BEFORE A single ball had bounced on the floor at the Spurs' training camp, Tim Duncan fielded a question from a reporter about the team's entering the season under the radar. "We haven't even started, and we're under the radar?" Duncan asked with a playful smile. "Man, like we've never been there before."
With the "same, boring philosophy" (according to coach Gregg Popovich) and the league's most unassuming superstar (Duncan), San Antonio is the rare franchise that welcomes being overlooked. That is, until the Spurs cut other teams' hearts out in the postseason (four times since 1999). This year, in the much-improved West, "old" San Antone is even more underrated than usual. "I like when we're not the main team," says point guard Tony Parker, at 26 the youngest starter by six years. "We play better. There's no pressure."
The Spurs could well have been the hunted and not the hunter had guard Manu Ginóbili not been hobbled by a bad left ankle when they lost in the conference finals to the Lakers last May. But the injury, which required off-season surgery after he aggravated it at the Olympics, may work out in San Antonio's favor. He is expected to return in mid-December healthier, and by the time the team is making its playoff push, he'll be fresher.
So while people rave about the Lakers, Hornets and Rockets, the Spurs don't mind. Come April the starting lineup will feature three All-Stars who own a total of 10 rings. "We have a proven system," Duncan says. "We have a proven bunch of guys, and we like our chances."
A rival scout on the SPURS: They have a lot of guys over 30, yet they play with energy in the postseason because Gregg Popovich does such a good job of monitoring minutes during the season.... The decline in Tim Duncan's game shows in his help defense. His quickness in rotating to block a shot or close out isn't what it was, but he makes up for it with his intelligence and experience.... If Manu Ginóbili can't make it back from ankle surgery, the Spurs can't make it back to the Finals. It all hinges on him. He's one of the better competitors in the league, he lays it out there; he doesn't just guard his guy but tries to figure out what he's doing and guesses on it. The big plays he makes give them a lift emotionally.... Defensively, Bruce Bowen is still solid on the ball in confined areas—on the wing or in the corners—but not when he has to chase guys around. I think they're expecting bigger things out of his backup, Ime Udoka, who knocks down shots and plays defense.... Roger Mason is in the Udoka mold. He seems like a Spur.
In their 187 games since March 6, 2006, when Kobe Bryant torched them for 43 points, the Spurs have not allowed an opposing player to put up 40—the longest current streak in the league.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2007--08 statistics
PG TONY PARKER
KEY BENCH PLAYERS: G Manu Ginóbili, F-C Kurt Thomas, G-F Ime Udoka, G Roger Mason*, G George Hill (R)
Record: 56--26 (T-2nd in West)
Points scored: 95.4 (T-27th in NBA)
Points allowed: 90.6 (3rd)
Coach: Gregg Popovich (13th season with Spurs)
A MANU POSSESSED After Ginóbili recovers from his left-ankle injury, he'll have plenty of pep left for the postseason.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH