- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2003

The NBA is planning to trot out its two championship aspirants tonight, regardless of the tepid interest in either the Spurs or the Nets.

At least one of the two old ABA teams is up against an unfair perception.

The Spurs deserve to be appreciated, even if they are where they are in part because of the season-long complacency of Shaquille O’Neal and the injuries to both Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Webber.

The Spurs, thought to be no better than the third-best team going into the postseason, aim to show that good guys can finish first.

The Spurs are a paragon of professionalism, however out of date that concept is in the synergistic media age. The Spurs have no budding movie stars in their ranks, no rap-recording artists and no marketing superstars.

The Spurs are just basketball players, as bland as bland is, which is the principal charge before Tim Duncan. He is the two-time NBA MVP, exciting as that is, just not exciting enough.

Duncan is comfortable enough with who he is not to add a dance routine to his game. Dancing is part of the NBA’s show nowadays, along with other intrusive pauses, the game sometimes incidental to the music, mini-contests, videos and commercial interruptions.

The Spurs are as old school as Gregg Popovich, the coach who cut his teeth at the Air Force Academy. He is a tough-love practitioner, especially around Tony Parker, the 21-year-old point guard from France who sometimes has a tendency to act his age.

Popovich has a roster that possibly leads the NBA in quality citizenship, starting with David Robinson, the Naval Academy product who restores conviction to the often self-serving cliche of giving back to the community.

Robinson’s Carver Academy in San Antonio was implemented with $9 million out of his pocket. The independent school serves students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade and a cause that appeals to Robinson’s noble senses.

Robinson’s work is hardly as cool as a shoe commercial, just considerably more worthy. His classy manner stands distinct in these in-your-face times of the NBA. The same could be said of the other Spurs approaching retirement.

Popovich dusted off the cobwebs accumulating on Steve Kerr before the old shooter hit four 3-pointers in Game6 of the Spurs-Mavericks series.

The development prompted one principal response: “Kerr is still in the league?”

Kerr knows his place, not unlike Steve Smith and Danny Ferry. They are too wise to be counting minutes on Popovich, which undoubtedly contributed to their spots on the bench. Kevin Willis, at age 40, is older than all of them, and still useful.

The Spurs are more efficient than they are dominant, which is either a strength or a weakness, depending on your point of view.

Their proclivity to go into a shell in the fourth quarter is connected to the opposition’s interest in Duncan. His room to maneuver usually shrinks in proportion to the number of defenders in his vicinity and the time remaining on the clock.

The Mavericks took a reasonable chance in leaving Kerr to attend to Duncan, which is the chance before the Nets. Duncan, if left against a single defender, is more apt to beat you than the rest of the Spurs.

The Nets resist the notion that they are again the geographic beneficiaries of the Eastern Conference, the junior-varsity section of the NBA. They profess to be more at ease this time because of their experience with O’Neal and the Lakers last June.

The Nets lack an active 7-foot body to employ against Duncan, though Jason Collins and Dikembe Mutombo both meet the height requirement. Collins is too green, Mutombo too gray.

Mutombo, acquired last August with this moment in mind, is in a basketball purgatory of sorts following a season-gutting injury and a restless sentence on the bench.

As it is, coach Byron Scott and the Nets feel emboldened that the object of their potential torment is Duncan instead of O’Neal.

The distinction is slight in a series that promises to go the way of the Spurs in six games.

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