Lang Whitaker
Monday May 16th, 2005

I don't want to de-caffeinate your double-shot lattes in Seattle, but the San Antonio Spurs are still on track to win the NBA Championship. Yes, they've lost two straight to the Sonics, and yes, they played like the San Antonio Silver Stars Sunday night. But the Spurs are still the best team in the NBA.

First, a confession: Two months ago, I had to pick a team in SLAM magazine to win the NBA championship. I went with San Antonio. So I'm not exactly unbiased.

At the same time, as a basketball nerd -- someone more interested in matchups, plays and systems than players and alley-oops -- and after spending a few days following the Spurs around earlier this season to write the current SLAM cover story, I saw in the Spurs a few things that are rare these days in the NBA: peace, desire and understanding.

Peace: Drama doesn't exist only on TNT. Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles ... each of these teams was, at one point or another, engulfed by drama. And they weren't the only squads (even Seattle has had issues). Who's the coach? Who's getting traded? Can I get a contract extension? All the usual imbroglios don't happen in San Antonio. Gregg Popovich is the coach, and he'll be around until he's ready to go. What's more, the team's core -- Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili -- are locked up through 2010. Basketball is the focus. The only thing that stirred the pot the last six months in San Antonio was when Tony Parker showed up with Eva Longoria before Game 1 this spring against Denver. And if Eva Longoria doesn't stir the pot, I don't know what does ...

Desire: The one sense I really came away with from San Antonio was how focused everyone was. The players enjoy each other, they know their roles, they win a lot of games, they have sellout crowds almost every night and the people of San Antonio love them. What's left? Championships. Which leads to ...

Understanding: Since everyone knows their place and where they're going to be, there aren't any distractions. Look what happened when Pop benched Ginobili, an all-star, in the Denver series. What happened? They won. These guys know what they're supposed to do. Bruce Bowen gets it that his job is to play defense first and offense only when needed, something Ron Artest has never seemed to grasp.

What does all this have to do with playing basketball? And more specifically, winning the championship this season? To a man, from Spurs general manager R.C. Buford to 12th man Tony Massenburg, everyone in San Antonio talked about the need to get better from day to day. (Popovich likes to compare it to hammering away at a rock until it breaks, and he has this quote posted all over the locker room.) These last two games, the Spurs have laid eggs. Tuesday night, they won't. It's that simple. They'll play better.

Strangely, in many ways this philosophy has led to the Spurs having a tendency to play just above the level of their opponent. For instance, they weren't the most explosive offensive team this year, averaging just 96.2 points per game, putting them in the middle third of the NBA, behind the Raptors and Bucks, among others. But they were the best defensive team in the league, holding opponents to 88.4 points per game, 1.5 fewer than Detroit.

When the Spurs lose, they either lose by a few points right at the end, or they get behind early and just kind of pack it in. They did the former in Game 3 and the latter in Game 4.

None of this is meant to diminish what the Sonics have done. After trying to outrun the Spurs in San Antonio, the Sonics shifted their style these last two games in Seattle and got physical, which no one suspected they'd try. All season they'd been Phoenix-lite, a run-and-gun team with fewer outside threats than the Suns but more interior depth and hustle (from Reggie Evans, particularly). Then they became the Bad Boys, and they out-muscled the Spurs, even without a couple of their key players.

At the same time, the Spurs have come out for the last two games completely dispassionate and cooler than cool (ice cold, even). In Game 4, aside from Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, the other Spurs went a combined 11-for-30 from the field. (Seattle reserve Damien Wilkins had seven field goals by himself.)

The two losses are the Spurs' wake-up call. Now they've got a big green-and-yellow boulder in front of them. And you can bet that right now, the Spurs are somewhere figuring out a way to crack it wide open.

For those of you pining for the return of the NHL, we give you air hockey!

I was thinking about some way to involve readers more, because when you write to me it's always great stuff. So this week we'll launch a new running item: The Caption Contest. Send in your best captions for this picture, and I'll run the best next week and give you another pic to riff on.

Maybe it's just me, but this sequel doesn't look nearly as good as I was expecting it to be. George Lucas is slipping, kids.

This is ridiculously simple and a great office time-killer. (Not that, um, I'd know.) A hint: It's much easier if you click the help button and play with your keyboard instead of the mouse. Although, using only the mouse lets you know what it must feel like to be Rick Allen.

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