Updated: March 29, 2006, 3:46 AM ET
SPECIAL MIDWEEK EDITION:
Healthy aims for Spurs
LOS ANGELES -- Eight victories shy of the best win total in franchise history, with 11 chances left to get them, Gregg Popovich knows what he probably won't see even if his team gets there.
A glimpse of his team in Finals form.
Popovich suggested Tuesday night that he hasn't seen one yet, 71 games into the schedule. He's still hoping for something resembling a fearsome run in the final three weeks of the regular season, and hoping for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs along with it, but he sounds resigned to starting the playoffs without tangible proof that the deepest team the San Antonio Spurs have ever fielded can be everything he envisioned.
"I don't think we're playing at the level we were at when we played Detroit last year," Popovich said.
Surely you've seen a hint or two of that standard in a 55-16 campaign.
"Not really," Pop said.
Not that he's complaining.
First of all, who would listen? As we've written more than once in this cyberspace, just about any coach in the league would gladly trade for San Antonio's problems.
You were reminded of this at Staples Center, where the Spurs played their first game all season without their most consistent player and scarcely missed Tony Parker, moving the ball and protecting the paint and thus cruising past a potential first-round opponent in a 98-87 dismissal of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Secondly . . .
Popovich isn't exactly searching for what's been missing. He knows.
He knows he has a core of proven champions -- a priceless postseason advantage only the Spurs and Pistons can claim -- and he knows why teams as unproven as the Clippers (according to Sam Cassell) can come into games like this saying they match up well with the reigning champs.
The Spurs haven't been clamping down on teams defensively like they normally do in recent weeks, and rebounding has been an unexpected concern for months, but nothing has been more elusive than health.
"The nagging things," Popovich said, "haven't allowed us to be what I think we can be."
Tim Duncan. Manu Ginobili. Robert Horry. Nick Van Exel. None of them is expected to play at full capacity in the playoffs because of season-long ailments that won't go away.
And now even Parker has a shin problem interrupting the season of his life, although it's not considered serious.
It's not the longest list of guys playing hurt in the league -- "Dallas has had more injury problems than we've had," Pop volunteered -- but it's sufficiently long to have kept the Spurs' famously demanding coach on the mellow side. For longer than we've ever seen, actually.
It started in training camp, remember, when the Spurs were put through only one set of two-a-day practices. But Popovich has kept the grind in mind ever since, to the point that not even a recent defensive slump set him off. Before smothering the Clippers here, holding the hosts to 37.8-percent shooting from the floor, San Antonio had been "just a decent" defensive team all month in Pop's estimation. Yet he defended his players anyway.
"It's not that people are coasting," Popovich said. "We just haven't been able to get in a rhythm like we had last year . . . but a lot of it has been health."
Said Horry, who's finally starting to shake a hip problem: "We're not thrilled with how we've played for a lot of the season, but we're positive. We're optimistic. It's been a battle for us all year, but I'd rather gel late than early."
You knew Big Shot Rob would say that.
But his coach?
"You're going to hate my answer, but it doesn't matter if I like [our current form] or not," Popovich said. "It's where it sits, so I don't think about whether I like it or not.
"We're just trying to make sure everybody is as healthy as they can possibly be come playoff time so that we can hopefully play our best basketball. Nothing's really more important than that."
• Talk back to ... Marc Stein | The Daily Dime gang
• Dimes Past: March 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25-26 | 27 | 28
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Tim Duncan and the Spurs grabbed a one-game lead over Dallas in the West with a 98-87 win over Corey Maggette and his Clippers.
Readers respond to the latest edition of the ESPN.com NBA Power Rankings:
Matt (Royal Oak, Mich.): Normally I agree with your Power Rankings, unlike some of my Pistons brethren, but I can't believe you kept the Spurs at No. 1. San Antonio went 2-2 last week. The Pistons did lose to New Jersey but they also beat the Heat AND Indiana. Not only that, we still have the best record in the league and we won both games against the Spurs. I think you got it wrong this time. Oh, yeah: To answer your question, this Piston fan would still rather see New Jersey than Miami in the East finals.
Kevin (New Jersey): Two words for you, Stein: Nenad Krstic. As big as our Big Three have been, Krstic is the reason we're 40-28 and not 35-33. His ability to shoot, as you witnessed Sunday, drew out Detroit's big men and gave Vince Carter room to attack the hoop. Give Krstic and Jason Collins (phenomenal post defense) some credit. They deserve it.
