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He was impossible to miss. Sprouting from the second row of seats near midcourt, smiling that toothy smile and bedecked in a black number 20 Ginobili jersey, David Robinson looked less like a Hall of Famer and more like just another zealous San Antonio fan, if a supersized one. Like the other 18,796 in the Alamodome, and hoopheads everywhere for that matter, Robinson was pumped to see this much-anticipated series--the intrastate, internecine battle of Pop vs. Mini-Pop, Duncan vs. Dirk, defense vs. more defense--finally under way. � As dramatic as this year's first round was, with its scoring duels ( Gilbert vs. LeBron; Vince Carter vs. Anthony Johnson), surreal game-winners (LeBron, Kobe, Damon Jones--Damon Jones?) and heated, whose-mom-didn't-hug-whom repartee (Kobe vs. Raja Bell), the second round could very well end up being even better, in large part due to this de facto Western Conference finals in Texas. The series began on Sunday with a stiff embrace between mentor and mentee, Avery Johnson slapping Gregg Popovich on the shoulder as Popovich whispered in his ear. Three hours later, behind 31 points from Tim Duncan, the Spurs pulled out an 87-85 win that proved, if nothing else, that the Mavericks can't count on Duncan's plantar fasciitis as the back end of a double team in the post. It was also surely the first time that a semifinal home victory by a 60-plus-win top seed could be considered a bit of a surprise. That was the case only because of a 36-hour turnaround for San Antonio after dispatching Sacramento, and an inane seeding system that led to the West's top teams facing off in the conference semis. As Spurs assistant G.M. Sam Presti said jokingly last Friday night, appraising the Dallas matchup in the wake of a physical Kings series, "This is what we worked all year to get the top seed for?"
The Spurs' hardship is the fans' gain, though, as this series promises all manner of unconventional matchups ( Bruce Bowen on Dirk Nowitzki, perhaps Josh Howard on Tony Parker) and coaching two-steps between these eerily similar teams. Four years ago they could not have been more different: the pound-it-in Spurs and the all-O, all-the-time Mavs. This season much has been made of the retooled Mavericks' being San Antonio North (page 46), from their defensive schemes--"pretty much all the same," says Spurs assistant P.J. Carlesimo--to their coaching staff. In a sort of institutional osmosis, however, the Spurs have in some respects begun to resemble Dallas, circa 2002, as part of their gradual transformation into a smaller, more versatile team.
First off, there is the makeup of their rosters. Where once the Mavs were the international team of record, it is now the Spurs who have seven foreign-born players (to Dallas's three). Then there is the shared DNA of the two teams. On Sunday there was Michael Finley, nearly nine years a Maverick, still looking as if he'd been Photoshopped into that black-and-silver uniform, still nailing his familiar pogo-stick jumper. And running the point at times for the Spurs, headband pulled low, was none other than Nick Van Exel, his quick first step gone but his propensity to pull up from 25 feet intact. And the Spurs' first team? It's anchored by a rare troika of All-Star scorers, one a 7-footer ( Duncan), another a frenetic point guard ( Tony Parker) and the third an athletic swingman (Manu Ginobili). Sound familiar? "This team is definitely like our Dallas teams," says Van Exel, who spent 11/2 years in Big D. "There are so many guys who can go off that you don't know who's going to do what."
In contrast to past incarnations of the Spurs, when the most valued offensive skill for all noncenters was a good entry pass into the post, this team is a slashing, penetrating squad--sort of like those old Mavs teams of Finley and Van Exel, Nowitzki and Nash. Duncan is still their fulcrum, but the offense doesn't always begin and end in his hands. "They do a lot more cutting and you can't blame them, because they're so damn fast," says Kings assistant Pete Carril. "Parker's fast, Ginobili's fast, [Brent] Barry's fast. Who the hell is slow on their team?" Perhaps the best evidence of this change in tempo is that, for the first time since 1997--98, a Spur other than Duncan led the team in scoring (Parker, at 18.9 points per game).
In this team comparison Parker would play the role of Steve Nash, the Mav turned Sun. Though Parker is no MVP candidate--yet--he's becoming more Nash-like. Both are small, quick point guards who use their dribble to probe the defense. (Both also have a history of dating beautiful actresses, but that's for another story.) This season Parker has even added a jumper that, fittingly, is modeled on Nash's. As it turns out, his retooled shot is one of the keys to this series.
Last summer, after years of watching opponents back off Parker in the playoffs, the Spurs brought in shooting coach Chip Engelland, who has worked with Grant Hill and Steve Kerr, among others. He noticed that Parker's form was exemplary on his one-handed runners and tear drops. On his jumper, however, Parker held the ball differently, with his right hand slightly higher on the ball. Beginning in training camp, Engelland totally reconstructed Parker's shot, moving his right hand down, his right thumb out to widen his grip, slowing down his motion and even changing his release point. "He was shooting back over his head, so his shot was flat," says Engelland. "We moved it in front so now it's more up through here"--he mimics the classic out-of-the-phone-booth wrist snap--"and out."
For an image of the ideal form, he brought in pictures of Nash, whom he considered Parker's closest model because of his size. (He also considers Nash the paragon of elbow-in, classic jump shooting.) Eventually Parker's J began to improve; he was getting more backspin, and his line drives were turning into baby parabolas. By midseason even the exacting Popovich was impressed. Parker ended the season shooting 54.8%, which ranked him third in the league, the highest a point guard has finished since the Warriors' Butch Beard in '74-75. Next season, says Engelland, comes the overhaul of Parker's three-point shot.
As much as Parker's offense has improved, though, his first duty--the first duty of any Spur, for that matter, at the risk of being benched--is D. Popovich's defensive principles remain the same, but the strategy has changed some the last few years out of necessity. Once predicated on the concept of dual shot blockers, the Spurs are now more willing to go small. Example A: Nazr Mohammed. After starting the last 30 games this season, Mohammed didn't play at all in Game 5 against the Kings. The day before Game 1 against Dallas, the coaching staff met and debated whom to start at center. One contingent favored Robert Horry, arguing that the team should start its best players, regardless of position. Another wanted the interior presence of Mohammed or Rasho Nesterovic. As is his habit, Popovich sat back and listened, then made a decision. (He went small with Horry, to positive effect.)
This is how San Antonio operates: Everyone's opinion is valued, but in the end only one man's matters. It's part of what could be termed the San Antonio Way, a Spurs-centric style of leadership that is spreading throughout the league. Just as Popovich came from a line of Larry Brown disciples (who in turn came from a line of Dean Smith disciples), so too has he mentored a generation of basketball minds. Coach of the Year winner Johnson has the highest profile, but the diaspora includes Mike Brown and Danny Ferry in Cleveland; Mario Elie, a well-regarded assistant in Golden State; Joe Prunty, a former Spurs scout who is now on Johnson's bench; and even former Spurs video coordinator Will Voigt, the new coach of the ABA's Vermont Frost Heaves, who are owned by SI writer Alex Wolff.
The San Antonio system is based on three tenets: No player is above the others; the coach has complete command; defense is all-important. Van Exel calls the Spurs "the New England Patriots of basketball," while former Spur Malik Rose, now stranded in Knicksville, says, "A lot of it starts with Pop, but it's also Tim. When your best player is your hardest worker, that means a lot."