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Spurs and Pistons on Collision Course

By Daniel Strickland on February 3, 2006.

Sean Deveney writes in The Sporting News:

Such is the twisted logic of an expected dynasty that anything short of utter annihilation of opponents somehow feels flat. Make no mistake; that’s what the Spurs are: an expected dynasty. San Antonio took the NBA title last season with an impressive playoff run that revealed the Spurs to be as capable of fast-breaking with the Suns and Nuggets as slugging it out with the Pistons. Adding veterans Nick Van Exel and Michael Finley — former All-Stars with 120 playoff games combined — to the core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker gave the Spurs an unfair head start.

As the Spurs drubbed the Bobcats in their 42nd outing of the season last week, the first game of San Antonio’s second half, Spurs general manager R.C. Buford reflected on the half-season gone by. “We’re 31-10, and in most years we’d be really excited,” Buford said. “But we still have a lot of room for improvement.”

Even Buford seemed deflated by his team’s 10 losses despite the fact 14 other Western Conference G.M.s gladly would have swapped spots. But the disappointment is there because the Spurs, though playing well, did not dominate as expected over the first half of the season.

Brace yourself — because that’s about to change. The Spurs typically save their best for the second half after using the first half to test different lineups and give opportunities to new players. How the Spurs tighten their rotation, sharpen their defense and execute their offense with even deadlier efficiency will shape the rest of the season. That’s how coach Gregg Popovich wants it. “This is definitely a Pop thing,” says an opposing general manager. “He wants his team to lay low, let others get the attention, then turn on the heat in the second half into the playoffs. This happens every year.”

All of that should have hoops fans atwitter because when San Antonio does begin to dominate, the NBA will have two finely tuned machines racing on a collision course to a repeat of last year’s classic, hard-fought Finals — a rematch of the Spurs and Pistons. While the Spurs muddled their way through the West in the first half, the Pistons were the only dynastic-looking NBA team. Under new coach Flip Saunders, Detroit has set up a compelling second half drama — the quest for 70 wins or, possibly, the league record of 72.

Teams expected to threaten the Pistons and Spurs have been mostly mediocre and injury-plagued. The Suns have played well but aren’t championship contenders without Amare Stoudemire, and the Nuggets have struggled without big men Kenyon Martin and Nene. The Rockets have dealt with Tracy McGrady’s balky back and Yao Ming’s foot injury, which have dropped them from championship contenders to lottery participants. Only the Mavericks have been impressive in the first half, finally playing a tough brand of defense — though they must show they can maintain the “D” in the playoffs.

That’s not to say the Pistons and Spurs have a free ride to a June meeting, of course. The Pistons must maintain their first half excellence, and the Spurs must ramp up their efforts — all while avoiding major injuries. San Antonio already has been dealing with Duncan’s plantar fasciitis and Ginobili’s nagging ankle injuries but has remained afloat because of Parker, who has put up two stunning stats as a point guard: He is second in the league in points in the paint and third in field-goal percentage.

The Pistons and Spurs are on course for what looks to be inevitable — another championship collision.

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