Tim Duncan didn't look anything like Tim Duncan on Saturday when the San Antonio Spurs visited Washington for the only time this season, losing 110-95 -- unless, of course, they meet in . . . don't even go there.
Duncan missed 15 of 18 from the floor, blowing shots he normally makes -- bank shots, lay-ups, tips from point blank range -- as if the evil aliens from the movie "Space Jam" had zapped all of his talent.
And, Duncan's hair is much longer, since he has refused to touch it since the Spurs won their third NBA title last June. Duncan has playfully threatened to apply some straightener to his hair so that he can have moppy hairdo once sported by teammate Manu Ginobili, but his teammates are hoping otherwise. "Maybe after [Saturday night] he's going to shave it," point guard Tony Parker said, chuckling.
Two weeks into the season, Duncan's new 'do and his off night are minor concerns for the defending champion Spurs, who remain an overwhelming favorite to win their fourth title in eight seasons. After all, Duncan, a two-time regular season most valuable player and three-time NBA Finals MVP, is still averaging a steady 21.6 points and 12 rebounds. "Nights like this you see once every, three, four years," Ginobili said following Duncan's performance against the Wizards.
Ginobili, however, had been struggling to find his rhythm because of a bruised right thigh. Before erupting for a season-high 28 points against the Wizards, the all-star guard averaged just 11.2 points in the first six games. "I was a bit more passive. We were playing good anyway but I was not feeling as explosive," said Ginobili, who, unlike Duncan, cut his hair over the summer. "I was just trying to contribute anyway I could."
The Spurs are also waiting for Michael Finley (left groin) and Brent Barry (low back strain) to return to full strength so that they can have more depth and develop the chemistry needed for a dominant run. "It's going to be tough every night. Every time people play the Spurs, they're going to play their best games because we're the champions," said Parker, who is off to a surprisingly fast start, leading the team with 22.6 points and 5.9 assists per game. "We just have to be ready and match their energy. We just have to be ready every night."
The Spurs (5-2) have followed up their past two championship seasons with disappointing second-round losses to the Los Angeles Lakers. They likely won't have to worry about seeing the Lakers that deep in the playoffs this season, but the challenge of winning back-to-back titles remains. "If we win, it will happen to be back-to-back, but we're not trying win back-to-back," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. "It's another season, it's another challenge, a couple of different pieces and we either will or we won't. But back-to-back doesn't enter my head. It never has either -- maybe that's why we never did it. Maybe I should've thought of that."
Instead, Popovich thought about strengthening his team with the additions of Finley, Nick Van Exel and Argentine Olympic gold medalist Fabricio Oberto in the offseason. Finley, an amnesty cut from the Dallas Mavericks, has already led the Spurs with an impressive fourth-quarter comeback win against Denver, but he has missed the past three games. Van Exel celebrated with his family in Houston after signing with Spurs, knowing that he has his "best chance in 13 years" to win an NBA title. Oberto has yet to find his way into the Spurs regular rotation, but Popovich said he wasn't worried about getting his talented roster to mesh.
"Well, to some degree, it's always a challenge because all players want minutes. But the more character with each player, the less of a challenge it is for a coach," Popovich said. "If you have players that understand the whole, rather than just themselves, they can probably see the big picture better than some that are more self-absorbed. With the guys that we have and the ones we brought in, they're going to see the big picture and it's not going to be a problem."
Popovich would rather lead a loaded team anyway. He said he has no intention of being like his friend, New York Knicks Coach Larry Brown, and attempt a rebuilding process elsewhere. "I'm smart enough not to ever get into that situation," Popovich said. "My moon is aligned very closely with Timmy's. I'm waiting for his retirement announcement because mine will be 30 seconds after it. I have no need to prove this, that or the other by going to this, that or the other city: 'Oh, he did it again, so he's for real.' For real can kiss my [butt]."
