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Spurs 'average' D doing just fine heading into West semis

Associated Press

5/11/2012 7:32:14 PM

SAN ANTONIO -- Gregg Popovich doesn't remember calling these San Antonio Spurs the worst defensive bunch in his 16 seasons.

"But you might be right," said Popovich, laughing.

In other words, it's not that far-fetched considering the defence Tim Duncan anchored in his heyday.

Yet while the NBA coach of the year really did lambast this defence as his worst following a loss to Milwaukee in January -- "We have a long way to go," Popovich scowled -- the Spurs have become at least good enough since then to carry the No. 1 seed with a 14-game winning streak into the Western Conference semifinals.

The start of that series remained unknown Friday, even though it's been five days since the Spurs finished sweeping Utah in the first round. San Antonio was awaiting the winner of the Clippers-Grizzlies series.

The layoff has given the Spurs unparalleled practice time in this lockout-shortened season. They returned to the gym Friday for a session that players described as feeling more like training camp than an in-season practice. Tim Duncan slowly shuffled barefoot to reporters afterward, his 36-year-old knees wrapped in bags of ice.

Duncan said the Spurs are just trying to keep conditioned. Stay in rhythm, scrimmage 5-on-5 and fine-tune some plays.

And, of course, keep improving defensively.

"We're not as good a defensive team as we have been in the past, four or five years ago," Popovich said. "We all know that. Because we know that, it seems wise to try and do something to improve your team, if it's not going to be defence. We're going to try to get better at it. What we are is pretty good in spurts."

What now passes for passable defence in San Antonio is a level that half the coaches in league would likely embrace. The Spurs ranked squarely in the middle of the pack in team defence, allowing 96.4 points per game while letting opponents make 45 per cent of their field goals, a category that Popovich has long valued above most.

It's hardly the vaunted, lockdown defence the Spurs were famous for while winning three titles in five years. From 2003-04 until their last championship in 2007, the Spurs gave up fewer points than any team in the league except for 2006, when they finished a close second to Memphis.

But in 2009, when the Spurs were knocked out in the first round for the first time in nine seasons, Popovich began accepting the Spurs no longer had the age or personnel to keep dominating defensively. That's when the shift began: Acquire more offensive firepower, increase the tempo and get easier baskets.

The last two seasons, San Antonio has averaged 103.7 points a game -- the most since Popovich took over the Spurs in 1996.

Ginobili said the Spurs this season began picking up the slack defensively in March, when they finished by winning 23 of their last 27.

"I think we're doing a pretty good job," Ginobili said. "Of course we're not the best team in the yet, but we can still improve."

Popovich's scathing rip on the defence came after forward Stephen Jackson, then with the Bucks, lit up the Spurs for 34 points. Jackson brushed off those remarks as likely a motivating ploy by the coach he refers to as "Obi Wan," even though Jackson, like centre Boris Diaw, hadn't joined the Spurs yet.

Diaw hardly had a reputation for defence while playing for Phoenix and its oft-called "Seven Seconds or Less" offence under then-coach Mike D'Antoni. Duncan said Friday that Diaw has become a better defensive player than he remembered facing, and Popovich has acknowledged Diaw's contributions to San Antonio's defence as a pleasant and unexpected surprise.

At least on what he used to regard as his worst defensive team.

"They must think I really wasn't good at all," Diaw said.