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May Madness

Who's ready for seconds? After a spellbinding opening round of playoffs, the sequels could be even better, starting with the Battle of Texas

He was impossibleto miss. Sprouting from the second row of seats near midcourt, smiling thattoothy smile and bedecked in a black number 20 Ginobili jersey, David Robinsonlooked less like a Hall of Famer and more like just another zealous San Antoniofan, if a supersized one. Like the other 18,796 in the Alamodome, and hoopheadseverywhere for that matter, Robinson was pumped to see this much-anticipatedseries--the intrastate, internecine battle of Pop vs. Mini-Pop, Duncan vs.Dirk, defense vs. more defense--finally under way. ¶ As dramatic as this year'sfirst round was, with its scoring duels (Gilbert vs. LeBron; Vince Carter vs.Anthony Johnson), surreal game-winners (LeBron, Kobe, Damon Jones--DamonJones?) and heated, whose-mom-didn't-hug-whom repartee (Kobe vs. Raja Bell),the second round could very well end up being even better, in large part due tothis de facto Western Conference finals in Texas. The series began on Sundaywith a stiff embrace between mentor and mentee, Avery Johnson slapping GreggPopovich on the shoulder as Popovich whispered in his ear. Three hours later,behind 31 points from Tim Duncan, the Spurs pulled out an 87-85 win thatproved, if nothing else, that the Mavericks can't count on Duncan's plantarfasciitis as the back end of a double team in the post. It was also surely thefirst time that a semifinal home victory by a 60-plus-win top seed could beconsidered a bit of a surprise. That was the case only because of a 36-hourturnaround for San Antonio after dispatching Sacramento, and an inane seedingsystem that led to the West's top teams facing off in the conference semis. AsSpurs assistant G.M. Sam Presti said jokingly last Friday night, appraising theDallas matchup in the wake of a physical Kings series, "This is what weworked all year to get the top seed for?"

The Spurs'hardship is the fans' gain, though, as this series promises all manner ofunconventional matchups (Bruce Bowen on Dirk Nowitzki, perhaps Josh Howard onTony Parker) and coaching two-steps between these eerily similar teams. Fouryears ago they could not have been more different: the pound-it-in Spurs andthe all-O, all-the-time Mavs. This season much has been made of the retooledMavericks' being San Antonio North (page 46), from their defensiveschemes--"pretty much all the same," says Spurs assistant P.J.Carlesimo--to their coaching staff. In a sort of institutional osmosis,however, the Spurs have in some respects begun to resemble Dallas, circa 2002,as part of their gradual transformation into a smaller, more versatileteam.

First off, thereis the makeup of their rosters. Where once the Mavs were the international teamof record, it is now the Spurs who have seven foreign-born players (to Dallas'sthree). Then there is the shared DNA of the two teams. On Sunday there wasMichael Finley, nearly nine years a Maverick, still looking as if he'd beenPhotoshopped into that black-and-silver uniform, still nailing his familiarpogo-stick jumper. And running the point at times for the Spurs, headbandpulled low, was none other than Nick Van Exel, his quick first step gone buthis propensity to pull up from 25 feet intact. And the Spurs' first team? It'sanchored by a rare troika of All-Star scorers, one a 7-footer (Duncan), anothera frenetic point guard (Tony Parker) and the third an athletic swingman (ManuGinobili). Sound familiar? "This team is definitely like our Dallasteams," says Van Exel, who spent 11/2 years in Big D. "There are somany guys who can go off that you don't know who's going to do what."

In contrast topast incarnations of the Spurs, when the most valued offensive skill for allnoncenters was a good entry pass into the post, this team is a slashing,penetrating squad--sort of like those old Mavs teams of Finley and Van Exel,Nowitzki and Nash. Duncan is still their fulcrum, but the offense doesn'talways begin and end in his hands. "They do a lot more cutting and youcan't blame them, because they're so damn fast," says Kings assistant PeteCarril. "Parker's fast, Ginobili's fast, [Brent] Barry's fast. Who the hellis slow on their team?" Perhaps the best evidence of this change in tempois that, for the first time since 1997--98, a Spur other than Duncan led theteam in scoring (Parker, at 18.9 points per game).

In this teamcomparison Parker would play the role of Steve Nash, the Mav turned Sun. ThoughParker is no MVP candidate--yet--he's becoming more Nash-like. Both are small,quick point guards who use their dribble to probe the defense. (Both also havea history of dating beautiful actresses, but that's for another story.) Thisseason Parker has even added a jumper that, fittingly, is modeled on Nash's. Asit turns out, his retooled shot is one of the keys to this series.