Andrew (Tallahassee): You make it sound like Dwight Howard has become a discipline problem. He was late for a shootaround, so Brian Hill sat him at the start of a game. End of story. Everyone better watch out next season when our Double Ds, Dwight and Darko, are dominating the inside. The magic is finally coming back to Orlando.
Dan (Cleveland): Where's the love for my Cavs? Five wins in a row, playing good ball without Larry Hughes, stealing Flip Murray from Seattle and watching him become the perfect complement to LeBron James . . . and still no move up from No. 10? It's time for a promotion. And while you're at it, can't you drop the Knicks to 35 or something? They really are that bad. I must say I love seeing the Knicks fail. It's not because I dislike the Knicks. It's just that I hate -- repeat, hate -- New York's overrated, egotistical coach and love watching him suffer. People are finally starting to blame Larry Brown for the Knicks' mess. So glad he didn't end up with the Cavs.
James Chen (Los Angeles): You are a brave, brave man. After weeks of refusing to bump Miami into the top three, now you demote them after the Nets' eight-game winning streak. I can hear it already: "Why do you hate the Heat so much?" I actually agree with your rankings, because New Jersey has been beating better teams than Miami did, but there are plenty of people who won't agree. I hope you're ready.
Ed's note: That's us. A (fearless) committee (of one).
I was sucked in, too.
Like Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash and countless others in the desert, I saw Amare Stoudemire ring up 20 points in 19 minutes against Portland in last Thursday's grand return from microfracture knee surgery and -- besides clearly underplaying the fact that it was Portland -- figured the inevitable setbacks in his comeback would be on the standard side.
The performance almost made me forget my repeated pleas, as an Amare fan, to keep him shelved for the whole season.
You won't need too many guesses to figure out what I'd suggest from here. Same thing I've been advocating for weeks: Phoenix shouldn't allow the 23-year-old future of its franchise to return until next season. Not yet six months removed from the operation -- and with so little time left in the regular season for Stoudemire to blend into a reconstructed team and regain confidence in his body -- there's even less sense in risking it than there was before Thursday. Especially since Amare's return, in this ongoing state of recovery, doesn't necessarily get the Suns any closer to San Antonio, Detroit or Dallas than they already are.
The good news? I do see some, yes, even if the comeback lasted only three games.
For a player who really believes he's superhuman, it'll be a huge emotional blow for Stoudemire if he's done until next season. At least now, though, Stoudemire and his Suns don't have to play the what-if game. Shutting him down after just three games is better than holding him out all season . . . and then wondering every day thereafter if that was really necessary.
Now they know for sure. Stoudemire gave it a whirl, found out for himself that he has lots more work to do to get NBA-ready and the Suns can proceed with a season that still presents an inviting path to the conference finals. Even without Amare.
Cuttino Mobley and Steve Francis were openly crestfallen when Orlando, halfway through last season, broke up the Mobley-Francis backcourt to trade Cat to Sacramento.
What fast-tracked Mobley to closure?
First he became the first big-money free agent from another team in Clippers history, signing a five-year deal worth just over $40 million. Then, to Mobley's surprise about a month later, L.A. wound up trading for Sam Cassell, who's probably his second-best friend in the league.
Mobley didn't know Cassell was bound for Clipperland when he signed. But when he found out, he lobbied coach Mike Dunleavy hard to push the deal through.
"I actually met Sam before I met Steve," Mobley said. "We're like brothers also."
It's the sort of out-of-nowhere development late in the season that could have a profound impact on my MVP ballot.
The Jerusalem Post -- one of the newspapers of record here at Stein Line HQ -- recently quoted Kobe Bryant as saying: "I wouldn't mind being Jewish. I wouldn't mind. Really."
I'm trying not to get my hopes up on conversion, a la Rod Carew, but my many sources in Hollywood are all saying it's a lock that Kobe will be worked into Adam Sandler's next "Hanukkah Song."
Even the length of Dirk Nowitzki could not escape the long arms of Tayshaun Prince, who gets a key block in Detroit's 97-90 win over Dallas.
AP Photo/Duane Burleson
Chauncey Billups dishes one of his 11 assists to lead Detroit past Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs, dropping Dallas 2½ games back in the chase for the best record.
Pistons G Chauncey Billups: You had to be good to keep Charlotte's Gerald Wallace (41 points) out of this space. All Billups did in one of Detroit's best wins all season: 31 points and 11 assists in a 97-90 triumph over Dallas that avenged the Pistons' worst loss all season.
