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Thursday, December 1, 2005
Updated: January 12, 4:54 PM ET
Winning not enough for Pop

By Marc Stein

DALLAS -- Winning, yes. Rolling? Not quite.

Not yet.

Not a problem, either, according to that famously mellow coach, Gregg Popovich.

This time of year, it's not too much of an exaggeration. After three championships with three different supporting casts around Tim Duncan, and only one of them won with the boost of a fast start, Popovich has coached himself to be as patient as his personality will allow until Christmas. He was naturally pleased to witness Thursday's 92-90 road escape against the Dallas Mavericks, especially after the San Antonio Spurs got throttled here by 19 points earlier in the month, but the visitors weren't at risk for a roasting from Pop even had they lost again.

The calendar has flipped to December, so it's coming. Pop usually unloads around the holidays with a rant that often involves publicly branding his team "soft," even though he never really means it.

Not this early, though. Not with Manu Ginobili freshly sidelined by an ankle injury and with newcomers Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel still adapting to their new lives as role players. For a bit longer, Pop is prepared to accept San Antonio ranking no higher than No. 5 in field-goal defense (.427) and points allowed per game (90.4). That's where the Spurs awoke Thursday in what Pop calls the "categories we usually cherish."

"I have to ask myself if that's unusual for our team, but it's hard for me to make a case to get after these guys in that sense, because we usually are slow starters," Popovich said. "So I'm just going to bide my time for a few weeks or a month, and one of two things will happen.

"Either we'll continue to win and the concentration will take care of itself, or we'll get our butts kicked a few times and it'll give me the juice to go after 'em. But it's hard for me to go after them now because of our history," he said.

San Antonio started 6-8 when it won its first championship in 1999. The 2002-03 title team started 11-7, and then last season's Spurs opened 20-5.

"The aberration," Pop said.

Pop contends that the current 12-3 launch isn't as good as it looks on paper and reels off a string of supposed trouble spots to back up the argument. He hasn't been happy with San Antonio's nightly turnover count (nearly 16 a game) or its weak-side defense and physicality. Easier to see is the Spurs' willingness to settle for playing in the half court instead of pushing in search of easy baskets, compared to the Spurs who last season gave themselves a new dimension with their fast-break efficiency.

Yet he runs through all of that very calmly. If you can allow yourself to play along and forget for a moment that just about any coach in the league would beg for San Antonio's problems -- and the ability to slot in Finley (15 handy points) for Ginobili or slap Bruce Bowen on Dirk Nowitzki (14 points on 3-for-13 shooting) for long stretches -- it's interesting stuff. It's a switch to hear the terminally intense Popovich admitting that, with a group that has to win it all to have a good season, he is forced to keep the grind in mind.

We saw it in training camp when the Spurs only went through one set of two-a-day practices, and we're still seeing it a month in.

Well aware that his veterans know as well as anyone how long the season can be, Popovich said: "These are intelligent guys. It's almost a counterintuitive thing. It hurts you [in November] because you know [what it takes]. When you get to the playoffs, because you know, it helps you. But early, I think it hurts you."

Which might explain why Popovich was so loose before Thursday's tip, long before Bowen blanketed Nowitzki on the final possession, that he readily volunteered a headline for his media audience.

Popovich has gone soft and it shows in his team.

"They know," he quickly added, "that I'm watching and thinking and ready to jump 'em."

• Talk back to ... Marc Stein | The Daily Dime gang

Dimes Past: November 23 | 26-27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | December 1

Parker Pose
Spurs guard Tony Parker drives to the basket for two of his season-high 30 points. San Antonio topped Dallas 92-90.

'No One Is Above Bad Stretches'


When the Rockets hired Jeff Van Gundy to succeed the legendary Rudy Tomjanovich, Van Gundy's reputation as an elite coach won him the opportunity. Only now, in a season expected to put that status up for evaluation, Van Gundy has been reduced to finger-crossing as much as he's coaching. Which makes it tough for anyone to nitpick his decision-making.

In their current state -- best described as openly praying that Tracy McGrady's iffy back doesn't get any worse -- Van Gundy and the Rockets can't prove anything. They're just trying to get back to respectable, having desperately needed a victory Tuesday night over Atlanta to hike their record to a meager 4-11.

