Thursday May 6th, 2010

After a practice last month, the Spurs' rookies sang happy birthday to DeJuan Blair. "I sang it to myself too,'' said Blair. In San Antonio, the rookies are expected to sing on teammates' birthdays, and for much of this season Blair has been the only Spurs rookie at practice -- thus their only singer.

Blair views his Spurs as the NBA's version of an NCAA team run by the same coach who applies the same system to contend for the same trophy year after year after year. "It's like a college program -- but with a franchise player,'' he said of Tim Duncan, his locker-room neighbor. "And he never graduates.''

Now that the Spurs are trailing Los Suns 2-0 as they return to San Antonio for Games 3 and 4 of their Western Conference semifinal, there is talk of moving Tony Parker back into the starting lineup after he scored 20 points with seven assists off the bench in a 110-102 Game 2 loss Wednesday. But the real issue is simple teamwork: The Suns are delivering more production and energy across the board.

Now that Channing Frye is murdering San Antonio by going 5-of-6 from the three-point line and Louis Amundson is turning into Anderson Varejao and Jared Dudley is filling up his linescore (with the exception of turnovers, of which he committed zero Wednesday), the Suns are proving to be the truest team alive in this postseason. The Spurs have traditionally owned this rivalry, but so far they've been inferior to the sum of the Suns' parts.

In that sense, Phoenix is beating San Antonio at its own game. Manu Ginobili was held to 11 points on 2-of-8 shooting by the defense of Grant Hill, who at 37 is playing like an ageless vampire. Yet, the Spurs should have been able to overcome that on a night when Duncan and Parker were combining for 49, while the Spurs were limiting Phoenix to 42.4 percent from the floor and Steve Nash to 19 points and six assists blighted by five turnovers.

But Phoenix is winning with smarts and hustle and across-the-board help, and luck is irrelevant to the equation. After all, the Suns have been doing these things to go 34-9 over the last three months. "I can't remember being a part of a team that's had so many guys step up and play well,'' said Nash.

The Spurs have made enormous investments in the teamwork area that is now killing them. They uncharacteristically lost 32 games in the regular season while integrating Richard Jefferson and others into the rotation. The rejuvenations paid off with a first-round upset of the No. 2 Mavericks in six games.

"I've been humbled quite a bit during this season, and learned quite a bit about myself,'' Jefferson said toward the end of the series victory over Dallas. "'Rededication' is not the right word, but I do have a better understanding of getting back to that high level I've had with teams that were really, really good. To be here and to be around such talented players with a coach that's so demanding, it helps you to refocus. You work hard every single summer, you put the time in every single year, you play hurt -- you do all these things. But sometimes when you can refocus on a team goal, that can really help you.''

Can they tighten that goal to overcome the mismatches that are now so flummoxing? Jefferson had 18 points and 10 rebounds while playing 42 minutes against the perimeter-based lineup, and yet it wasn't enough to win Game 2. The Spurs renewed second-year guard George Hill for 14 points, but now there is speculation he'll lose his starting spot to Parker. Antonio McDyess' defense was crucial in the opening round against Dirk Nowitzki, but in this series the Spurs have trouble keeping him on the floor together with Duncan against the Suns' mobile and exasperating big men, with Frye coming off the bench to play the bulk of the frontcourt minutes alongside Amar'e Stoudemire (23 points and 11 rebounds in Game 2).

The Spurs need to simply hold their home court to turn this into an even best-of-three series, and maybe they can draw strength from recalling their victories in all five playoff series against Phoenix when Duncan has been playing. After each of those losses over the previous dozen years, the Suns would look at San Antonio's roster and wonder how those role players performed to such a high level. But now, suddenly and unpredictably, the Spurs are facing the same mysterious problem, and it won't be easy to fix.

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