LOS ANGELES -- The sadists from San Antonio love this stuff. They live for it, actually.
Send in the rodeo clowns
They eagerly await the annual nuisance of being kicked out of their own building for eight straight games by the rodeo. They take great pride in brickfests like this where they somehow manage to shoot less than 30 percent from the field for three quarters and still pull out a textbook Uglyball victory. They suddenly don't even seem to mind the rising chorus of cracks leaguewide about their advancing age.
On this resurrection Sunday, they were volunteering their own Spurs jokes.
And this from coach Gregg Popovich, on the subject of calling up James White from D-League: "We've been such a juggernaut lately. Now we're really going to scare the [bleep] out of people."
That sort of self-deprecating humor flowed from several corners of the visitors' locker room at Staples Center, for the first time in a long time for the Spurs. It was the clearest signal yet that they're feeling better than you'd think about themselves.
Sunday's 96-94 overtime triumph over the Los Angeles Lakers required San Antonio to overturn a nine-point deficit with 5:09 to play, survive the usual slew of late clutch buckets from Kobe Bryant and overcome an afternoon of wire-to-wire horrific shooting.
No wonder Spurs guard Brent Barry said: "This kind of game just may count for more than one win in the W column."
Not coincidentally, San Antonio escaped with that W on the first stop of their annual Rodeo Trip. This is the fifth installment of an extended hiatus every winter that, in 2007, calls for them to go 24 days without playing a game on their AT&T Center floor . . . but which historically triggers the second-half surge that snaps the Spurs into contender mode.
Problem is, this group of grind-it-out guys has rarely played to typical Spurs standards. They've suffered eight home losses already and arrived in L.A. with five defeats in their previous seven games against teams with winning records, all while Phoenix and Dallas have been surging to respective 67- and 66-win paces.
Worse yet, Rodeo Trip '07 arguably comes with the greatest degree of difficulty San Antonio has seen yet. A back-to-back set looms Wednesday and Thursday in Utah and Phoenix, followed by five straight games against likely East playoff teams after a four-day window to get in some practices back home.
"We've also been one of the one, two or three best defensive teams every year in the past and we're not right now," Popovich said, rejecting the idea that "this rodeo deal" guarantees anything.
"It doesn't mean that it's going to continue forever. We have to make it continue."
That should explain why Pop made the go-to lineup change we see at some point every season, asking Manu Ginobili to move to the bench. The Spurs figure that starting Barry instead and using Ginobili as a sixth man gives their creaky reserve unit some extra juice while increasing the likelihood that Ginobili, Duncan and Tony Parker will be fresher as a threesome at the end of games.
"I didn't even get it out of my mouth and [Ginobili] started laughing," Popovich said. "He said: 'What took you so long? I was expecting this.' "
Of course, pretty much nothing went to plan for three-plus quarters here, with the Spurs getting offense from no one but Duncan in a 21-point, 14-rebound, nine-assist masterpiece. You've undoubtedly heard all about the Spurs' ongoing search for an infusion of youth and athleticism -- "A legitimate water-cooler topic," Barry called it -- but they looked like they could use a shooter, too, after hitting just 19 of 66 field-goal attempts entering the fourth. That's a success rate of 28.8 percent.
But defense and the Lakers' wasteful free-throw shooting kept the Spurs in it long enough for Bruce Bowen, Parker and Michael Finley (with the game-clinching triple in OT) to heat up ever so slightly. That allowed San Antonio to avenge two previous losses to the Lakers and left just enough time for Parker to make a quick getaway to join fiancée Eva Longoria at the nearby Screen Actors' Guild Awards.
The rest of the Spurs, furthermore, were too giddy about the victory to make too much of Bryant's errant elbow that tagged Ginobili in the face on the final play of regulation. Mere moments after Bryant appeared to foul Robert Horry on an airballed 3-pointer from the corner -- and chortle at his ex-teammate when no foul was called -- Ginobili blocked Bryant's potential game-winning jumper at the fourth-quarter buzzer. But Bryant flung out his arm in apparent attempt to draw a foul, leaving Ginobili with a welt under his right eye that left him on the bench for the first 2:56 of overtime and required postgame X-rays.
"That's not his style," Popovich said of Bryant, dismissing suggestions that the shot was intentional.
The Spurs' preference, clearly, was talking about the basketball, after weeks of hearing how much ground they've lost to the Suns and Mavs.
"Right now we're a little bit behind where we usually are at this point of the season, but we still have more room to improve than those teams," said Popovich, who was celebrating his 58th birthday on Sunday. "I don't think they can play a whole lot better. We can. That's what I focus on."
Said Ginobili: "Yes, sometimes we look at the standings, too. But it's fine with us. Let them [stay hot]. We don't believe we are the team now that we may be in the playoffs."
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
Spurs forward Michael Finley celebrates after hitting the game winner with 1.3 seconds left in overtime, lifting the cold-shooting Spurs to an improbable 96-94 victory.
He's the first Jazz rookie since Paul Griffin to have at least 17 rebounds in a game (Griffin had 25 with the New Orleans Jazz on Feb. 23, 1977.)
In case you were wondering Karl Malone had 15 rebounds on three occasions.
-- Michael E. Jackson, ESPN Research
Zach Randolph took a team-record 40 shots in Portland's double-overtime win on Saturday at Memphis. Geoff Petrie had held the franchise record since Feb. 8, 1973, when he had 37 field-goal attempts in a loss to the Warriors in Oakland.
Kobe Bryant is the only other NBA player to take 40 or more shots in a game over the past five NBA seasons. Bryant has put up that many shots in six games over that span.
Phoenix rolls past Cleveland, 115-100.
AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian
Kobe Bryant seems to be taking this third-quarter foul call particularly hard. The Lakers were aiming for a season sweep of the Spurs, but lost 96-94 in overtime.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
The rodeo is not coming to Hollywood.
The Lakers, though, are about to embark on their own eight-game travel odyssey, just like the team that beat them in overtime Sunday.
The Spurs have been making these killer trips for years, ever since moving into the AT&T Center in 2002, and they're experts at using an extended period away from their home routines -- caused by the rodeo's arrival in San Antonio every winter -- as a springboard for a second-half run.
The young Lakers? We'll have to wait and see how they handle it.
L.A. still ranks as one of the season's grand surprises at 27-17 and coped fantastically without Lamar Odom, going 12-9 while Odom recovered from a knee injury even though 13 of those 22 games were roadies.
However . . .
In Odom's return game Friday, which happened to be another OT loss to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats, Luke Walton suffered an ankle sprain that will keep him out at least a week. L.A. is still waiting for Kwame Brown's return from an ankle injury and Walton, in case you've forgotten, was consistently the Lakers' second-best player while Odom was out.
David Lee is such a ferocious rebounder, they'd be calling him DaWhite Howard in New York if only Isiah Thomas would let him start.
I drove up to the Knicks' practice fortress this morning in an effort to better understand Thomas' reasoning on this issue, because frankly I think he's digging his own grave by continuing to bring Lee off the bench. New York dropped to a season-low eight games below .500 entering Friday night's game against Miami, and the only player on the roster playing well enough to save both of Isiah's jobs is being unnecessarily held down for no good reason, as far as I can tell.
So what is the reason, Isiah? Why isn't David Lee starting?
"He's doing well right now, right?" Thomas replied. "When a guy's doing well in the place that he's at, that means he's probably in the right place. And you run the risk once you move him someplace else that he may not do as well. Right now, he seems to be doing OK, so I think I got him in the right spot."
January 29, 1980
-- ESPN Research