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Old 01-07-09, 03:48 AM
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Spurs' measuring stick still Lakers

Spurs' measuring stick still Lakers

With so many improved teams in the West, coach Gregg Popovich says his Spurs will have to be better than last season.
Statistically speaking

The Spurs are the hottest team in the league over the past month, but how do they measure up to the Lakers? Here is a comparison through Monday's games.

Team — PPG — OPP. — PPG — DIFF. — FG% — OPP FG% — DIFF.

Spurs — 96.9 — 93.5 — +3.4 — 46.6 — 45.5 — +1.1
Lakers — 107.2 — 97.3 — +9.9 — 47.3 — 43.8 — +3.5

By Jeff McDonald - Express-News
By even the strictest of definitions, the Spurs returned home from Miami early Tuesday morning on a serious roll.

After a hard-fought 91-84 victory over the Heat, the Spurs have won eight of their past nine, 14 of their past 17 and rank as the hottest team in the NBA over the past month.

Leave it to coach Gregg Popovich, however, to pour cold water on any champagne party plans.

Popovich is proud of his team’s resiliency after a shorthanded 1-4 start to the season. He is encouraged by its daily improvement. He believes his team is on a path to be what it was last season, when the Spurs came close to a fifth trip to the NBA Finals.

But with the top-to-bottom upgrades across the Western Conference, he also believes that the level the Spurs played at last season won’t be good enough this time.

“We’re in the same spot we’ve been in year after year,” Popovich said. “We’re just not in the same league with the Lakers right now. That means we have to be more perfect to get to the final goal.”

Ah, there’s the rub. The Los Angeles Lakers. The Great Western juggernaut. The purple-and-gold standard against which the rest of the Western Conference must ultimately be measured.

Even with Tuesday’s 116-105 loss to New Orleans, Kobe Bryant’s bunch is 27-6, tied for the top record in the NBA.

Since their dispiriting start, the Spurs (23-11) have steadily risen through the Southwest Division and to third in the Western Conference, an extraordinary accomplishment for a team that spent the first month orbiting the .500 mark.

But they have yet to face the Lakers on the court since last season’s five-game ouster in the Western Conference finals. They get their first crack at that a week from today at the AT&T Center.

The Spurs, however, have faced the Lakers every day in the back of their minds.

“In the West, you talk about Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and us, and New Orleans and Portland and Denver — it’s crazy,” Popovich said. “There are six or seven of us who are a notch below the Lakers. Any of us could come out of that.”

It is perhaps with the Lakers in mind that guard Manu Ginobili offers this progress report: “We’re not where we want to be yet.”

At least for now, the consolation prize is the Spurs are able to lay claim to being the best team in that “notch below” group.

With Ginobili back in the fold after offseason ankle surgery, and Tony Parker playing like an All-Star after recovering from a November sprained ankle of his own, the Spurs are at full strength and surging.

They are winning with 3-point shooting (making a league-best 40.7 percent), with ball control (they are committing a league-low 12.2 turnovers per game) and, of course, with defense.

The Spurs are giving up 93.5 points per game, the fifth-stingiest mark in the NBA and a far cry from the 105 points they surrendered during their 1-4 start to the season.

“We’re going to have that for the rest of the season,” Tim Duncan said of the Spurs’ attention to defense. “That’s going to be the focus, getting our defense to where we want it.”

If the Spurs can accomplish that, they like their chances against the Lakers or anyone.

“You’ve got to get a little lucky, you’ve got to stay healthy, you’ve got to get hot at the right time — a lot of things factor in,” Duncan said. “If we’re healthy, and we’re on the court, we’ve always got a chance.”

Popovich’s prescription for the rest of the season is the same as always — steady but marked improvement, day after day, week after week.

Over the next two months, he will massage his rotation, decide what is working and what is not. He will pray Ginobili, who Popovich estimates to be at 90 percent health, will re-discover his All-Star form. He will look for continued upgrades on defense.

It is a process not to be rushed.

“Our best days are usually in March or April,” Popovich said. “I think we’re on that same track right now. It’s just that there are a whole lot of other teams who are just as much on track, more so than in the past.”

Part of Popovich’s task, in the Spurs’ season-long pursuit of the Lakers, will be to remind the Spurs of this daily.

Good is not great. Great is not perfect. There is always work to be done.

Spurs' measuring stick still Lakers
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