Kings F Ron Artest: No Gilbert Arenas. A home game for Sacramento. This sounded like a Kings feast. Artest instead clangs to the tune of 4-for-18, making him 10-for-50 over his last three games. He's also outscored, 14-12, by Billy Thomas, fresh up from the CBA's Sioux Falls Skyforce. So Sacto dips below .500, giving Utah renewed hope in the race for the West's final playoff berth.
Quote of the Day
"We're kind of broken right now. We'll lick our wounds and come at it next time."
-- Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, after a 132-110 loss in Milwaukee capped a day that began with Phoenix losing comeback kid Amare Stoudemire indefinitely because of complications in Stoudemire's comeback from knee surgery.
• See how all 134 who played stacked up
• The current NBA Playoff matchups
A look at the most active movers, upward and downward, in ESPN.com's weekly NBA Power Rankings:
Highest Rise: No. 16 Golden State Warriors
I'm the one responsible for the Warriors' 10-rung rise and, frankly, I can't believe they jumped so high, either. As disappointing as they've been since that 12-6 start, I didn't think we'd see the Warriors climb out of the 20s for the rest of the season. But at a time when only 14 of the NBA's 30 teams have records over .500, spots in the middle of the pack are up for grabs. (Of course, as soon as we start expecting something again -- after road wins over Miami, Dallas and Sacramento -- these guys celebrate Monday's promotion by getting routed at home by Washington.)
Steepest Fall: No. 25 Houston Rockets
Upon reflection, I might have been a bit harsh here. The Rockets have indeed lost seven of eight games since a 14-4 run put them back in playoff contention, resulting in an eight-spot drop. Yet playing without the injured Tracy McGrady hasn't been Houston's only problem lately. All seven losses in this 1-7 slide were inflicted by teams in the top 10 of these very rankings -- two by San Antonio, two Dallas and one each by New Jersey, Cleveland and the Los Angeles Clippers. So I admit it: I dropped the Rockets too far.
• Marc Stein's Complete Power Rankings
Five questions with Warriors guard Jason Richardson:
Q: This season started so brightly after last season's 14-4 finish. Why did it unravel?
A: You can probably point to a lot of things. We got away from defense. We had some injuries. I think [trade talk] affected some guys because lot of names we're being tossed in there. I know we can't use that kind of stuff as an excuse, but [there were] a lot of things. I'm going to try as hard as I can to make sure this doesn't happen again.
Q: Is it doubly frustrating for you because the losing probably cost you an All-Star spot?
A: I went through that last year, too, scoring a lot of points but not getting recognized for individual play because we're not winning enough. It's very hard to take, knowing we're a playoff team and we didn't play to our ability. I know we're capable of winning games.
Q: I have to be honest. You do some amazing stuff and I don't just mean dunks. You've scored 40 points or more three times in March alone and we all saw the buzzer-beater you dropped on Dallas. But it's hard to understand how you can shoot 40 percent on 3-pointers and 67 percent from the line. Can you explain that?
A: I know I need to get better in a hurry. You get that [free-throw percentage] up to 83, 84, 85 and maybe that's four or five extra points a game. Maybe that's the difference in winning games. I think I have a pretty good stroke. It's more a mental thing than anything. I'm going to work on it all summer. Free throws and ballhandling.
Q: Are you and Baron Davis still the Warriors' backcourt of the future?
A: We mesh really well. I complement him and he complements me. We take pressure off each other. He gives you 20 [points] and I give you 20 and it's hard to defend two guys who can do that. I was really excited about this year because of that finish we had with Baron. It looked like we would continue that [at the start of this season]. Then things started going in a downhill spiral.
Q: Management ultimately decided not to trade for Ron Artest, but it sounds like some of your teammates are expecting a shakeup in the off-season. Do you?
A: There are probably going to be some changes, just because we were supposed to be a playoff team and we haven't been there for 11, 12 years. The fans want to be in the playoffs. I want to be in the playoffs. I think they will make some changes.
Urooj (Toronto): Are you guys at ESPN ready to admit that you were way off about Charlie Villanueva?
Marc Stein: No.
First of all, not everyone here trashed the pick, so I can't let you lump all of us together.
Secondly, do you know what Villanueva averaged in the 10 games before Sunday's 48-point eruption?
I do: 7.7 ppg.
So let's not turn one game, amazing as it was, into more than it is.
One trusted Stein Line contributor tried to convince me that Villanueva going for 48 is a bigger surprise that Kobe going for 81. And I really couldn't argue. There have been some undeniable flashes from Villanueva, and he has certainly hushed a critic or two, but he hadn't even scored 30 in a game before Sunday.
So solid is the best word to describe his rookie season. Can't go farther than that.
See the full Marc Stein chat transcript