."

The Spurs know they pretty much have it covered. Tony Parker had nearly as good a game (13-for-22 shooting, 29 points, seven rebounds) as Nash. Brent Barry came off the bench to hit 8 of 12 shots, including five three-pointers, which produced 21 points and freed up a whole lot of room for Duncan to operate inside. Horry, a wise old man with fingers full of rings, had 12 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists in a reserve role.

Bowen hit one bucket and had two points, but was worth his weight in gold because he kept Marion, who is averaging 22.5 points in the playoffs, 19 points under his average. Phoenix had six fast-break points. Yes, there is defense in a game that produces 235 points, and Bowen stayed closer to Marion than bread on the meat of a sandwich.

San Antonio appears to have no weaknesses, as long as Duncan can stay healthy. Duncan was so worried that he put his ankle into a steaming whirlpool at halftime and got re-taped just as the second half was about to begin.

But there's a bigger man with a bigger injury who likely will steal the headlines the rest of this week. Shaq and his bruised thigh plays host to the defending champs Monday and Wednesday. The Pistons take their championship belts to South Beach. And that means the Spurs, especially since casual fans are more fascinated with the high-octane Suns and cuddly Steve Nash, will almost certainly go back to flying underneath the radar.

"We like that," Horry said Sunday. "There's not one guy on this team who loves the spotlight. So it's fine. We like it that way just fine."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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