- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2005

The Spurs are a throwback team in temperament and no-nonsense style, steeped in fundamentals and professionalism, a reflection of both the head coach and lead player, neither looking to be feted.

Gregg Popovich, the Air Force product, is the straight-shooting figure who has all the charm of a dad inspecting his daughter’s prom date. He looks slightly rumpled, slightly annoyed, lips pursed, eyes fixed, unaware of the camera trained on his form.

Popovich is not destined to appear on anyone’s most beautiful list, and yet he wears his ordinariness well, which is almost chic itself in the age of the preening types.

Popovich has not gone Hollywood on San Antonio, an unpretentious city that celebrates the Alamo and a river that resembles a canal. Both the city and the NBA team are complementary elements, not fashionable but ever proud.

The Spurs are in pursuit of their third NBA championship in seven seasons, which speaks of their persistence and efficiency. Either the Pistons or the Heat stand in their way, assuming the Suns are cooked. These are not the Zen master-led Lakers and, really, could you imagine Popovich being at the helm of a dysfunctional mess?

You do not have to be enthralled with the Spurs, and hardly anyone beyond the San Antonio region ever is. The same goes for Tim Duncan, whose modesty never has quite drawn the applause it deserves.

Duncan is too funny sometimes. In his mind, as it was with Kevin McHale back in the day, Duncan has yet to commit his first foul in the NBA.

A whistle sounds to note Duncan as the offending party, and he stares in disbelief, as if to say, “Huh? What did I do?”

Otherwise, Duncan performs with a stunning economy that is taken to be dull, which is an indictment of dull minds that dismiss his brilliance.

Duncan, two bum ankles and all, is showing himself to be the best of the best, and that includes Shaquille O’Neal, whose slippage was showing long before the problem of a bruised right thigh.

What Duncan and the Spurs did to the Suns in the first two games of the series — in Phoenix, no less — is really no reflection on the Suns. The Suns made a ton of plays in the fourth quarter of both games, enough plays to defeat any playoff opponent but the Spurs.

And to say the Suns play no defense is a mischaracterization of sorts, considering that their frenzied tempo leads to more possessions and shot attempts. An absence of a bench also forces the Suns to minimize their risk-taking adventures on defense.

The Spurs are merely comfortable with any style of basketball, whether up-and-down or grind-it-out, whether the emphasis is defense or shot-making ability. And that is largely because of Duncan, whose impeccable fundamentals allow him to be effective in a wide array of offensive schemes.

Plus, Duncan never has had the need to put his fingerprints all over the ball, as so many of the gifted often do. He never has had the need to beat on his chest, both literally and figuratively. It was as if he came into the league as a wily veteran, all too eager to be part of a team instead of the team itself.

Has an NBA player ever been paired so perfectly with another at the start of his career, as Duncan was with David Robinson?

That dignity still beats in the Spurs, in Popovich and Duncan, and everybody falls in line after them.

It is obligatory to lament the absence of the big-market teams of New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. That undoubtedly is a concern if you are crunching television ratings.

But the NBA could do a lot worse than Duncan and the Spurs.

They come with an implicit message, which is: You don’t have to be a me-me-me, attitude-reeking moron to be a champion in the NBA.

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