<
>

Spurs poised for 50-plus wins in first season post-Tim Duncan

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The San Antonio Spurs pulled off the magic trick of sawing Orlando in half with ease Wednesday night by way of a 107-79 victory at the Amway Center, improving to 4-2 through six games of their annual rodeo road trip.

More important, the Spurs appear to have found some semblance of the consistency needed for a strong push to close out the last 26 games of the regular season.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said the two big points of emphasis for his team have been ball movement and transition defense.

"Those are the two areas where you have to make sure you're doing as well as possible as often as possible," he said.

The Magic, who are struggling at 21-37, certainly made accomplishing those tasks easier, allowing San Antonio to reel off 13 assists in the first half, and 25 for the game, while holding Orlando to just seven points off the fast break. But the truth is that the Spurs head into All-Star break in a better place, poised to come out of this quick respite at full strength for the last two contests of this eight-game road trip, in Los Angeles against the Clippers and the Lakers, with veteran Pau Gasol expected to make his return to the lineup.

Popovich said Gasol, who is out with a fractured left fourth metacarpal, will be ready after the break. With Gasol inactive since Jan. 19, the Spurs have been forced to provide extra minutes for several role players such as Dewayne Dedmon, David Lee, and Davis Bertans, and the club quickly discovered its roster is probably even deeper than originally expected.

"The young guys are really coming along," Popovich said. "We have six or seven new guys this year, and they're figuring things out pretty well, and we have a lot of confidence in them. So we've played them quite a bit."

Mash that together with what just might be a LaMarcus Aldridge resurgence, and perhaps 50-plus victories in the Spurs' first season in 20 years without Tim Duncan in the fold isn't as improbable as it seemed at the beginning of the season.

Aldridge started off connecting on just 34.7 percent from the field over the first five contests (33-of-95) of this rodeo road trip, hitting 50 percent in only one outing, on Feb. 8 at Philadelphia.

Against the Magic, Aldridge scored 11 of San Antonio's first 19 points and finished the opening quarter knocking down six of seven shots for 13 points. Aldridge ended the night with a game-high 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting, and Kawhi Leonard scored 22 points. Patty Mills and Dedmon followed with 13 and 10, respectively.

Planning to take a trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for All-Star break, Aldridge considered spending part of the vacation hoisting jumpers to shake the slump he has endured.

"But now, since I finished strong, I'm going to clear my mind and go recharge the batteries," he said. "I just had to stick with it. I played more confident, tried to play my game and not think so much. It just went better tonight. I work hard, and I get in the gym. So I wasn't worried about not working hard. It just happens. I stuck with it, I played more confident tonight and it just worked out for me. I make the first couple, then I start playing like myself, and taking shots that I take. I thought tonight I looked more like myself whether I was on the elbow, going in isolation, pick-and-pop or whatever. I thought I was more of myself tonight than I've been this whole trip."

That's definitely a positive for this Spurs team that, going into Wednesday night, has led by double digits in 77 percent of its games.

Teams often toss around the word "consistency" in discussing areas that need improvement, and San Antonio isn't any different. But Popovich explained how achieving consistency in several small facets of a team's game can make the most significant difference in winning and losing.

"That's the goal of every team whether you've got the worst record or the best record. Golden State's still trying to get more consistent, which is a scary thought," he said, laughing. "But it's your team defense, your transition defense, rebounding, taking care of the basketball, getting more uncontested shots. There are all kinds of areas in a game where you get consistency. In a lot of games, one more wide-open shot, one-less turnover, making a free throw ... all those areas you're just trying to get more and more perfect all the time. That's what we're all trying to do.

"The teams that are a little bit more disciplined, or maybe make fewer errors the last three minutes of the fourth quarter, probably end up doing a little bit better. I am sure there are things we can improve on, and that is the name of the game, just trying to get as disciplined and habitual as you can be when it comes playoff time. That is what we are trying to do. It doesn't matter who you play."

Popovich admitted the matchup at Orlando "wasn't a fair fight" with Serge Ibaka out of the picture for the Magic, who traded him to the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday. Still, San Antonio wasn't interested in achieving fairness as much as consistency and focus, which can often be lost before an extended break.

"It can be," Lee said. "And also, those guys came into our place and beat us recently. We had our antennas up to come in here and play well tonight. I thought Dewayne set a great tone coming back to his own team and taking care of business tonight. He's got the dope outfit on for the game, too. Our first unit set the tone for us tonight, and we tried to follow through with the bench guys."

Added Aldridge: "You always want to be perfect, and we definitely wish that we could have some games back or some moments back to be better. But overall, it was a pretty solid first half to the rodeo [trip]. I think guys have definitely tried to be better, tried to focus in. I think this was a good way to end it tonight."

From Orlando, the Spurs head back home, where they'll take time off to decompress before heading to Los Angeles to face the Clippers on Feb. 24.

"It's great physically, obviously," Mills said. "But the biggest thing is to be able to get away from it mentally and recharge. It's a long season, we all know, and a long road trip. To be able to get our heads away from it and come back refreshed and ready to finish the season off strong, it's definitely good for us."