While San Antonio Spurs steamrolled toward their fourth 60-win season in 11 years, coach Gregg Popovich was asked if there is a secret formula for the franchise’s almost unfathomable run of excellence.
”Yes there is,” said Popovich, in typical deadpan fashion. ”Get the No. 1 pick in the draft every 10 years and make sure that it’s a franchise player. That’s the formula. That’s how lucky you have to be. You’ve got David (Robinson) for a decade and then Timmy (Duncan) comes. Well, I think most anybody could build around that.”
Of course, Popovich is oversimplifying. What the Spurs have created is a program unlike any other in the league, one built on the willingness of three stars to take less money, band together and establish a culture and a pecking order under their no-nonsense coach.
”Everybody knows their secrets,” Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. ”It doesn’t do you any good, though.”
The Spurs finished with an NBA-best 62-20 record, wiping out last season’s heart-breaking loss in the NBA Finals in emphatic fashion. Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are back for another run, and standing in their way is another one of the league’s most enduring forces.
In his 16th season, Dirk Nowitzki has enjoyed a renaissance, averaging 21.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and shooting 49.7 percent from the field to lead the Dallas Mavericks back to the playoffs. That patented one-legged step-back jumper is as dangerous as ever. He’s battled Duncan for 16 years now, and one more matchup should be a thriller.
”This is a treat for people that appreciate NBA basketball and the history of the game,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. ”And you’ve got two guys whose love and respect for the game is so high and their work ethic and standards are so high. They’ve kept it going in their mid-30s as well as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Here are five things to watch in the series, which begins on Sunday in San Antonio:
COACHING CLASH: The series features a matchup of two of the best coaches in the league in Popovich and Carlisle. The moves and counters from the opening tip of Game 1 will be fascinating to watch, and the postgame interviews of two men completely comfortable in their own skin should be almost as entertaining.
”Those little adjustments with coach Pop and Carlisle, those in-between games, trying to adjust something,” Nowitzki said. ”It’s just a fun time.”
SPURS DOMINANCE: The Spurs have won nine straight games against their in-state rivals. Parker’s penetration has given the Mavericks’ porous perimeter defense fits and generated easy layups or wide-open 3-pointers for the Spurs offense. On defense, the Spurs have Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter and even Kawhi Leonard to throw at Nowitzki.
”We’ve got to pick up our game,” Carlisle said. ”We haven’t played well against these guys. It’s pretty clear from the results and the stats. We’ve got to bring a better game.”
RESTED VETERANS: As usual, Popovich did a masterful job of navigating the grind of an 82-game season and limiting the wear and tear on his aging Big Three. The Spurs didn’t have a single player average 30 minutes a game this season, meaning everyone should be rested and ready for another deep run.
LEONARD’S EMERGENCE: One could argue the Spurs no longer have a Big Three, but a Big Four. Leonard has delivered a career season and is the heir apparent to Duncan’s throne. The Spurs are 54-14 when Leonard plays this season.
”He really made a big step forward in the last two months of the season and hopefully he keeps getting better for the playoffs,” Ginobili said.
X-FACTOR: Monta Ellis. The mercurial guard has reinvented himself in Dallas as a slightly more efficient scorer. When he gets rolling, he’s tough to stop and that may represent the Mavericks’ only chance at an upset.
AP Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon in Dallas and freelance writer Raul Dominguez Jr. in San Antonio contributed to this report.