"It's very humbling. I've learned that over the years. No one is above bad stretches," he said.

See Marc Stein's full story

NBA Intelligence Report


T-Mac Feeling Better
Rockets forward Tracy McGrady was concerned how his ailing back would respond following the 34-minute stress test he put it through in Tuesday's 100-85 victory over Atlanta. Two days and one practice later, he is far less anxious. 'I feel really good,' McGrady said. 'I woke up (Wednesday) just wondering how I was going to feel, and everything was fine. I rolled right out of bed (with) no pain, nothing.'" -- Houston Chronicle

Bosh Backs Coaches And Management
"And Chris Bosh, apparently like the team's upper management, sees no reason to point fingers of blame at either (Sam) Mitchell or his boss. 'The coaches, all they can do is tell us to play hard. It's up to the players on the court to bring the intensity every night. The coach can tell you to pass the ball, make the right decision, but they can't make the decisions for you,' he said." -- Toronto Star

Read the entire Intelligence Report on ESPN Insider Insider

Getting Kobe The Ball
Kobe Bryant gets the dish before launching one of his 31 shots (11 made) in a 105-101 overtime win at Utah. Bryant finished with 30 points before fouling out in overtime.

Extreme Behavior

Thursday's Best
Tony Parker, Spurs guard: Sank the Mavs with a season-high 30 points on 12-23 FG in the 92-90 win over the Mavs. The fifth-year standout totes a 20.4 ppg average, well above his career 14.3 average.


Thursday's Worst
Brent Barry, Spurs guard: For potentially snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Barry gets this honor. With the Spurs leading by four with 6.1 seconds left, Mavs guard Marquis Daniels hauled in a long rebound and threw a wild shot toward the basket. But Barry inexplicably hacked him. Daniels sank 2-of-3 FTs. But if Daniels had sunk his three (plus one), the son of an underhanded free-throw shooter would have had some 'splainin to do.


Quote of the Night
"I had a good look at it. Give Bruce credit. Every time I touched it, a big guy ran at me."
-- Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki, whose potential game-tying shot was partially blocked by stellar Spurs swatter Bruce Bowen.

See how all 30 who played stacked up

-- Andrew Ayres

Hawks Missed The Point


I'm mad. I'm not even an Atlanta fan, and I'm upset with the Hawks.

First, let me say this: I believe Marvin Williams will be a special player someday. But &

The Hawks blew it by not drafting Chris Paul, or even Deron Williams.

Most of the league's talent evaluators will tell you to draft the best player available, regardless of position or the makeup of your roster.

Exhibit A is always Portland, already equipped with Clyde Drexler, passing up Michael Jordan for Sam "I Am (Hurt)" Bowie.

But the Hawks were something of a special case last June. I mean, look at their roster: They've got nothing but swingmen and forwards.

Chris Broussard's blog Insider

Elias Says

Bruce Bowen blocked Dirk Nowitzki's jumper at the buzzer to seal the Spurs' 92-90 win at Dallas. Nowitzki is now 0-for-6 in his career on game-saving shots in regular-season play -- that is, potential game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final five seconds of the fourth quarter or an overtime period with his team trailing by three points or less.

Elias Sports Bureau | More from Elias Insider

Making Point About Numbers

In his role as Pippen to Kobe's Jordan, Lakers forward Lamar Odom this year has often turned in numbers more resembling the heydey of Horace Grant.

But last week, Odom declared to reporters his intention to average 20 points over the next four games. This did not sit well with coach Phil Jackson, who chafed at the notion of pursuing a numbers quest.

Odom missed his mark. He had 12 points against the Jazz, bringing his four-game point total to 70, good for a 17.5 average.

-- A.A.

Rating The Coaches

SportsNation has taken the pulse of NBA fans about the approval ratings for their team's head coaches.

Right now, Seattle head coach Bob Weiss is about as popular as Enron stock, with 16 percent of the Sonics faithful backing him. But Flip Saunders could be mayor of Detroit, with a 94 percent approval rating.

See the results, cast your vote Insider