For years now, the San Antonio Spurs have been the guys you would love to invite to your house for dinner. But that wasn't cutting it in the final two minutes of playoff games. Too soft, not passionate enough, guards not good enough, not mentally tough enough, too nice. That's been the rap on the Spurs, and deservedly so, for some time. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise, even to them, that they have a nine-game postseason winning streak and are on the verge of sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals.

The Spurs have been so impressive in these playoffs that someone asked Spurs guard Steve Kerr, a three-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls, whether the Spurs' run reminds him of what the Bulls did so many times in Chicago. "The similarity," he said, "is that we'd break people's backs on their home floor; we'd play better on the road. Our five best playoff games this postseason have been on the road."

More important than the answer is that the question could be asked legitimately. Now that the Indiana Pacers have stumbled a bit against the New York Knicks, the Spurs are looking like the best team left in the field.

The Spurs have, for my money, the NBA's best player in Tim Duncan. They are lucky to have another great player, David Robinson, whose ego allows him to be even more valuable as a co-star than he was as a star. Sean Elliott is healthy. Point guard Avery Johnson is steady. And the club made critical acquisitions of Kerr, Jaren Jackson and, most important, Mario Elie.

You can argue rather convincingly that without Elie, the fiery agitator who won two championships with the Houston Rockets, none of the aforementioned moves would have amounted to much. Many of the criticisms thrown at the Spurs in recent years have been appropriate. They weren't up to snuff mentally, and the team lacked a certain fire. So management sought out Elie, a boat rocker. "He's somebody who challenges guys," Kerr said. "He was saying stuff in the newspapers, and it shook some guys up. Sometimes a team needs somebody who's not like the rest of the guys."

San Antonio Coach and General Manager Gregg Popovich "told me he wanted me to come in here and get these guys mentally tough," Elie said Saturday. "I told Pop, `I thought that was your job.' But I knew that was my role here. It's a conservative group of guys. I'm loud, always making faces, telling guys they're not playing hard enough. I wanted to see a lot more passion. In '95, when we won in Houston, we beat [the Spurs] in the conference finals. They had the reputation of being soft because they'd win 60-some games in the regular season and not be able to get it done down the stretch in playoff games.

"To change that, they needed a player who could stay on guys. I stay on Sean [Elliott], stay on David [Robinson]. I thought they needed a kick in the butt. Tim Duncan has a nickname for me; he calls me `Havoc.' "

Elie couldn't have a better nickname. He made more than a few players uncomfortable early in the season when the Spurs were 6-8 and Popovich's job seemed in jeopardy. But the Spurs love him now. After Elliott beat Portland in Game 2 of this series with an improbable, off-balance three-pointer, Elie said: "The old Sean would have gone into the fourth quarter with 19 points and come out of the fourth quarter with 19 points." Elliott came out of that fourth quarter with 22 points, and a well-earned bearhug from Elie. Popovich figured Elie's relationship with the players would be a huge asset. What he privately worried about before the season was what he calls "Mario's drive-and-kick game. . . . I didn't know if he had all that still in him, but he does."

Elie's 10 points per game, 37 percent three-point shooting, 87 percent foul shooting and versatility at the defensive end, even at 35 years old, make it a lot easier to be the tough guy on the court and in the dressing room.

With Elie able to set a desperately needed emotional tone, Popovich was free to concentrate on strategic matters, Duncan was free to evolve into a dominant force without having to worry about leadership issues, and Robinson was free to pursue a new role of assessing what's necessary from night to night.

The great thing about the Spurs is that the team is full of players willing to do what is asked of them. Popovich talked Saturday about how the Spurs tried to acquire Latrell Sprewell in the offseason. Improving the team's perimeter play was critical. Kerr, one of the league's prolific three-point shooters, has found fitting in difficult during his first season away from Chicago; he shot 31 percent from three-point range this season, compared with 46.3 percent during his 11-season career. Jackson, the Georgetown alumnus who is playing for his eighth team in nine seasons, was told by Popovich to shoot or sit. Jackson made 6 of 11 three-point tries and led the Spurs with 19 points in Game 3 of the conference finals, which they won in an 85-63 rout. Johnson goes entire games without making an improper decision with the ball. And guys such as 7-foot Will Perdue and young muscleman Malik Rose realize they exist to rebound, give purposeful fouls and allow Duncan and Robinson to rest now and then.

It's a formula that began to work March 1, and the Spurs are smart enough to have stayed with it. After the 6-8 start, they were 14-2 in March, 13-3 in April, 4-0 in May and are 10-1 in the playoffs. That's 41-6 since March 1. With the NBA set to crown a new champion in three weeks, the Spurs at long last look tough enough, passionate enough and complete enough to prove that nice guys can seriously contend for a championship, too.

CAPTION: When the Spurs needed an extra hand to provide mental toughness and competitive fire in the playoffs, they brought in veteran Mario Elie.