By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist
There's much more at stake during the long NBA season than homecourt advantage during the playoffs. The grueling 82-game schedule is also meant to test and develop the teams' resilience, consistency and overall character.
By these measures then, the odds-on favorite to win the championship has to be the San Antonio Spurs.
Say what? The same Spurs who were so ignominiously dulled by the Lakers in last years playoffs? That was then, and the current edition of the Spurs is a vastly different ballclub.
David Robinson is about to sail off into the sunset, and it's altogether appropriate that at age 37 all his numbers are down. The truth is that even when he was at the top of his game, the Admiral was infamous for clanging shots (especially free throws) in the clutch, and for showing little zest for engaging in the selective brutality required of big men in the paint. However, he remains an effective shot-blocker coming to the ball from the weak side, as well as an adequate rebounder and part-time jump shooter.
Most of Robinson's time is now allotted to Malik Rose. This guy is a coach's dream -- relentless and resourceful near the hoop, a fearless defender and rebounder who always plays with all his might. The difference this season is that Rose can now routinely bury mid-range jumpers.
Another vastly improved player is Tony Parker, a second-year point guard. As he learns the NBA game, Parker has become a dynamic situational-scorer (15.6 ppg) and dangerous shooter. His quickness from baseline to baseline, and especially to the hoop, adds an explosive dimension to the Spurs offense. His quick-handed defense also contributes to the Spurs' already formidable defense. Sometimes, though, Parker can play too quickly -- that's when he forces the ball into crowds and/or forces shots.
If Parker isn't the fastest player in the league, then his backup is. Craig Claxton isn't called "Speedy" because he drinks too much coffee -- this guy can flat-out move and groove. When Parker tweaked an ankle against Milwaukee last week, Claxton almost ran himself into a triple-double (scoring 12, with nine rebounds and 12 assists in only 30 minutes). Claxton is a surprisingly good shooter when he can set his feet, but he specializes in penetrating and dishing, pushing the ball, and even hounding his opposite number on defense. Good enough to run a team on his own, Claxton's only problem has been durability. Now that he's healthy, San Antonio's point-guard tandem can run rings around their peers.
Bruce Bowen is shooting the ball better than ever -- to the point where he's a bull's-eye spot-shooter. Yet Bowen earns his paycheck at the other end of the court. He has been elected to the NBA's All-Defensive second team the last two seasons, and nobody plays Kobe Bryant face-to-face better than Bowen. Give Bowen much of the credit for the Spurs' four-game season's sweep of the Lakers.
How much better is Stephen Jackson this year than last? He scores nine points more per game (12.1 versus 3.0), shoots .451 compared to .374, and also shows dramatic improvement in rebounds, assists and steals. Jackson just might be the quickest 6-8 player in the league -- a terrific open-court player who can penetrate the smallest crack in a defense. Moreover, Jackson is still another deadly spot shooter whose energy and mobility constitutes a decided upgrade over last year's starter, Steve Smith. Most recently (March 27), Jackson demonstrated his scoring potential by dropping 27 on the Rockets
Manni Ginobili is another interesting addition to the Spurs roster. Whether he's finding left-handed angles into the paint or sinking 3s from the outskirts, Ginobili usually sharpens the Spurs attack. On the downside, he can sometimes get carried away with himself and force shots and passes -- and although he has a knack for pilfering careless passes and dribbles, Ginobili can easily be used on defense.
Otherwise, Kevin "Dinosaur" Willis is a capable (if short-armed) backup center, and Steve Kerr is a sharpshooting spare guard who rarely makes a foolish move.
The Spurs have a nice mix of young and veteran players, who play well together, enjoy passing the ball and shoot a high percentage because they consistently take only good shots. Screen-rolls and post-ups are major parts of the Spurs' offensive game plan, not only to create immediate scoring opportunities but to move the ball into open spaces when the defense is forced to scramble. To augment their many offensive weapons, the Spurs also hustle themselves into numerous second-chance points (from offensive rebounds to recovering loose balls). They are active defensively, rotate well to help situations, attack the passing lanes, hustle in transition, and only yield 90.6 ppg.
The Spurs' team chemistry is exceptional, and their roles are carefully defined and willingly accepted. They're a resourceful, cohesive and battle-hardened team (Duncan, Robinson, Rose, Kerr, and the coaching staff have all won championships) with a deep bench. Whenever one player isn't playing well, his sub or another starter can be counted on to step up and find a way to win. In addition to all of the above, the X-factor that makes the Spurs a likely candidate to succeed the Lakers is their emotional commitment to win a last gold ring for David Robinson.
How then to beat San Antonio? Duncan's dribbling must be attacked, their guards must be kept out of the middle, and the defensive boards must be controlled. Everybody on the Spurs (from Parker to Duncan) tends to fall in love with the jump shot, a proclivity that can be encouraged with alert and energetic defense. Patience and execution are necessary on offense -- lots of ball fakes and a willingness to make the extra pass. Limit turnovers, balance the floor, set good screens, play with poise, and pray that the Spurs shoot poorly.
Don't be convinced by the Lakers' claims that they're not afraid of facing the Spurs early in the playoffs. Wishful braggadocio, even by the defending champs, never beat anybody -- especially a team as talented, balanced, motivated and disciplined as the Spurs.
So forget about the preliminaries and the mind games -- it's just about time for the real games to begin.
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."