By Jeff McDonald
ATLANTA — As the Spurs hung tight to another surmountable fourth-quarter lead Tuesday night at Philips Arena, the ghosts of late-game failures past began to creep into their huddle.
They talked about collapses in Denver and Memphis, giveaways in Portland and Houston, and two bad finishes at home that built a six-game losing skid.
Instead of running from those ghosts, however, the Spurs embraced them.
“If we don’t learn from that, there would be something wrong with us,” point guard Tony Parker said. “You have to learn from your mistakes.”
Sparked by the kind of fourth-quarter finish that had defined them in the best of times, the Spurs closed out a 97-90 victory at Atlanta that moved them a step closer to sewing up the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed.
Combined with the L.A. Lakers’ home loss to Utah later Tuesday night, the Spurs (59-19) moved 3 1/2 games up in the standings with four to play, needing just two more wins to secure the top spot and home-court advantage at least through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
The Spurs could clinch by the end of the week, on a two-game homestand beginning Wednesday against Sacramento and concluding Saturday against the same Utah team that just helped them out in L.A.
Tuesday in Atlanta, the Spurs helped themselves. Parker had 18 of his 26 points in the second half, and Manu Ginobili scored 12 of his 18 in the fourth quarter, as the Spurs did Tuesday what they could not at the end of March — close out a tight game on the road against a playoff team.
“Finally,” Parker said, with a sigh of relief. “It was a big win for the team and our confidence and to prepare ourselves for the playoffs.”
The victory was the Spurs’ second in a row on the heels of their epic losing streak, but unlike Sunday’s walk in the ATT Center against Phoenix, this one was in doubt in the fourth.
This time, there would be no forehead-slapping late-game turnovers. No silly defensive breakdowns. No Frenchman flying to the basket to deliver last-second heartbreak.
Tuesday’s finish, at least, had the hallmarks of the playoff-ready Spurs, starting with Ginobili.
With the Spurs ahead 65-64 entering the final frame, Ginobili — having scored six points to that point — erupted for 12 in 5 1/2 minutes to help push the Spurs ahead by 10.
The key moment came at the 9:05 mark, when Damien Wilkins hand-checked Ginobili at the top of the arc, putting the Spurs in the bonus for the rest of the night. Wilkins might as well have waved a red cape in front of a bull.
Emboldened, Ginobili began attacking the rim, finding layups and, when he didn’t, free throws.
“I saw they were in the bonus pretty quick,” said Ginobili, who was 6 for 6 from the line in the fourth. “I tried to take profit of it.”
On the other end, with coach Gregg Popovich dialing up a new defensive adjustment at every timeout, the Spurs began to get the stops required to maintain their lead and finish the game.
The Hawks (44-34) were 6 for 17 in the fourth quarter. Joe Johnson, who led Atlanta with 21 points, was 3 of 7.
When Popovich says the Spurs’ focus and decision-making was better Tuesday than in earlier implosions, the defensive adjustments were a prime illustration.
“I think we kept them a little off-stride changing it up,” said Popovich, whose team moved within a victory of the fourth 60-win season in club history. “When you do that, you take a chance somebody might get lost. They stuck together pretty good.”
At a timeout with 2:56 to play and the Spurs up 10, someone began rehashing their fourth-quarter not-so-greatest hits.
“We said, ‘We can’t mess this one up, too,’?” Ginobili said. “We had to finish strong.”
After doing just that, the Spurs — from Popovich down — took pains to reiterate they were not yet in playoff form. There are still edges to sharpen, questions to answer.
“We’re optimistic,” Ginobili said. “We believe we have a shot. But I don’t feel like we’re playing our best basketball right now.”
But neither are they playing their worst, and Tuesday, the Spurs closed out a fourth quarter like they hadn’t in weeks. If anything, at least, it proved all that March misery was good for something.