ATLANTA -- Mission accomplished, it seems.
The San Antonio Spurs made the race for the Western Conference’s top seed awfully interesting by losing six straight games at the end of March, but with Tuesday night’s 97-90 win in Atlanta they appear to have done just enough to fend off the Lakers for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili helped bring San Antonio back from an early 11-point deficit by combining for 32 second-half points, as the Spurs moved 3½ games ahead of the Lakers after L.A.'s loss to the Jazz at Staples late Tuesday night.
More importantly, it gives the Spurs the latitude to lose in L.A. on the second-to-last day of the season and still fend off their rivals for the top seed. San Antonio has three other games to play in addition to that one, and must win all of them if the Lakers also win out. But with three lottery teams on the slate -- home games against Utah and Sacramento and a season-ending visit to Phoenix -- Tuesday’s game against a 44-win Atlanta team was the most realistic possibility for the Spurs to drop one.
It wasn’t always pretty, but the Spurs took care of business. Ginobili got the Spurs into the bonus early in the fourth with his penchant for drawing fouls, Parker (26 points) riddled the Atlanta defense with his pick-and-roll play and unusually accurate mid-range shooting, and George Hill led a strong defensive effort.
Yet there were few champagne toasts in the San Antonio locker room. The Hawks were undermanned, with Josh Smith resting a sore knee and Jason Collins leaving early with an ankle sprain. (A potentially huge loss for Atlanta if he’s not back for the first-round series against Orlando, a pairing that became locked in place with the Sixers’ loss to Boston.)
Much as in the recent skid, San Antonio bench players besides Hill continue to underwhelm. Matt Bonner and Gary Neal combined to shoot 1-for-10, while recently demoted starter DeJuan Blair continued his uneven play as a reserve by getting rim-checked on an open dunk attempt to end the third quarter.
“It’s better than what we’ve been doing,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose team has now won two straight. “We were in every one of those ballgames and we had some bad decision-making down the stretch in those games. It’s a fine line, but the focus is there, the aggressiveness is there. Tonight, I thought the decision-making was better.”
“We’ve been better than this,” Ginobili said. “This is a totally different season than the eight I played before, where we started slow, started building and finished really strong. This year we started great and had games 41 through 60 where we played unbelievable, [but] we were a little shaky the last couple weeks. We’re optimistic, we believe we have a shot, but I don’t feel like we’re playing our best basketball right now.”
For now, they’ll take it. While they know the top seed is little consolation if they can’t raise their games to the Lakers’ level, San Antonio’s vets have also seen enough playoff action to know the importance of a seventh game at home -- most notably in the title-clinching game of the 2005 Finals.
“Everybody talks about it every year,” Popovich said. “We’ve had it and won, and had it and lost. The best team usually ends up winning.”
And with all that said, Pop had one more thought …
“Nobody would turn it down.”