Never Too Early to Panic
It was only a year ago that the Seattle SuperSonics were the surprise team in the league, winning 52 games and the first-ever Northwest Division title. Not much has changed with the makeup of team -- except guard Antonio Daniels is in Washington, center Jerome James is in New York (at least, in theory) and Coach Nate McMillan is in Portland -- but should the results be this drastic?
Seattle (2-4) lost back-to-back games at Memphis and Cleveland by 25 and 27, respectively, then came to Washington and got blown out by 41 points. Sonics general manager Rick Sund felt compelled to address the team after the 137-96 loss to the Wizards -- something all-star forward Rashard Lewis, the longest-tenured Sonic in his eighth season with the team, cannot recall ever happening. "I respect him a lot for that because we are playing terrible," Lewis said in the visitor's locker room in Washington. "He don't want to see no [mess] like that happen. He can go get 15 other guys who are going to give effort."
Losing three consecutive games by a total of 93 points angered mild-mannered Coach Bob Weiss, who dressed down his team in Washington. "It's just completely unacceptable," Weiss said. "We've got to have more pride. We have to become accountable. We have to take it personal. We're letting people manhandle us."
It was the first time since February 1968 -- the SuperSonics' expansion season -- that Seattle lost three consecutive road games by 20 or more points (one of those losses was a 147-118 defeat against the Baltimore Bullets). The common thread in both ugly losing stretches? Weiss, who was the Sonics' shooting guard in 1967-68.
Luckily for the Sonics, they got Toronto on Sunday and were able to bounce back -- although they blew an 18-point second-half lead before winning in overtime -- as Lewis scored a season-high 41 points. But the Sonics have several issues bubbling to the surface -- reserve forward Vladimir Radmanovic is already complaining about minutes and shots -- and they appear to be out of control without McMillan's heavy hand. Weiss has yet to light a fire under his team, but the always diplomatic Ray Allen refused to panic. "People base what position you're going to be in, if your year is going to be good or bad, based on the first five or 10 games. It doesn't mean anything," Allen said. "It was embarrassing, but what can you do, but pick your head up and hope for brighter days?"
Poor Shareef Abdur-Rahim. He has never been to the playoffs after nine seasons in the NBA, but when he joined the Sacramento Kings, Abdur-Rahim appeared ready to shed the title as the player with the most games played without a postseason appearance. The Kings were the trendy pick to win the Pacific Division after Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire had knee surgery last month, but they have struggled mightily to establish an identity this season.
Team president Geoff Petrie began the rebuilding process two summers ago when he let Vlade Divac go, then last February, he dealt Chris Webber to Philadelphia. He has since remade the team around the talents of Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic and Brad Miller. While the Kings have added considerable talent with Abdur-Rahim and Bonzi Wells, their talents don't appear to be suited for the motion and cutting of the Princeton offense.
The Kings also have a huge void in an important area: leadership. Bibby has never been more than a complementary player and Stojakovic seems to be more concerned with his pending free agency. But, Coach Rick Adelman, in the last year of his contract, doesn't appear to have a hold, either. Adelman and Petrie have been friends for decades and they have been a tandem in Sacramento for the past eight seasons. But it appears inevitable that their relationship will end much like the friendship between Minnesota General Manager Kevin McHale and Coach Flip Saunders, who was fired when things fell apart last season. The Kings have been headed in a different direction for some time, it may be time for a new pilot. Who knew the Kings could flop without Divac?
