Jackson gave Spurs boost while with Bucks

By Mike Monroe

Long before he returned to the Spurs in mid-March, forward Stephen Jackson already had contributed in a major way to the steady defensive improvement that helped his future old team secure the top seed in the Western Conference.

By torching the Spurs for 34 points in the Bucks’ 106-103 victory in Milwaukee on Jan. 10, Jackson provided Gregg Popovich a teachable moment the Spurs coach deemed worthy of hyperbole.

At the time, Popovich declared this was “the worst defensive team we’ve ever had,” a criticism calculated to grab the attention of players he feared had become overly reliant with an uptempo offense that was producing more points than nearly every other team in the NBA.

Since receiving that none-too-subtle reminder of their defensive deficiencies, the Spurs have continued to shore things up in that area. They proceeded to hold the Jazz to 38.2 percent shooting in a first-round playoff sweep.

No team in the other seven first-round series has held an opponent to a lower percentage, a fact even Popovich finds moderately encouraging.

“I think Utah helped us a little bit,” Popovich said after running his team through a vigorous, 90-minute practice Wednesday aimed at keeping the team sharp for the upcoming conference semifinals. “They didn’t shoot the ball very well, and I thought we were pretty focused defensively on what we wanted ? to do, especially in the paint. So I thought we did a good job defensively.

“We want to continue to get better because we haven’t been great all year long. We’ve been basically average, so we worked on defense for a decent amount of time today again in hopes we’ll continue to get better.”

Jackson laughed at the notion that the most productive game of his short stay in Milwaukee had instigated the sort of postgame Popovich rant he was familiar with from his first stint with the Spurs (2001-03).

“Everything Pop says is to motivate guys and to get guys to see the big picture,” Jackson said. “I wasn’t here at the time so I don’t know what the conversation was about, but being back, I feel confident with our defense.

“I think we’re starting to get more and more on the same page, and we’re starting to trust each other a little more. That’s a good thing.”

It hasn’t hurt that the Spurs added two solid defenders since then. Jackson, dealt for March 17, and Boris Diaw, signed as a free agent March 26, have played outstanding individual defense while getting comfortable with the Spurs’ complicated system of rotations.

Always known mostly for his complete offensive game, Diaw surprised Popovich with his ability to limit some of the league’s better post players.

“What I always try to do, on every team, is try to give what the team needs,” Diaw said. “I’m not really coming with one set of skills — ‘This is what I do, and that’s it.’ I’m trying to fit in with the team. The Spurs, when they were thinking about me, they were thinking about the days of (when I was with) Phoenix. Teams back then were really offensive-oriented. I knew coming back here, we needed good, solid defense.”

Diaw’s familiarization process continued in the rugged first-round series against Utah.

“With the new guys, it takes a little bit of time to get comfortable with whatever rotations we’re going to be in or whatever calls we might be in,” Popovich said. “In the heat of battle sometimes you can’t remember things the same way. It takes repetition, and there hasn’t been a whole lot of that.

“They do a pretty good job on an individual basis, but they still have to learn the systems of team defense.”

Twitter: @Monroe_SA

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