Spurs head into playoffs slumping
It's been a rough last month for the San Antonio Spurs heading into the playoffs.
San Antonio enters its first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers having lost three straight and seven of 10. Injuries limited Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in the final month of the regular season and the team also waived key reserve Stephen Jackson on April 12 after he disagreed with his role on the team.
It all makes for unsteady footing for a team renowned for its rock-solid foundation.
The Spurs and Lakers open their seven-game series on Sunday in San Antonio.
''We haven't been good defensively for the last however many games,'' Spurs forward Tim Duncan said. ''Hopefully, our focus coming into these playoffs changes; we're going to be ready for it. We're excited about it and we're ready to go.''
A sudden change in defensive focus may not come so easily considering Gregg Popovich has attempted to influence a change for more than a month.
`'We've been emphasizing for two and half weeks and it hasn't done any good,'' Popovich said after a 119-116 victory March 16 over the Cleveland Cavaliers. `'I need to learn another language or I don't know what. But, very disappointed in our defensive execution in the last two to three weeks after we raised our stock from being a middle of the road defensive team last year to one of the top two or three this year.''
San Antonio enters the playoffs having allowed its past 10 opponents to score 97.3 points, nearly a full point above its season average. The Spurs' only victories during that stretch came against lottery bound Orlando and Sacramento and a two-point victory over Atlanta, which sat four of its top five scorers in the second game of a back-to-back.
The Spurs entered last season's playoffs on a 10-game winning streak, which they extended to 20 following four-game sweeps of Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers. San Antonio than won the first two games of the Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City before the Thunder swept the final four.
So, will losing a few games entering the postseason help the team regain its focus?
''I don't think it's the best formula,'' Parker said. ''Last year we won 10 games in a row and then we won 20 games in a row and then you lose four. People try to say, well it's the basketball gods, and try to understand, but there is nothing to understand.
''This year we had a bad month of April, with a lot of injuries. I don't think it matters, you just have to go play and see what happens.''
Parker missed 17 games this season, including four games from April 3-10, before returning to play the team's final three games. Parker's injuries included a sore neck, ankle and shin.
''I'm ok, I'm surviving,'' Parker said. ''I'll be fine. I've got a couple days before Sunday. I felt pretty good at practice today so I feel pretty confident I'll feel good for Sunday.''
Ginobili, who missed 23 games, played the team's regular season finale after missing nine straight with a strained right hamstring. Ginobili said he can play between 25 to 30 minutes during the series, but doesn't expect to make a huge contribution in the first two games as he regains his timing.
While the Spurs were plagued with injuries all season, they don't expect any sympathy from the Lakers, who lost Kobe Bryant for the season to a torn Achilles.
''There's no excuse now, it's the playoffs; nobody cares about that,'' Ginobili said. ''Everybody has injuries, we're playing the Lakers and they lost Kobe, so you can't worry about that. Everybody goes through ups and downs during the season. Now it's the playoffs, it's a new season.''
The Lakers were able to get the seventh seed without Bryant, beating the Houston Rockets 99-95 in overtime Wednesday in both team's regular-season finale.
''They were trying to avoid Oklahoma City,'' Ginobili said. ''It's normal. (The Thunder have) played much better than us in the last month. We've had a lot of up and downs and injuries, so it's completely normal. We understand why Houston and the Lakers played like a playoff game the last game of the season. It's normal. We would have done the same. It's a great challenge for us. Hopefully it gets us fueled up and we go back to (how they were playing in) January, February.''
San Antonio won 11 straight from Jan. 13 through Feb. 2 and were 20-6 in the first two months of the year. Still, there were signs of trouble behind the scenes, in addition to injuries to Parker and Ginobili.
Jackson, who was arguably the team's best defender on the wing, wanted to be traded or released prior to the All-Star break because he was unhappy with his role on the team. Primarily a backup to second-year player Kawhi Leonard and fourth-year player Danny Green, Jackson wanted a larger role on the team and told Popovich so continuously.
Jackson's demands apparently became too much, and he was released April 12.
The Spurs signed Tracy McGrady on April 16, but the veteran forward is known for his offense, not defense.
What can the Spurs do to regroup defensively against the Lakers and any possible future postseason opponents?
''What are you interested in, the whole game plan?'' Popovich said. ''Big guys guard the big guys and the little guys guard the little guys. Nothing magical, it's just basketball.''