You've probably seen the new Gatorade commercial in which historic moments in sports are changed, including Michael Jordan's pull-up jumper in Game 5 against Cleveland in 1988. If anybody was pleased to finally see Jordan's shot rim out, it was Craig Ehlo, who has had to watch that replay over and over again for the past 17 years. "When I saw [the commercial], I fell off my bed," said Ehlo, a broadcaster for the Sonics. "Many times, I saw myself blocking that shot or it hitting the back of the rim and coming out and me jumping and not him." . . . The Spurs knew they were in trouble Saturday when Gilbert Arenas galloped through three players and bank a three-pointer off the glass to end the third quarter. But they had to know it wasn't their night after Tony Parker's girlfriend, Eva Longoria, kissed G-Wiz, the Wizards' furry, blue mascot, in the fourth quarter. . . . The Central Division is the class of the league to this point, with no team possessing a losing record. The Pistons are the league's only unbeaten team, and the Indiana Pacers, considering how they lost both of their games, should be 6-0, also. But the highly competitive division could prove costly for either the Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers or Chicago Bulls. Since those teams have to play each other four times, it may leave one of teams on the outside looking in when the playoffs begin. . . . After the Utah Jazz lost to New York on Monday, the Northwest Division is the only division without a team with a winning record.
Player of the Week
Gilbert Arenas, Washington Wizards
He went from double-dribble against the Los Angeles Clippers to double trouble for Seattle and San Antonio. In the Wizards' victories against the SuperSonics and Spurs, Arenas averaged 37.5 points and shot 26-for-36 (72.2 percent) from the field and 8 of 15 from beyond the three-point line. While the SuperSonics haven't played defense since Gary Payton was traded, the Spurs put defensive specialist Bruce Bowen on Arenas -- and Arenas scored an NBA season-high 43 points, blowing past Bowen as if Bowen was a cardboard cutout.
Player of the Weak
Latrell Sprewell, Free Agent
What was Sprewell thinking when he rejected a three-year, $21 million extension before last season in Minnesota? Now he's 35 and unemployed. How bad is it for Mr. Feed My Family? His agent said he'd be willing to join the Atlanta Hawks -- and the Hawks declined.
Team of the Week
Maurice Cheeks was having a rocky honeymoon in his homecoming after the 76ers started the season 0-3. Good thing no one overreacted. Philadelphia has won four in a row -- including wins against Indiana, Dallas and the surprising Los Angeles Clippers -- since that terrible beginning. The Sixers are the only team in the Atlantic Division with a winning record.
Team of the Weak
The Raptors have played more home games than any team in the NBA (five), yet they have no victories. Not good. The Raptors came back from an 18-point deficit to force Seattle into overtime on Sunday but they couldn't finish off the SuperSonics, who played the entire extra period without Ray Allen. Again, not good.
1. Detroit Pistons (6-0)
2. San Antonio Spurs (5-2)
3. Indiana Pacers (4-2)
4. Washington Wizards (5-1)
5. Milwaukee Bucks (4-1)
6. Dallas Mavericks (4-2)
7. Los Angeles Clippers (5-2)
8. Cleveland Cavaliers (5-2)
9. Miami Heat (4-3)
10. Phoenix Suns (3-3)
Five Games to Watch This Week
1. Washington at Cleveland (Tonight)
Larry Hughes vs. Gilbert Arenas. Does Larry really want that? The two friends and two-time former teammates go head-to-head for the first time since Arenas was a second-year guard in Golden State and scored a then-career-high 41 points against Hughes and the Wizards.
2. Milwaukee at Los Angeles Clippers (Tonight)
Two of the league's surprise teams clash. The Bucks are one of just four unbeaten teams on the road this season (Detroit, Washington and Phoenix are the others), but they face a daunting task with their next four games out West.
3. New York at Los Angeles Lakers (Wednesday)
Larry Brown vs. Phil Jackson. The league's marquee coaches meet for the first time since 2004 NBA Finals. Since they won't meet again in the Finals anytime soon, these regular season battles are all that we'll get.
4. Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers (Friday)
The Clippers have been the best team in Los Angeles since Shaquille O'Neal went to Miami. Too bad, nobody seems to notice. The battle for Staples Center bragging rights begins.
5. Detroit at Dallas (Saturday)
The Pistons are the only team remaining with a chance to go 82-0 this season. The Mavericks could hand them their first loss of the season.