By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; D01
PHOENIX It was silly to think the San Antonio Spurs were really gone. Even when Tim Duncan looked old and Manu Gin?bili and Tony Parker limped in and out of the lineup, the Spurs were always in the rearview mirror, where objects are closer than they appear to be. There were times even as midseason approached when the Spurs were hanging on to the eighth spot, occasionally slipping below the playoff qualifying line.
Gregg Popovich, always accustomed to getting his veteran team primed late, started to think it was too late. "I wondered," the Spurs coach said in a recent conversation, "if it was going to happen this year."
But of course it happened; of course the Spurs sprang back to life in time, like a bogeyman in a horror flick. They're baaaack, haunting opponents and the playoffs in general . . . as usual. The Spurs probably played the best first round of any of the 16 playoff teams. They entered the postseason as the seventh seed in the Western Conference but took out Dallas, the No. 2 seed and a team many thought could beat the defending champion Lakers, in six games.
And a Game 1 loss in Phoenix Monday night in the conference semis does nothing to change that, considering the Spurs own the Suns in the postseason, and considering Duncan, Gin?bili, Parker and Popovich are healthy and have all their wits about them. The guys with four NBA championship rings seem to be in their usual state of greatness, or menacing, depending on your point of view.
Well after the Suns' 111-102 victory here, a game in which the Spurs erased a 14-point deficit to take the lead, Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry tried to warn his players, most of whom have never faced the Spurs in a playoff series, not to think for a second they had accomplished anything by winning Game 1.
"Just when you get comfortable, they'll run right back at you," Gentry told his team. "They have the most competitive guy on the planet in Gin?bili, and I'm talking basketball, tennis, badminton, curling, any sport. They've got the smartest guy on the court in Tim. And if Pop isn't the best coach in the league then he's in the top two [after the Lakers' Phil Jackson]. . . . They're fundamentally sound. They not only don't beat themselves, they never give you anything, ever."
While most basketball folks had the Mavericks beating the Spurs, the Suns knew better, particularly Gentry and Steve Nash, whose teams are 0-3 against the Spurs in recent postseasons, and Grant Hill, who played in the last playoff loss to San Antonio and has been around long enough to know the Spurs. Hardly anybody in the Suns' locker room thought Dallas would beat San Antonio.
So, they're back whether the casual fan wants the Spurs or not. They're back, low TV ratings, low-wattage personalities and all. Though Popovich said recently he was certainly trying to get his team out of the No. 8 spot to avoid the Lakers, the reality is everybody in the West had a wary eye on San Antonio.
"How do they fly under the radar?" Grant Hill asked rhetorically. "People in the business of basketball respect them. But the Spurs simply aren't into all the antics. They're all business. They want it that way. Most folks think the only thing sexy about the Spurs is Eva Longoria."
Once again, the Spurs are built around the steady fundamental dominance of Duncan, who might be working his way toward being a top-15 player in NBA history; the all-court reckless brilliance of Gin?bili; and the blurring quickness of Longoria's husband, Tony Parker. And then there's the usual stable of utterly professional role players. Richard Jefferson took longer than he or anybody thought he would to fit into the Spurs way but he finally did once (in early March) Pop reminded him he could affect games by crashing the boards and taking the ball to the basket. George Hill, who stayed in the starting lineup at point guard even with Parker healthy again, brings a needed youthful athleticism at both ends. Matt Bonner and Roger Mason Jr. come off the bench to spread the floor and shoot. DeJuan Blair, the rookie nobody was smart enough to draft except the Spurs, finds loose balls and putbacks and spells Duncan. And Antonio McDyess, a former Sun, does whatever is asked on a given evening, usually defending other people's stars, like Amare Stoudemire, and hitting the open 13-foot jumper.
There are no drama queens, nobody dying his hair or carving slogans in it. Nobody is in the news because he was at the club late or missed practice or said something controversial about the coach.
The Spurs run pretty much the same basic stuff they did when Duncan was young, playing alongside David Robinson, Sean Elliott and Avery Johnson. And they still run it to perfection. Relentlessly. They never break the game plan, never panic no matter what the early returns in a game might look like.
Of course, that's not where the Spurs were the first four months of the season, which began to worry even Popovich. "It took us a month, maybe a month-and-a-
half longer than usual," he said recently. "We always assume it's coming because we see the process. But this time we weren't seeing it. We saw guys not trusting each other, being disappointed in each other. The returning players weren't grabbing the new players and showing them how it's done."
Pop, who despises any kind of credit, did re-emphasize roles relatively late in the season, like telling Jefferson to hit the boards and go to the basket and forget about the jump shooting. And perhaps most important, Gin?bili got healthy. . . . Yes, he just got better. He decided to do almost nothing all summer, just bail on basketball altogether since he plays year-round most of the time (for Argentina and the Spurs). It's as if he just started to get into midseason form in March. "The new guys were looking at him wondering, 'This is Manu?' "
So what else happened? "They worked and listened to what we wanted done," Pop said. Nothing magical, just working at it, practicing, accepting coaching, being better on Thursday than on Tuesday. Boring stuff. Spurs stuff.
Now, they have four players (Duncan, Gin?bili, Parker and George Hill) rolling. They lost Game 1 in the Dallas series, too, and look how that turned out. Of course, nobody is more wary of the Spurs than Phoenix. Gentry pointed out before Game 1, "Hell, they've got four rings; they must have beaten somebody other than us."
Yes, but the losses Phoenix has suffered to San Antonio have been crushing, even franchise-changing, especially the 2007 six-game series in which Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended for leaving the bench when they saw then-Spur Robert Horry bounce Steve Nash off the scorer's table. The Suns actually won that Game 4 in San Antonio and were coming home for Game 5 and 7 with the series tied, 2-2. The winner, we all knew, was going to claim the NBA championship. The Suns lost Game 5 in Phoenix without Stoudemire and Diaw, then Game 6 in San Antonio and never fully recovered.
So here the Suns are, knowing they need a 2-0 lead in this series to gain any kind of early control of the action. "We know," Grant Hill said, "we're playing a four-time champion, a team with pedigree, a team with three guys [Duncan, Gin?bili, Parker] who've seen it all. Nothing fazes them." The Spurs are certainly on everybody's radar now, including the favored Lakers and Cavaliers. They've pulled even, maybe even slightly ahead of the pack, and the Spurs know better than anybody in basketball how to run the race from here.