- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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SAN ANTONIO -- They have a 1-zip lead and sit at 5-0 this postseason. They have never lost a playoff game to the Lakers in their new building. They have never lost a single series under Gregg Popovich after winning Game 1, going 11-for-11.
Should be a festive Cinco de Mayo for the Spurs, right?
It's tough to feel too pleased as a team when you just went 9-for-21 at the line against your greatest rival. I wrote the same story almost exactly a year ago, but free throws are an even bigger problem for the Spurs today. As Popovich often jokes, in reference to the two championships San Antonio has already won in spite of its free-throw shooting: "We weren't real good, but now we're real worse."
The whole subject has become such an embarrassment to the defending champs that several of Pop's players can be heard dispensing their own self-deprecating quips, because they don't know what else to say. The latest gem comes from Spurs newcomer Robert Horry, who contends that it's actually rather easy to pick Hakeem Olajuwon as his best-ever teammate -- over Shaquille O'Neal and now Tim Duncan -- because "Dream shot his free throws a little bit better."
The truth, of course, is that the Spurs will only be able to joke about this inexplicable, unforgivable shortcoming until it really costs them something, and common sense says the day has to be coming. They already have one come-from-behind victory in this series, and you wonder, if necessary, how they'll ever come up with a second given how they struggle from the stripe.
You wonder how jokey the Spurs would be if free throws cost them Wednesday's Game 2 -- with the Lakers, at least for the moment, still able to say they're only one victory away from lifting the gloom in the world.
"It's not about the playoffs, it's not about the Lakers, it's not about anything," Manu Ginobili said, dismissing added pressure as the trigger to the free-throw woes. "We're just like that, and we were like that last year. We won (the championship) anyway.
"We can't be talking about it the whole time, because I think it's worse for the guys that are having trouble."
Those guys, at present, are Duncan (21 for 41, .512), Tony Parker (18 for 27, .667) and Bruce Bowen (2 for 8, .250). None of those Spurs is struggling as badly as Shaq -- who's an unspeakably bad 16-for-57 in the playoffs, for a "success" rate of 28.1 percent -- but San Antonio's team percentage in the postseason is .623. In the regular season, the Spurs finished 29th (to L.A.'s 28th) with a reading of .681. By the time it won the title last spring, San Antonio's team percentage creeped up to .712, which looks positively Rick Barry-esque compared to what's happening now.
Yet you can expect to hear lots more humor before you ever see a dedicated free-throw coach in the Alamo City. Popovich simply doesn't believe in the concept. The Spurs' neighbors to the north in Dallas, for example, haven't budged from the top two in the league over the past five seasons since Pop's buddy, Don Nelson, hired a gentleman named Gary Boren to nag the Mavs about their free throws after practice. Pop, though, sees the need for such a coach as a sign of weakness.
He has other concerns, too. He'd prefer not to embarrass Duncan by hiring a free-throw specialist who'd undoubtedly generate more media coverage of the problem. Pop also doesn't want to take the risk of hiring someone who could take the credit away from Duncan and the other Spurs should improvement follow.
Fact is, most of the guilty Spurs shouldn't need a free-throw coach. Duncan and Parker are too talented to misfire like they do anyway. Those two should be able to improve on their own, Duncan most of all. He's not at all like Shaq, who has never made free throws and whose stroke has always needed more than a tweak or two. Duncan is an ungodly shooter who clocked a reading of 80 percent from the line -- .799 officially -- as recently as the 2001-02 season.
This season, Duncan was down to .599.
What else could it be? Especially when Duncan, in the same game he goes 4-for-11 from the line, repeatedly kisses longer jumpers off the window from the wing.
Duncan is feeling so helpless that he has resorted to stealing my material. When I addressed this topic a year ago, my very first paragraph contained the following sentence: "Or it might be time for Tim Duncan to start smooching them in off the glass, like he does on those elbow jumpers, more smoothly than anyone else." Said Duncan, after Sunday's Game 1 escape: "I think I'm going to move to the left and just try to glass it every time."
Good one. And, again, you can expect more free-throw line one-liners. It'll continue to be brushed off and laughed off until it really hurts the Spurs. The only salvation in this round, as Pop noted, is that "luckily L.A. is in the same boat as us."
"I've been shooting bad all year long," Duncan said Tuesday, turning serious. "I come out every game hoping it'll be better."
Adds Bowen, who made a regular-season jump from last season's horrific percentage of .404 to a still-unsightly .579 this season: "I think (improvement is) on the horizon. You look at the way, when we did miss free throws, guys continued to play. Sometimes that can linger and affect their game totally. It didn't happen for us that way (Sunday). ... Guys understand that, hey, we need to take care of this or it will bite us in the tail. (But) it's not something we talk about continuously. The more, I think, you make a big deal out of it, the more pressure it might put on others."
The pressure is going to swell sizably if the Spurs don't emerge from this holiday with a 2-0 lead to take to Los Angeles this weekend. Especially if Phil Jackson makes use of his new defensive strategy to stop San Antonio's best player.
What's that, Phil?
7dEthan Sherwood Strauss