Spurs will gut it out with less-than-healthy bunch
The new challenge, after seeing Tim Duncan endure a season of countless ankle twists and turns, is just getting Duncan through the rest of the postseason. Getting him through the next series, actually.
As they readied to travel to the desert for Sunday's start to the Western Conference finals, Duncan's Spurs had no such assurances. Even though Duncan recovered from a rolled left ankle in Thursday's Game 6 clincher at Seattle to convert the game-winning layup, he couldn't practice Saturday.
Which prompted some ominous sound bites on the evening SportsCenter.
"It's not great," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, listing Duncan as no better than "probable" for Sunday's Game 1.
"We're in a tough spot," Manu Ginobili added, "because we don't know what's going to happen with Tim."
The tone was downbeat -- even by the Spurs' typically pessimistic standards -- because they do know how much work awaits them in a best-of-seven with the Suns. The Spurs are the consensus favorites and rank as the only team in the NBA with a winning record against Phoenix this season at 2-1. Yet it shouldn't surprise you that the Spurs were privately hoping for an all-Texas matchup with Dallas in the NBA's Final Four, no matter how uncomfortable it might have been for Pop to coach against protégé Avery Johnson.
Reason being: Dallas can't run Duncan and Ginobili (who has his own health issues) like the Suns can.
No one else in the league beat the Suns at their own pace as impressively as San Antonio did in the teams' two wintertime meetings. The Spurs held Phoenix under 100 points at home in a 21-point rout just after Christmas, then rallied from 17 points down in the fourth quarter to win at Phoenix in one of the games of the season in January: 128-123 in overtime behind Ginobili's 48 points.
In their current state, though, San Antonio can't be excited to see these guys. Not even with the Suns short-handed themselves, with Joe Johnson (eye) ruled out for Game 1 and likely unavailable until Game 3. Not even with the Suns forced to play their five remaining starters at least 40 minutes a game and with coach Mike D'Antoni grateful if he gets 10 points out of his bench.
Not when the Spurs can't even capitalize on the Suns' tough turnaround from Game 6 in the Dallas series to Game 1 of this series. The Spurs need extra rest as much as the Suns do, after Duncan -- who is still not fully recovered from at least three right-ankle sprains -- tweaked the other wheel.
The solace for the Spurs?
They do still have a few sources of encouragement.
No. 1: The Suns' only win against San Antonio this season came with Duncan and Ginobili resting. If there is any opponent that can fill the Suns' collective psyche with doubt, it's the Spurs.
No. 2: The Spurs have two premier swingmen (Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobili) to throw defensively at Steve Nash if they like, after Nash uncorked one of the greatest playoff performances in history. The Mavericks tried (and failed) to use size to slow Nash down because Nash was too cagey for young Dallas defensive ace Josh Howard and the even-greener Marquis Daniels. Bowen, though, is a far more accomplished defender than Howard -- one of the league's best, obviously -- and Ginobili is another handy option. So you probably shouldn't expect Nash to average 30.3 points on 55 percent shooting this round, even if he is fresher than anyone expected at this stage of the season. Popovich figures to start Tony Parker on Nash, but he has given Bowen that assignment in the past back when Nash played for the Mavericks. Asked Saturday if he wants that assignment, after his six-game tussle with Ray Allen, Bowen said: "Absolutely. Absolutely."
No. 3: The Spurs know how to take a team's strength away. Especially a team that lacks playoff experience. For all its struggles to put away a Seattle group that didn't have Rashard Lewis or Vladimir Radmanovic, San Antonio can be pleased with its efforts in holding the Sonics to less than four 3-pointers in three of the six games of their second-round series. In the 82-game regular season, that happened to Seattle only four times.
"Besides [Tim's injury]," Ginobili said, "I think we're going to be all right."
"There's nothing you can do about it," Bowen said. "There's nothing you can do or say about it."
Translation: What other options do the Spurs have beyond accepting whatever Duncan can give them?
Admiral Robinson still goes to all the home games, and still looks like he's ready to play, but it's not like anyone would dare ask the stately Admiral to come back for a playoff cameo.
"Can't do that," Bowen said with a laugh. "But let me tell you that whatever we accomplish without David Robinson, he's still a big part of the fold for us."