Last summer, afteryears of watching opponents back off Parker in the playoffs, the Spurs broughtin shooting coach Chip Engelland, who has worked with Grant Hill and SteveKerr, among others. He noticed that Parker's form was exemplary on hisone-handed runners and tear drops. On his jumper, however, Parker held the balldifferently, with his right hand slightly higher on the ball. Beginning intraining camp, Engelland totally reconstructed Parker's shot, moving his righthand down, his right thumb out to widen his grip, slowing down his motion andeven changing his release point. "He was shooting back over his head, sohis shot was flat," says Engelland. "We moved it in front so now it'smore up through here"--he mimics the classic out-of-the-phone-booth wristsnap--"and out."

For an image ofthe ideal form, he brought in pictures of Nash, whom he considered Parker'sclosest model because of his size. (He also considers Nash the paragon ofelbow-in, classic jump shooting.) Eventually Parker's J began to improve; hewas getting more backspin, and his line drives were turning into babyparabolas. By midseason even the exacting Popovich was impressed. Parker endedthe season shooting 54.8%, which ranked him third in the league, the highest apoint guard has finished since the Warriors' Butch Beard in '74-75. Nextseason, says Engelland, comes the overhaul of Parker's three-point shot.

As much asParker's offense has improved, though, his first duty--the first duty of anySpur, for that matter, at the risk of being benched--is D. Popovich's defensiveprinciples remain the same, but the strategy has changed some the last fewyears out of necessity. Once predicated on the concept of dual shot blockers,the Spurs are now more willing to go small. Example A: Nazr Mohammed. Afterstarting the last 30 games this season, Mohammed didn't play at all in Game 5against the Kings. The day before Game 1 against Dallas, the coaching staff metand debated whom to start at center. One contingent favored Robert Horry,arguing that the team should start its best players, regardless of position.Another wanted the interior presence of Mohammed or Rasho Nesterovic. As is hishabit, Popovich sat back and listened, then made a decision. (He went smallwith Horry, to positive effect.)

This is how SanAntonio operates: Everyone's opinion is valued, but in the end only one man'smatters. It's part of what could be termed the San Antonio Way, a Spurs-centricstyle of leadership that is spreading throughout the league. Just as Popovichcame from a line of Larry Brown disciples (who in turn came from a line of DeanSmith disciples), so too has he mentored a generation of basketball minds.Coach of the Year winner Johnson has the highest profile, but the diasporaincludes Mike Brown and Danny Ferry in Cleveland; Mario Elie, a well-regardedassistant in Golden State; Joe Prunty, a former Spurs scout who is now onJohnson's bench; and even former Spurs video coordinator Will Voigt, the newcoach of the ABA's Vermont Frost Heaves, who are owned by SI writer AlexWolff.

The San Antoniosystem is based on three tenets: No player is above the others; the coach hascomplete command; defense is all-important. Van Exel calls the Spurs "theNew England Patriots of basketball," while former Spur Malik Rose, nowstranded in Knicksville, says, "A lot of it starts with Pop, but it's alsoTim. When your best player is your hardest worker, that means a lot."

This is what ledFinley and Van Exel to migrate to San Antonio from Dallas. "It'sunbelievable, the management and players all have one common goal," saysVan Exel, who then laughs. "My only question is: How the hell did I get onthis team?"

Van Exel kids, butin many ways he's living proof that a stint with the Spurs can have atransformative effect, as if Popovich is some sort of hoops faith healer. Riseup, my son, and you will be a team-first defender! Once maligned as a coachkiller and a knucklehead, Van Exel is now a model backup and--get this--whenCarlesimo is asked which current Spur would make the best coach, he chooses notthe cerebral Barry or Bowen but Van Exel. Hallelujah indeed!

The Spurs model iswhat the Mavs are mimicking now. There is no Dallas Way, at least not yet, butthis series could go a long way toward changing that. Johnson already has theSpurs' mind-set--what Popovich refers to as "corporate knowledge"--andhis players are buying into it. Still, much as the Bulls had to overthrow thePistons and the Spurs the Lakers, the Mavs know what team they must beat ifthey are to get to the Finals, and it looks very familiar. "They've wantedus for years," Duncan says. "When we were in that situation and theLakers were beating us, we wanted them too." Duncan remains relativelydiplomatic, but not so "Coach" Van Exel, who chimes in from across thelocker room. "They want us," he says, grinning. "Well, they gotus."

"This," Presti said of the Dallas matchup, "is what we workedall year to get THE TOP SEED for?"


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Photographs by Greg Nelson

MAGIC TOUCHES Parker (9) made himself into a dangerous shooter while Johnson (above) overhauled an entire franchise.


Photographs by Greg Nelson

TRIPLE THREAT The slashing Ginobili gives the Spurs a rare luxury: a third go-to scorer.