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Rocky season sharpens Spurs for playoff run

Rocky season sharpens Spurs for playoff run

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Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks couldn't keep Tim Duncan and the Spurs from reaching the second round …

SAN ANTONIO – The best owner in the NBA rolled back his head, roared with laughter and confessed to the truth: These San Antonio Spurs had never so tested his belief, never so tried his patience. The months and weeks of the season had come and gone, and Gregg Popovich would meet his eyes with such a confounded gaze. Who the hell knows, the looks told the owner. That’s the beauty of the Spurs. They never think they have the answers, but they almost always do.

“It just didn’t jell,” Peter Holt said. “There were a lot of frustrating moments for all of us. We could’ve just fallen apart.”

They’d never had a team so sluggish to come together, never extended so deep into a season when the front office and coaches felt like they were so without an identity. All those doubts, all those second-guesses and yet Holt always held onto that voice in the reaches of his mind that always assured him there would be validation to the vision of Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford.

“I’ve just got a lot of faith in them,” Holt said. He was talking in the corridor of the AT&T Center late Thursday night, talking after another testament to the staying power of his franchise. “I know owners say that all the time, but we’ve all been together for 14-15 years now. We understand how hard it is to have the kind of decade we’ve had, but also to be able to stay with it in a small market. I’ve got a lot of faith.…”

He stopped and smiled and just listened to himself repeating that word over and over.

“I mean, I’ve got a lot of faith in these guys.”

Holt delivered a nod over the summer to plow into the luxury tax, spend with the big-market rich kids and chase one more championship with the greatness of Tim Duncan(notes) diminishing with the grind of the years. From the long, flustering assimilations of Richard Jefferson(notes) to Antonio McDyess(notes), they wondered: Did we do the right thing?

These are the four-time champion Spurs and Popovich had advanced out of the first round for the 11th time in the past 13 seasons, but make no mistake: This 97-87 Game 6 victory to clinch a Game 6 and a series victory over the Dallas Mavericks had been born of so much struggle and uncertainty. Maybe they were kidding themselves. Maybe the run was over. In the end, everyone had to trust that staying true to this Spurs system, to its core beliefs, would ultimately find them a way out of a murky regular season and into the light of springtime.

“For the first 60 games, I really wasn’t sure that we had it in us,” Manu Ginobili(notes) confessed.

Still, it happened.

Somehow, they found an identity, found themselves and completely destroyed these Mavs that were supposed to be destined to challenge the Los Angeles Lakers for the Western Conference title.

“We just found it now,” Duncan said. “It took the whole season.”

Somehow, the Spurs would be the Spurs again. Once, they had been the most disciplined and devoted defensive team in the NBA, but that was no longer a constant that could carry them through tough times. They were wildly up and down this year, and that’s why Duncan dismissed the notion that the Spurs were somehow too good to be a seventh seed in the West.

“We earned a seven seed,” he insisted. “We got put where we were supposed to be.”

There’s the greatness of Duncan, the essence of the man: No sense of entitlement, no sense that past glories earned them excuses now. That’s the culture here. That’s why they keep coming, and coming and coming.

What’s more, the Spurs privately believed they knew the Mavericks best, they believed they had a plan to stop them. And they did. Popovich’s game plan was impeccable, but truth be told, the Spurs finally had a team that could carry it out. They took Jason Terry(notes) and Jason Kidd(notes) out of the series. They were physical and relentless on Dirk Nowitzki(notes). They trapped Terry out of the picks-and-rolls and they chased Kidd, a reborn 3-point shooter at 37 years old, off the line. There were 15 seconds left in that final, meaningless regular-season game with the Mavericks, but the Spurs noticed Popovich blistering Keith Bogans(notes) for missing a defensive rotation.

“He’s uncompromising in his expectations,” Buford said.

For the Mavericks, this was an unspeakable disaster. They weren’t disciplined and tough enough. For everything this franchise has accomplished – a magnificent 10 straight seasons of 50 victories – they’ll be remembered for playoff collapses. Since they led the Miami Heat 2-0 in the 2006 NBA Finals, they’ve lost three first-round series, including as a No. 1 seed to the Golden State Warriors and as a No. 2 seed to the Spurs.

“I’m proud of our guys, and the way they kept on fighting back,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. “Not so proud of the NBA. Not proud of my inability over the last 10 years to have an impact like I want to have. So I kind of feel like I owe fans an apology.”

Not so proud of the NBA? He wouldn’t clarify, but you’d have to guess he was talking about the officiating. Just understand that before halftime in Game 6, Nowitzki had four fouls because he couldn’t keep his composure, because a franchise player had let the Spurs get inside his body and mind again. These losses are shaping his legacy. The coaches and complementary players changed – the best supporting cast of his career, Nowitzki insisted – but he looked all alone again.

The Spurs hit the Mavericks, hit them hard and they never seemed to gather their balance in the series. How can you score eight points in the first quarter of a Game 6, and think you can come back and win?

In the moments of truth, there was such a calm over these Spurs. They lost a 22-point lead in the game, lost their touch at the free-throw line and Popovich finally blurted in the huddle: Next guy to miss a free throw owes me a car. On the way back to the court, Duncan, the worst of them all with six misses in seven tries, stared back blankly at his coach and asked, “What color do you want?”

They’ve treated these pressure moments with such deftness, always communicated with a certain shorthand this time of year. Duncan pushed his tired bones through 43 minutes in Game 6, and ultimately it was that small college guard, George Hill(notes), who swears he made 8,000 shots over the summer, who would make all the big ones with Ginobili in the fourth quarter. They would spare the beleaguered Duncan a Game 7, and get him three days rest until meeting the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference semifinals.

Buford keeps finding these kids, and the Spurs keep plugging them into the lineup and extending the championship window with Duncan. “They keep bringing in the right pieces to help our Big Three,” Holt said. That’s the reason that it wasn’t so hard for the Spurs owner to spend that money over the summer, to ride out a dynasty until it had no regrets, no what ifs.

“We looked at the history of all this, and asked: Should we try this or not?’ Holt said. “And we realized – it’s worth it. Let’s keep doing it – transitioning without crashing. That’s what we’re trying to do, but also our goal is to win a championship this year so we said, ‘Let’s go after it again.’–”

Now, Holt laughed in the corridor late Thursday, and considered the season of a faith tested and stood here a little humbled, a little amazed, that the Spurs were championship contenders again.

“Pop brings it all together,” Holt said.

After all these years, all this winning, it was the truth that buoys the beliefs here.

The genius of these Spurs is in the simplicity: They just keep coming and coming and coming. Just relentless.

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