Counting out Spurs becomes a yearly tradition

PHOENIX -- Those sneaky Spurs are still here. Even after the Air Force retired the F-117 Night Hawk, the NBA's version of the stealth fighter keeps flying on, never picked up by the radar until it's too late.

Not even the third-best record in the tough Western Conference was enough for the Spurs to cast a large shadow on the NBA landscape. The hype had already started for a Lakers-Celtics Finals, and Phoenix was the trendy pick to win the marquee first-round matchup against San Antonio.

The Spurs are jamming up all of those plans, grabbing a 3-0 lead over the Suns and looking serious about defending their championship. Even if nobody else saw it coming.

"I know everybody was saying that Phoenix was going to win, but it's OK with us," Spurs guard Tony Parker said. "San Antonio, they always forget about us. I got used to it now. We just play, and then when we arrive to the Finals it's like, 'Oh, San Antonio.'"

These guys? Again? It's like one of those old Droopy cartoons, where that damn dog keeps showing up no matter how many times you thought he'd been disposed.

It's time to recognize the Spurs for what they are: not only the most dangerous team in the league, but the most dangerous team to the league. They kill ratings when they show up in the Finals. And they keep diminishing the value of the regular season. And they do it through the hardest task in the sport: winning playoff games.

During this run as the NBA's best and most consistent team since 1999, they never had the best record in the league during a single year. They've won 60 games only twice.

This season's squad did little to distinguish itself. Normally teams announce their presence with impressive road victories. But this season the Spurs were only 3-9 at Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Utah, the Lakers, Phoenix, Boston, Detroit and Orlando combined. In March they went through a stretch in which they lost six of seven games (all against teams that made the playoffs).

But in the first game of the playoffs they battled back and made all the biggest plays to beat Phoenix in double overtime. Then they applied a second-half lockdown in Game 2. Friday they put together their best performance of the season, led by Parker's 41 points and 12 assists.

"You don't ever want to say that, 'Oh we're just waiting for the playoffs to start,'" Bruce Bowen said. "That's not our motto here. We weren't playing good basketball at [the end of the regular season]. We would have liked to have been playing good basketball. But we understand, more than any other time, now it's more important you're focused on what you have to do."

It's not that the Spurs are unprofessional. They don't mail it in from October to March. You don't hear about their players getting arrested, or smoking marijuana.

The only admission the Spurs have had to make is that no team can play its hardest every game. The owners who pay their salaries and the fans who buy the tickets might not want to hear it, but you don't get everything every night. Not even from a team as businesslike as the Spurs.

"You can't try to win all the games, you can't play your guys 40 minutes a game, you can't play at the highest level every night," Duncan said. "It's human nature. You're going to go out there, some games aren't going to be played at the same level as other games.

"With that in mind, the playoffs come around, it's great to see everyone focus in and turn it up."

The Spurs have even had lapses in the playoffs over the years. Just to make sure there wouldn't be a letdown after San Antonio took a 2-0 lead in this series, Gregg Popovich went so far as to bring up the franchise's most bitter playoff defeat.

"We even mentioned the 0.4," Popovich said.

Yes, he went there, to Lakers guard Derek Fisher's miraculous shot with half a second left in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference semis, which was the pivotal point in their four straight victories to swipe the series.

"We won the first two, and we played like dogs a couple of games, then come back and all of a sudden 0.4 hits you right between the eyes and you're done," Popovich said. "That was on their mind [Friday]."

And so they responded with a demolition of the Suns that's forcing Phoenix to question everything from its roster composition to its coach. For now, the Suns' top priority is to find a way to keep Parker from torching them. But you know the Spurs will eventually find another way to win. Don't they always?

J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.