- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- He might be the only one in San Antonio to say so, but Gregg Popovich said it Monday.
Pop misses the Lakers already.
Not long after Tim Duncan gave the pat answer about how nice it is to have Shaquille O'Neal out of the Western Conference, Duncan's coach -- who serves as Larry Brown's top assistant with Team USA -- took an unexpected stance.
"I hated it, personally," Popovich said of O'Neal's recent trade to Miami. "I think he's a great player. I think he's a wonderful individual off the court. I get a kick out of his humor. I think he's hell on wheels. And I'd rather have him there and have the Lakers be the Lakers, to be honest.
"The competitive part of me feels like the Soviet Union just disbanded. You don't know who to go after. Obviously there are enough good teams [in the West], but the rest of us are all sort of equal. The Lakers were the Lakers. When you win three in a row, you get to have the status. And I hate the fact that they're gone."
Said Duncan of the O'Neal deal: "It was shocking, honestly. You hear people talk about it, but you never think a player of that magnitude is ever going to move from where he is."
With only three returning players from last summer's qualifying team (New Jersey's Richard Jefferson is No. 3 alongside Duncan and Allen Iverson), Brown doesn't have the luxury of his Argentine and Lithuanian counterparts, who are bringing teams to Athens which have grown up together. Brown's young squad is starting from the beginning, which translates to coaches trying to beat the NBA tendencies out their players. In one drill during Monday's three-hour morning session, Brown outlawed pick-and-rolls and allowed the offenses to operate without a shot clock in hopes of creating the sort of ball movement that succeeds in the international game. After a flurry of shots that came after just one pass, Brown stopped play and screamed at the group: "We ain't gonna get it done that way." Popovich, meanwhile, repeatedly chastised players for complaining about referee calls. "No NBA crap," he said at one stage. "Get used to it." ... As predicted, you would have been sadly disappointed if you were expecting any trouble between LeBron James and soon-to-be former Cavaliers teammate Carlos Boozer. They looked chummy as ever during practice No. 1. ... Popovich, on San Antonio's recovery from the disappointment of blowing a 2-0 series lead to the Lakers in the second round: "Time heals everything, and this is basketball. You remember it -- 0.4 still rolls through our heads once in a while. But that's what the playoffs are all about. That's what the NCAA Tournament is all about." ... Duncan, still not totally believing that Shaq and Phil Jackson have departed, described the summer's events in L.A. thusly in the Understatement of the Day: "The Lakers have kind of disbanded a little bit." ... On the serious side, Duncan acknowledged that "I still have doubts" about the security American athletes can expect in Greece. "But I wanted to go to the Olympics," Duncan said, "and if they were going to [send Team USA], I was going to be with it."
6dScott Burnside and Craig Custance