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Friday, May 18, 2007
Classy? Dirty? Boring? Spurs have heard it all now

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- You can call his players dirty.

You can make reaching comparisons between his team and yesteryear's Oakland Raiders because of the color schemes they share.

You can even tell Gregg Popovich that the San Antonio Spurs would not be one win away from winning a second-round series as big as the NBA Finals if the league office wasn't helping them out so much.

Gregg Popovich
Some would argue the Spurs are getting all of the major calls.

The Spurs' salty coach won't bother trying to stop you.

"I'd do it, too, if I had your job," Pop says, jabbing lightly at his media audience because he knows we "need stories."

Deep down, or maybe even not so deep, you suspect that all this Spurs-dissing does bother him. It has to. This organization has displayed a serial lack of interest in chasing style points over the years, but the Spurs do cherish their reputation as classy champions.

Put another way: Content as the Spurs were for so long to have virtually no image, it really will leave a wound in South Texas if they're now saddled with a tarnished image.

However …

You don't have to go too deep into the Spurs' playbook to find the instructions about scoffing at the public discourse. Under any circumstances.

"We don't worry about things we can't control here," Bruce Bowen said on the eve of Friday's Game 6, well aware that his tangles with Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash are what got the anti-Spurs bandwagon rolling faster than ever.

"You always want to be respected for what you do. But if we don't get that, there's nothing you can do about it. I really don't pay that much attention to it.

"As far as 'villains,' it's just so funny to me, because I never thought we could be labeled like that. But you can't control what people write or say about you."

You can complain, actually, but Popovich simply won't allow it.

During games? That's something else. The Spurs are still legendary for, uh, pleading their cases to referees.

But when the games are over? Popovich has often said that they can't protest anything else too loudly when they've had "more good fortune than any other team in the doggone league." Which is a valid point for a franchise that has made two trips to the lottery since 1989 and came away with the No. 1 pick twice, first to draft David Robinson, then to take Tim Duncan.

Steve Nash
From Bowen to Horry to Parker's head, Nash has had it rough.

It would appear that fortune smiled big-time on the Spurs again this week, when Robert Horry rerouted Nash into the scorer's table late in Game 4 with the sort of body check that Nash's Canadian countrymen know well. The chaos that ensued, as you might have heard, earned Phoenix's Stoudemire and Boris Diaw one-game suspensions for leaving the bench, with Horry's two-game ban serving as the only Spurs penalty.

So loud was the ensuing national outcry that longtime San Antonio Express-News columnist/Spurs historian Buck Harvey wondered whether San Antonio's Game 5 victory would wind up with a bigger asterisk than the one Phil Jackson famously affixed to the Spurs' first championship in the 1999 lockout season.

"The Spurs are no longer the team that America hates to watch," Harvey wrote. "Now they are the team that America just hates."

Yet it's instructive to note that the Suns -- after everything that's happened through five contentious games and even though they're suddenly the closest thing in the NBA to America's Team -- don't just want to force a Game 7 on Sunday.

They want to force us to call them Spurs-like.

"They do a great job of their system and staying true to form, making big plays in big moments," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters in Phoenix on Thursday. "That's what we're trying to get. Mental toughness, being lucky, I don't know what it is."

The Spurs, D'Antoni added, just seem to "believe a little bit more."

"All the time," he said.

That includes believing that Bowen's knee to Nash's groin to clear space in Game 3 and Horry's frustration foul on Nash in Game 4 were pardonable acts in the do-anything-necessary quest to win a fourth championship in nine seasons.

Which also includes living with Spurs-are-dirty talk. Pop will brand it "ridiculous" when someone brings it up, but he also won't expend too much energy trying to fight it.

His most creative attempt so far was suggesting that we're all missing the real injustice of Round 2: The fact, namely, that no one is paying any attention to what the Jazz did to Golden State.

"Neither of us is playing any better than Utah," Popovich said of the Spurs and Suns. "But Utah is kind of like San Antonio. They're boring like us."

A boring story, he meant.

You know. How the Spurs used to be seen.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.