Here the San Antonio Spurs are again, running roughshod over the NBA and putting off their collective obituary for another year.
They're at the top of the Western Conference again, and it feels like they've been there forever. While everyone keeps waiting for Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich to just give up already, they keep coming back, keep fortifying the supporting cast around them and keep winning.
"That's a championship team right there," Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah said after the Bulls lost in San Antonio earlier this month. "They do all the little things. Play together, defensively, everybody's on the same page. They make very little mistakes. You've got to give credit where credit is due."
They've won at least 50 games in every season of Duncan's long career, aside from the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, when they went 37-13 and captured the first of their four championships.
They haven't been as flashy as the Lakers. They haven't been as hip as the Heat. What they have been is relentless and unyielding in the face of a clock that keeps ticking.
Sure, there are vulnerabilities.
Parker, who was putting together an MVP-caliber season, is out for at least another two weeks with a sprained left ankle. Ginobili has been bothered by a sore hamstring for much of the year and they've had more players start a game this season than any other team in the league. They've also had a few eye-opening losses — Phoenix at home, a 30-point loss to Portland and a 24-point loss at Minnesota — in the last 10 days that have gotten everyone's attention.
"We've got to get things together and go back to who we were," Ginobili said after the loss in Minnesota. "Because it's happening too often now."
It's always been about professionalism and precision in San Antonio. This year, there's been some hunger and humility added, giving the team an edge that may serve it well when it tries to end a six-year title drought this postseason.
That much was never more evident than on Tuesday when Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio sliced and diced them for a triple-double in the Minnesota's convincing win. Sure Duncan and Kawhi Leonard were not playing, but that didn't prevent Stephen Jackson — upset with the loss — from scoffing when asked about Rubio's performance.
"He's all right," Jackson huffed. "You know, I mean, I'm into winning championships. I'm not into guys playing all right, averaging 30 and 20 on sorry teams. I'm into winning championships. He got some upside, I'll say that. But it's all about winning to me. It's not about what you do on your personal stats."
A banner hasn't been raised on the River Walk since 2007. As dominant as they have been in the regular season, the Spurs have flamed out in the playoffs each year since then, including last year when they won 50 times in 66 games and won 20 straight through the end of the regular season and the first two and a half rounds of the postseason. Up 2-0 on Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals and looking invincible, the Spurs lost four straight games to the younger Thunder to fall short again in the quest for their fifth title.
Most teams would panic over the summer and make big moves to compensate. That's not how the Spurs do business. Duncan, Ginobili and Parker all returned, with only minor tweaking of the roster around them. Richard Jefferson was out. Nando de Colo was in. Cory Joseph was brought in from the NBDL to help when Parker went down and Leonard and Danny Green have continued to develop into promising perimeter threats.
"They're maturing right in front of our eyes," Duncan said. "Kawhi and Danny are really picking up a lot of the slack."
It's the Spurs way. An unparalleled scouting department led by general manager R.C. Buford does the drafting, searching far and wide for the right players to put around their three stars.
"Our management staff, R.C. does a great job with his scouts showing us who is out there, who is available," Popovich said. "And we all sit down and decide who we want to bring in. Once we bring them in, we do take a lot of time trying to develop them. "
The coaching staff, in particular assistant Chad Forcier, works with the new guys, smoothing out any rough edges and getting them up to speed on the system. And Duncan, Parker and Ginobili set the tone in practice every day.
"The role guys aren't going to get much done if they don't have the real talented guys to play with," Popovich said. "It's not going to work."
It's why a volatile temperament like Jackson can thrive in San Antonio after tough times in Indiana, Milwaukee and Golden State. It's why Boris Diaw can revive his career with the Spurs after being such a disappointment in Charlotte. It's why Tiago Splitter can develop from an overwhelmed rookie to a valuable big man off the bench.
"A lot of the guys have been in the system for a while, so consistency's maybe a little easier for us than it has been for others," Popovich said. "Just good character guys that come out and do their job."
The job has been done in the regular season, over and over again since that last title. And it's not like the Spurs have been slouches in the playoffs. They have twice reached the Western Conference finals in the last six years. But they've also been bounced in the first round twice.
"Main thing for sure is getting players healthy and have the whole group playing. Then being more focused, more regular," Ginobili said.
This team does have issues to overcome, and not just on the roster. The Thunder will be steeled by their NBA Finals loss to Miami. The Clippers are dunking all over everyone. And just when they appeared to be sunk, the Lakers have come roaring back into the playoff picture.
But the Spurs also have a rock solid foundation to stand on, forged over more than a decade of continuity. That breeds confidence, and lots of it.
"We'll find a way," Jackson said. "We always have. We've got a great coach, a great group of guys that know what to do. We'll make adjustments. A lot of guys are hurt, but we've been able to get through that in past years. It won't be a problem."
AP freelance writer Raul Flores in San Antonio, Texas, contributed to this story.
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