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Jazz-Spurs Preview

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SAN ANTONIO (AP)

The San Antonio Spurs spent the lockout-shortened regular season resisting the inevitable comparisons to the one in 1999, when they won their first of four championships.

But now that it's over?

''I guess if you look back and compare, yeah, it's a lot like that,'' Spurs forward Tim Duncan said Saturday. ''We hope it ends like that, too.''

They'll find out starting Sunday when the Spurs open the playoffs against Utah carrying their sixth No. 1 seed in the Duncan era. The Jazz, coincidentally, were arguably San Antonio's biggest threat heading into those 1999 playoffs, but Duncan and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich are the only relics left.

Not even Jerry Sloan is still around, making this the first time since 1988 the Jazz are entering the playoffs without their iconic former coach at the helm. Instead, successor Ty Corbin has rode the emerging frontcourt of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap back to the postseason.

So it's not 1999, but it's like plenty of NBA seasons since: Another young up-and-comer trying to finally finish off the Spurs legacy.

''This is not like, OK, you get a sticker for making the playoffs, you get one star and you can go home at recess,'' Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor said. ''We want to compete in the playoffs.''

Competing will be easier with Josh Howard back. The nine-year veteran returned for Utah's final two games this week after missing a month following knee surgery, but he didn't start. Corbin hasn't ruled out Howard reclaiming his starting spot for Game 1 but won't say until Sunday.

That uncertainty is a situation the Spurs know all too well this time of year.

Since winning their last championship in 2007, the Spurs have spent every postseason with one of their Big Three laboring through injury or out altogether. Manu Ginobili finished 2008 slowed by a bum ankle, sat out the 2009 playoffs entirely and sheathed his elbow in a bulky cast last year after being hurt in the regular season finale.

Duncan was also never the same after spraining his ankle last March, helping doom the Spurs to becoming just the fourth No. 1 seed to fall in the first round. For as dominant as the Spurs have been in the regular season the last two years - to the tune of a 111-37 record - their playoff record since 2009 is 7-14, winning just one series.

Ginobili said his fluky injury in last year's regular season finale never discouraged him about the Spurs' chances then.

But he's certainly more optimistic now.

''An injury messes up everything,'' Ginobili said Saturday. ''But this year we're all healthy, all feeling well and playing well. So, yeah. We're ready.''

Popovich took no chances with his stars after sewing up the No. 1 seed. Sunday will be the first game for Duncan, Parker and Ginobili in nearly a week after all three stayed home while the rest of the team finished the regular season with wins over Phoenix and Golden State, pushing San Antonio's third double-digit winning streak of the year to 10.

Corbin, who is coaching his first playoff game to Popovich's 182nd, said he knows the Spurs are out for redemption.

''I'm sure they will have their antennas up. They were one of the best teams last year, with the best record and lost in the first round. There won't be any letdowns there,'' Corbin said. ''They have to be ready and we have to be ready, so we got to make sure we get ourselves prepared to go down there and compete.''

The Jazz beat the Spurs only once this season in four meetings - and Utah isn't crowing about that one. The Spurs, just as they did this past week, kept their Big Three home and let an 11-game winning streak end in Utah for the sake of avoiding injury. But the Jazz still have the kind of lineup prone to giving San Antonio fits.

Between letting Lakers center Andrew Bynum pull down 30 rebounds this season and last year's collapse to Memphis, it's no secret that bigger lineups pose the biggest problems for the Spurs. The Jazz were the NBA's third-best rebounding team behind Chicago and the Lakers, led by Jefferson (19.2 points, 9.6 rebounds) and Millsap (16.6 points, 8.8 rebounds). Derrick Favors, at 6-10, has been no easy matchup off the bench, either.

If the Jazz can pull off the upset, it'll be their frontcourt that makes it happen. But Utah knows the Spurs are in no mood to suffer that infamy twice.

''I guarantee you they are going to try to make a statement in the first round just because of last year,'' Jazz backup guard Earl Watson said. ''And the first game, especially.''

---

AP Sports Writer Lynn DeBruin in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

Tagged: Lakers, Spurs, Jazz, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Al Jefferson

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