But the coach knew better times were ahead. "Even in the dark days we kept our humor," he says. "People still joked with each other, we still sang to each other on birthdays and did stupid stuff. That humor helped us stay together until it came together, and that's always been an important part of the program."
On Sunday their fans gave voice to a long, loud roar at the expense of second-seeded Dallas as San Antonio grabbed a stunning 3--1 series lead. After combining for 63 points to win Game 3, the trio of Duncan, Ginóbili and Parker played like decoys, scoring a collective 31 points while their new teammates sliced up the Mavs 92--89. McDyess (with the aid of double teams) held Nowitzki to 17 points, including a 1-for-6 fourth quarter that launched the All-Star into fits of anger. Jefferson exploited his athleticism for 15 points, Blair had seven points and seven rebounds in 12 minutes, and Hill dropped in 29 after shooting just 8 for 25 through the first three games. "It is so easy to get motivated in games like this," said Ginóbili, who produced 17 points and seven rebounds after refusing to wear a protective mask over his bandaged nose. "I mean, how not to? If you don't, it's because you would rather be somewhere else or you don't enjoy this at all."
So get ready for a familiar punch line: The Spurs are once again shaping up as the team to beat in the West. The newcomers finally understand their roles in Popovich's complicated system, while Duncan, Ginóbili and Parker look refreshed and ready—just when they were supposed to be fading away. "I'm not amazed," said Popovich, "but I'm impressed. When I look at Timmy after all these years, with some of his abilities diminishing, doing what he's doing and wanting to win so badly, I say to myself, Is that ever going to wane? I guess not. I see Tony coming in at the end of the game and being aggressive. I see Manu breaking his nose and coming back on the floor."
As many times as we've seen their routine, there is a vulnerability that makes the Big Three endearing and inspiring. Should they go on to have the last laugh in June, they may see that a larger audience than ever is laughing along with them.
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