So the San Antonio Spurs clinched home court throughout the Western Conference playoffs with Monday's 115-82 win over the Kirilenko-less Utah Jazz. And the Spurs (62-19) have a very good chance to finish with the franchise's most wins in a season if they continue their winning ways and polish off the Yao-less Rockets in Wednesday's regular-season finale.
Remember the champs
Pretty impressive. Especially for a team that for much of the season has been the subject of discussion for what it lacks rather than what it has.
The Spurs' coach himself, Gregg Popovich, will often cite what his team hasn't exhibited adequately -- the defensive intensity that is needed for the playoffs. And when I talked to the players recently about a season that could be headed for a franchise record in wins, to a man they all said they hadn't played that well.
That's fine. But I will tell you what they do have, and not what they lack: The Spurs are in a good position to gain their first back-to-back titles. They have three titles in hand, but, like a mirror of Chicago's back-to-back wins over Utah for titles in 1996 and 1997, I see a similar scenario playing out with Detroit. More on that later.
Of course, the reason for concern was well-founded, when the health of two of their big three, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, was at issue. But when I was in San Antonio last week for the radio call for the Orlando Magic, Duncan's plantar fasciitis looked like a nonissue. He scored 31 and said his foot was in good shape.
Then there's one of the league's most exciting players, Ginobili, whom his teammate Brent Barry nicknamed "El Contucion" for his bruised left calf and shin that caused him to miss three games recently. Ginobili has played in the last two games, netting 18 points in 24 minutes in the win over Utah.
Popovich has wisely not taxed his team in the run to the West's home-court advantage, getting everyone plenty of rest in back-to-back wins over the Timberwolves and the Jazz. He has been slowly weaning his guys off heavy minutes with an eye toward being healthy, but he's still playing them enough to be sharp for the playoffs.
As it stands now, it looks like the Spurs will play Sacramento in the first round, and I think the Kings could win two games. Next up would be Dallas, and that shapes up as a dogfight. Despite the Mavs' new emphasis on defense, it's still easier for a championship team like San Antonio to embrace D than it is for an offensive-minded club like Dallas.
I'd see that series going six, with many games going down to the wire. Like the MasterCard commercial "priceless" kicker line -- experience is just that. The Spurs have it. Then it's the conference finals, probably against the Suns, and the Spurs showed in last year's playoffs they could beat the Suns playing Phoenix's up-tempo style.
Then, the likely return date with Detroit, which has the home-court advantage and the 2-0 edge in the regular-season series against the Spurs. And a key difference is that last year's Game 7 was in San Antonio. But not this time, if a date with Detroit comes to pass.
One thing is notably different. Tony Parker is better than he was last year. And the Spurs have several veterans to complement their big three, just in the way John Paxson's shooting helped the Grant-Pippen-Jordan Bulls, or Avery Johnson gave the Spurs' first championship big three of Sean Elliott, David Robinson and Duncan the floor leader they needed.
So here are these Spurs, who have before them the always-difficult challenge of repeating. People want to talk about what the Spurs don't have and their injuries, how they don't play well on the second game of back-to-backs, how their offense struggles at times, how they took three recent home losses.
But now that the playoffs are near, we need to talk less about what the Spurs aren't and instead think about what they are -- the defending champions.
Will Perdue was a member of the first Spurs championship team in 1999.
• Talk back to The Daily Dime gang
Ron Turenne/Getty Images
The Raptor has some fun with venerable referee Dick Bavetta before the Raps-Pacers game.
[Editor's Note: Users react to Greg Anthony's Daily Dime declaring that the Lakers have more than a fighting chance against the the Suns.]
After watching SportsCenter this morning and reading the Daily Dime, I am disgusted! How can people think the Suns are going to lose to the Lakers? The season series is 3-1, with the Suns winning both at home and in LA. The one game that the Lakers won was when Nash and Bell were both out AND the Suns are already on cruise control waiting for the playoffs.
