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Spurs seek resurrection from twilight zone

DALLAS – Beaten and embarrassed, their season at a crossroads, the San Antonio Spurs gathered in the visitors’ locker room to await their fate. Gregg Popovich walked through the doorway, chided them for their poor play then announced the punishment.

Dinner was on him.

Popovich had sat his starters most of the night. Now he was going to feed them, too. So the Spurs bused out of the American Airlines Center late Thursday and headed to the Capital Grill. Once they were seated, their coach delivered another message.

You might as well talk to each other now because you certainly didn’t communicate much during the game.

Popovich has a saying for such moments. “Participating in your own resurrection,” he calls it, and now the Spurs must rise from the dead again after a humiliating 88-67 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.

The official time of death came at the 7:42 mark of the third quarter. Jason Kidd threw in a 3-pointer to push the Mavs’ lead to 26 and Popovich responded by pulling Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Matt Bonner and Roger Mason from the floor. San Antonio’s fifth starter, Michael Finley, was already cooling his heels on the bench.

Popovich kept the group on the sideline for the remainder of the game. With the Spurs now down 2-1 in the best-of-seven series and Game 4 awaiting Saturday afternoon, he didn’t see much reason in having his starters perspire any more, provided they worked up a sweat in the first place.

“We’ll move on,” Popovich said, “and try to get our edge back.”

This is the way Popovich works. He’s always planning for the next day.

The problem?

Deep down, even Popovich can’t be sure what comes next for these Spurs. As one team official said Thursday evening: “This is a weird time for us.”

More telling: The team official said that before watching the Spurs score their fewest points ever in a playoff game.

Weird, for the Spurs, began last summer. After the Los Angeles Lakers whisked them out of the Western finals in five games, the Spurs looked at how much the gap had grown between them and their longtime rivals. They couldn’t stop Kobe Bryant, but, even worse, they labored to score, too.

So the Spurs brought in Roger Mason, made Matt Bonner a starter, benched Bruce Bowen, pushed Fabricio Oberto out of the rotation. Age played a role in the decisions, but boiled down, the Spurs traded defense for offense. They still prioritize defense, they just don’t play it as well, using junk schemes for which they previously had no need.

The Spurs survived during the regular season, but they also planned on having Manu Ginobili for the playoffs. For all of his clutch moments in postseasons past, Ginobili could make plays on both ends of the floor. Mason? He spent most of Thursday looking at the back of J.J. Barea’s jersey.

In truth, not even Ginobili could have changed Thursday’s outcome. By the end of the third quarter, the Spurs were stuck on 42 points.

“They kicked our ass every which way but loose,” Popovich said. Asked what he told the team at halftime after it trudged into the locker room down by 16, he laughed.

“Probably something like, ‘If it’s not too much trouble, it might be a good idea if we made a few baskets and stopped a few.”

The Spurs did too little of either. They depend on Parker like never before, and while he delivered 38 points in their Game 2 victory, he’s not built to dominate a series from start to finish.

The book on the Spurs’ point guard: Get him out of his rhythm early. If his first few jump shots don’t fall, he tends to lose some of his aggressiveness. That happened Thursday. Parker’s first shot missed from 18 feet. The next time down the floor, he threw the ball into Duncan. After Parker then failed to finish a drive, he went back to Duncan.

Feeding Duncan sounded good two years ago. Or maybe even as recently as November, when he appeared to still have two good knees. But the Spurs haven’t been playing off him for a while now. For all the talk about Duncan’s improvement the past two weeks, he still doesn’t look right. Asked if Duncan had begun to regain his All-Star form, one scout offered this opinion: “Not really.”

Popovich likely sees the same. So when the Mavs rushed past the Spurs, he measured the short turnaround between games and called Duncan and the rest of the starters back to the bench. Considering the Spurs had two full days off before Games 1 and 3 and played poorly in both, the extra rest might not help as much as the chance to simmer on the sideline.

“The kind of performance we put out there is all the fuel we need,” Duncan vowed. “We’re not going to play like that again, we’re not going to give that kind of effort, and we’re not going to make those kinds of mistakes again.”

Maybe he’s right. At the least, the Spurs can say they’ve been here before, even as recently as last season. They lost the first two games of their second-round series against the New Orleans Hornets by 19 and 18 points, came back to win the next two, lost Game 5 by 22 points then closed out the series with wins in Games 6 and 7.

So Popovich will tell the Spurs what he’s told them before. They’ll promise to help each other, they’ll try to pull themselves out of the grave. Participate in their own resurrection.

And if they don’t? If Saturday looks a lot like Thursday?

This time, dinner won’t be waiting.

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