The San Antonio Spurs theme for this season, “Team Is Everything,” was in full display during their recent 111-106 overtime victory over the much-hyped Phoenix Suns. The thrilling contest featured five Spurs in double figures, including a breakthrough 22-point, 10-rebound performance by Fabricio Oberto on a night when the team alternated between looking tired and later, inspired. “We stayed competitive even though there were spurts we played bad basketball,” admitted coach Gregg Popovich following the game. “We executed down the stretch and we played well in the overtime … It was impressive to me even though we played poorly at times.”
“With Phoenix there are a lot of possessions,” added Tim Duncan, who contributed 26 points and 14 rebounds. “They are going to get shots up quick and not use the whole 24 seconds. In that respect, we have an opportunity, if we get a stop, to really push it back at them … We didn’t do a very good job of defending them tonight; we kind of just found a way to make it happen down the stretch there.”
The 2006-07 season has already introduced a slick new ball (which apparently only Tony Parker is fond of), a much-needed no-whining rule (which Duncan will eventually get t’d for), and some nasty looking new Spurs warmups (which make them look like they’re rocking the same back braces the folks who work at H-E-B sometimes wear). Oberto, who desperately needs a nickname that isn’t “Fabi,” appears to have an early-season stranglehold on the starting-center position — although newcomer Francisco Elson has looked impressive on the floor.
Among the other early-season surprises are a struggling, 1-win Dallas Mavericks squad that suffered an embarrassing 31-point loss to the Houston Rockets, and the fact that the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets have dropped only one game and currently top the Southwest Division with San Antonio.
Coming up next for the Spurs are challenges from heavyweights in the rough-and-tumble Eastern Conference. First up are the Chicago Bulls, who bested San Antonio 67-99 in a preseason contest, during most of which Coach Pop rested his starters. Chicago features one of the stingiest defenses in the league, anchored by new acquisition Ben Wallace. No longer the Baby Bulls, Chicago scorched the NBA Champion Miami Heat in both teams’ season opener and is currently 3-3. The Bulls are scoring points a lot more easily than most anticipated, and moving Argentinian Andres Nocioni into the starting lineup could boost things even more on the offensive end.
Still, Chicago has a tendency to struggle to score in crunch time, and it’s unclear if Ben Gordon has the size and personality to be the superstar they will need in the postseason. Expect a grind-it-out, low-scoring game that will recall the days when NBA players were actually allowed to play tough defense.
After a short trip out west, the Spurs return to face Shaquille O’Neal and the Miami Heat. The champs are sitting at .500 and adjusting to taking the court every night with targets on their backs. Shaq has recently been hampered by a bruised knee but should be ready for a homecoming peppered with drama. Bruce Bowen vs. Dwyane Wade should provide sparks for four quarters and it will be interesting to see how San Antonio’s new center tandem will handle Shaq. Many of the Spurs truly believe that the Heat are wearing the Spurs’ rightful rings, which should make for a motivated Silver-and-Black squad that we’ve only seen glimpses of at home this season.
The fact that this team still regularly struggles with free throws boggles the mind, and actually says a lot about the give-take relationship between coaches and their players, but a 4-1 start is nothing to disdain. Kudos go to Pop and company for the impressive start, and to the Spurs staff in general for playing some conscious hip-hop during games instead of their usual batch of inane commercial rap. I’ll take a little Talib Kweli over the Big Tymers any day.