So again, why does one win out of four give people so much confidence? The Lakers will lose and most likely get swept in the first-round series against the Suns. Most of your guys are expecting the Suns to meet the Spurs or Mavs in the conference finals. Can we stop trying to drum up drama for this first-round matchup that is obviously going to be dominated by the Suns. P.S. Nash for MVP.
How many times have the Lakers beaten the Suns in the past two years with Nash in the lineup? NEVER. C'mon, I know you are trying to sell headlines, but L.A. has almost no chance at all in round one against Phoenix. Even if Kobe scored 81 on them, the rest of L.A. wouldn't put enough points on the board to outscore a Nash-led Suns squad.
Lakers better than Suns? Are you kidding?!? There's no way L.A. will get past Phoenix. If there's one thing the Lakers do best, it's defeat themselves. A superstar-driven team always loses to a well-rounded squad.
But that doesn't mean Denver fans like losing. So after the Rockets scored the game's last 11 points to win 86-83, they let George Karl's team have it.
Trailing 84-83, Marcus Camby missed a 20-footer that would have put Denver ahead with 6 seconds left. After Rafer Alston hit two free throws, Camby missed a desperation heave and the Nuggets left the court to full-throated booing from their fans on "Fan Appreciation Night."
• Chicago wore red jerseys and blue shorts from the 1946-47 Chicago Stags team and Orlando sported pinstripe uniforms from its inaugural 1989-90 season as part of the NBA's Hardwood Classics Nights. ... Chicago took the season series from Orlando 3-1.
Toronto coach Sam Mitchell said the Raptors should be better next season because they lost so many close games this season. Toronto lost 11 games by three or fewer points and lost nine of 10 in overtime.
• Utah guard Devin Brown, who played for the Spurs the past three seasons, was presented with his NBA championship ring before the game. ... Jazz guard Milt Palacio missed his third straight game because of inflammation in his left knee. ... Utah center Carlos Boozer had scored more than 20 points in seven of his past eight games, but he was limited to eight points in 32 minutes by the Spurs.
-- The Associated Press
After snapping Orlando's eight-game win streak, count Chicago among the four Eastern Conference playoff teams with 40 wins heading into the final two days of the regular season.
Chicago Stays Hot
AP Photo/John Raoux
Coach Scott Skiles and guard Kirk Hinrich walk off winners after the Bulls defeated the NBA's hottest team, the Magic, 116-112 in OT. The Bulls have won five straight; the Magic had won eight in a row.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Aaron (West Laf, IN): All right, JH ... let's hear your latest MVP talk. Any changes? Simmons says Kobe Bryant (and Chauncey Billups is No. 8 on his list?!), but Marc Stein says Bryant can't win it because he does silly things like elbowing Mike Miller and costing his team three games. Give us your status...
John Hollinger: I put Bryant a distant fourth. My top three guys are LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade. A month ago Wade looked like a home run to me, but he struggled down the stretch while LeBron and Dirk dialed it up. Choosing between LeBron and Dirk, I have to go with LeBron just because he's played so many more minutes -- basically, he's providing the same production for a greater duration.
Four Pacers scored at least 20 points Monday (Peja Stojakovic, Jermaine O'Neal, Stephen Jackson and Anthony Johnson). It is the first time that the Pacers have had at least four players score 20-plus points in a non-overtime game since April 8, 1992 (Chuck Person, Reggie Miller, Micheal Williams, and Detlef Schrempf). The Pacers have done that twice in overtime games since then.
• Elias Sports Bureau | More from Elias
I was on the set of "Cold Pizza" last week, chatting with a longtime New York tabloid reporter who is a regular on that show, when the discussion turned to Knicks coach Larry Brown and whether he'd stay with the Knicks -- and for how long.
"Let me tell you the quintessential Larry Brown story," he said.
Back when that reporter was a beat writer for the New Jersey Nets, he was getting word from impeccable sources that Brown (then the Nets' coach) was leaving to take the coaching job at Kansas University. He confronted Brown with the information, telling him he wanted to give him one last opportunity to comment before the story hit print.
"It's not true," Brown said.
"But Larry," the writer persisted, "my sources on this are telling me it's a done deal, and I'm putting it in the paper."
"OK, it is true," Brown replied.