More than No. 1 seed, Spurs seek momentum

ATLANTA — Sunday’s slump-busting 114-97 win over Phoenix brought laughter back to the Spurs’ locker room.

Players joked and cut up, basking in the end of a six-game losing streak that had begun to wear on all of them.

Leave it to Tim Duncan, the team’s captain and emotional touchstone, to bring the room back down.

“This,” he said, “was a good start.”

Translation: Hold the champagne shower. There is work to be done.

Now that the worst losing streak of Duncan’s career is over, the Spurs must set about the business of the rest of the season.

More than simply holding onto the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, the Spurs hope to use their final five games, beginning tonight in Atlanta, to establish momentum heading into the playoffs.

“We’re just going to play out the season, and whatever happens happens,” Duncan said. “We want to start playing like we want to play. That’s what matters.”

Having already secured their second Southwest Division championship in three seasons, and no worse than a No. 2 seed in the playoffs, the Spurs hold a 2 1/2-game lead over the L.A. Lakers for the conference’s top spot.

Though home-court advantage seems like an attractive carrot, winning for winning’s sake should be enough to drive the Spurs. They are 9-9 since the start of March, with six losses coming during the historic skid that began after Duncan went down with a sprained left ankle March 21.

“You don’t want to go into the playoffs losing,” guard George Hill said. “You want to go in with a happy mind.”

For the Spurs, the next five games are less about seeding and standings, and more about confidence-building.

Coach Gregg Popovich says Duncan’s injury, which cost the All-Star power forward four games, threw the team “off balance.” Sunday’s win over Phoenix was the first step in regaining equilibrium.

“Now, the most important game is Atlanta, because we have a chance to get better,” Popovich said. “That’s what all teams are trying to do — to get their execution down as the playoffs approach.”

Whether a team’s late-season momentum, or lack thereof, carries over to a playoff run remains a subject of debate.

In Duncan’s first 13 seasons, the Spurs won 74.4 percent of their games in March and April. Their worst close came in 2008-09, when they finished 15-10, then lost to Dallas in the first round of the playoffs.

Last season, Boston dropped seven of its final 10 games, then blasted a Miami team in the first round that had won 12 of its last 13.

Conversely, Phoenix went 17-4 over the final two months last year, a string of success coach Alvin Gentry believed helped propel the Suns into the Western Conference finals.

“When we went into the playoffs, we felt like we were playing better than anybody in the league,” Gentry said. “I think there’s a confidence about it. You get to the point where you think you’re going to win every series.”

Gentry, however, doesn’t think the playoff-tested Spurs, who boast four players with NBA championship rings and two others who have played in the Finals, need a strong finish to make a playoff run.

“These guys have been together eight, nine years,” Gentry said, referring to the Spurs’ core of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. “They’re not going to go in thinking, ‘Oh no, we’re not playing well, we may lose.’”

Now in Atlanta and off of cloud nine, the Spurs would prefer not to take that chance. A powerful closing kick doesn’t guarantee a title, but it also couldn’t hurt.

“Going into the playoffs with a winning streak and playing the right way,” Hill said. “That’s going to be motivation for us.”

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