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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

Silver Spurs

The aging team is at pivotal point, in series against Lakers and in general. Old-school served them well but may have reached limit.

May 23, 2008|Mark Heisler

There's something spooky going on.

The Nuggets' bus catches fire. . . . Utah's Andrei Kirilenko has to skip practice the day before Game 6 in Salt Lake City to sort out his visa problems. . . . The Spurs have to sit on their plane for 11 hours to get here, take a 20-point lead in Game 1 and run out of gas.

Do you get the impression an Even Higher Power Than David Stern is rooting for the Lakers?

You might think the Western Conference finals opened and closed Wednesday when the Spurs took an arrow in the heart, blowing a 20-point lead in the last 17:31.

On the other hand, no matter what, the Spurs keep playing, as in the last series when the Hornets tanned their august hides by 19 and 22 points in Games 1 and 2.

"We're very honest," said Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich on Thursday. "No smoke is blown. We just talk about what we did well, what we did poorly, what we want to do better in the next contest.

"And then we go play. It's really simple because it's basketball."

Not that there's any minimizing Wednesday's catastrophe for an older team on short rest playing a younger one that had been sitting around.

Sure enough, after four days off, the Lakers took almost three quarters to get back up to speed.

Knowing Bruce Bowen would push up on him, trying to drive him into the Spurs' big men, Kobe Bryant spent the first half as a decoy . . . and decoyed himself right out of the game.

Despite Bryant's blithe assurance -- "I can get off any time, in the second half I did that" -- by the time he scored his fifth and sixth points, the Lakers were 20 behind.

It's not easy to come that far in so little time against a team as good as the Spurs, but the Lakers did -- with an ease that must truly worry the Spurs.

Barely had San Antonio finished its 15-2 spurt to go up, 65-45, when the Lakers scored 14 points in a row -- in 2:57 -- making it a game without exhausting themselves in the process.

With 7:35 left, Bowen's three-point basket gave San Antonio an 81-75 lead.

The Spurs didn't score again until only 1:22 remained, while the Lakers scored 10.

Now the Lakers are up to speed, Bryant has a better feel for the Spurs' defense and, as Popovich himself acknowledged, "We worry about energy coming back."

Of course, people bring up the Spurs' age whenever they lose. Manu Ginobili mentioned it Thursday and he's a Spur.

"When we win, we're the experienced team and when we lose, we're older than dirt," said Popovich.

"It's just silly. You either win or you lose. People have to have reasons why, I guess."

He's right. If the Spurs lose, it won't be because they're older than the Lakers. It'll be because they're not as good.

Nevertheless, the Spurs are really old and have been trying to bring in younger players for years.

Of course, it's not easy finding young players who can compete at their level.

This season's additions were Kurt Thomas, 35, and Ime Udoka, 30.

Actually, with nine of 10 rotation players 30 or older -- and five 35 or older -- the Spurs may be the oldest team ever to go this deep in the playoffs.

(The average age of the 1968-69 Celtics' rotation players who won Bill Russell's last title after finishing No. 4 in the East was 31. The 11 Spurs who played in Game 1 averaged 33.)

Whether the Spurs' time has come or not, they'll be remembered not only for their excellence but their professionalism.

The Spurs are so Old School, it's more like they were transported here from an earlier time.

On Thursday, someone asked Tim Duncan about the Lakers "public" summer, a polite reference to Bryant's meltdown.

"Do you know any of our issues?" asked Duncan.

"No," said the reporter.

"Exactly," said Duncan. " . . . Although we could be more exciting and get into a little more trouble, we're not. We're just not."

Sneered at by the national press as bores, ratings-killers and cheap-shot artists, the Spurs don't talk about disrespect, embrace conspiracy theories or trade barbs.

Popovich didn't reply when Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said their first title had an "asterisk" after the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.

The Spurs' next three titles came after 82-game seasons, presumably lifting the taint, not to mention giving them four to the Lakers' three in that span.

Popovich wouldn't even rise to the bait in a 2006 series against Dallas when owner Mark Cuban called the Riverwalk "that ugly-ass, muddy-watered thing."

Replied Popovich: "After one margarita, I don't know what's in the river."

Cuban was also fined for haranguing referees -- after which the Mavericks won the series with the aid of highly favorable calls at the end of Games 3 and 7.

Setting a standard for sportsmanship that stands alone in NBA annals, Popovich didn't utter a peep about it, during the series or since.

Showing how desperate the times are, Popovich actually lodged a complaint about officials in the last series, not to mention hacking Shaquille O'Neal and any other 50% free-throw shooter who wandered in his sights this postseason.

Any way you put it, the Spurs are at a crossroads, in this series and in general.

Spurs to the end, they'll definitely show up tonight.

Now to see how close this Old School is to letting out.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

An old topic

Of the 11 San Antonio Spurs players who played in Game 1, 10 were 30 years old or older. Tony Parker, 26, is the youngest player on a roster that has an average age of 33.

*--* Age PLAYER, POSITION 37 Robert Horry, forward 36 Bruce Bowen, forward 36 Brent Barry, guard 35 Michael Finley, guard-forward 35 Kurt Thomas, forward-center *--*

*--* Age PLAYER, POSITION 33 Fabricio Oberto, center 33 Jacque Vaughn, guard 32 Tim Duncan, forward-center 30 Manu Ginobili, guard 30 Ime Udoka, forward *--*

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