By Jeff McDonald
Four months later, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is still asking for some nasty.
His players say they are ready and willing to oblige.
“A lot of people still see us as the nice Spurs,” point guard Tony Parker said. “This year, I think we need to play like we’re hungry and we want it.”
It is a question of attitude and a question of identity, which Popovich believes the Spurs surrendered in the final four games of last year’s playoff ejection against Oklahoma City.
That “nasty” Popovich asked for and received during a memorable timeout in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals is what the Spurs aim to channel into a full 82-game slate this season.
“Everybody needs to eat some gunpowder before every game,” said forward Stephen Jackson, who often plays as if he’s ingested an entire arsenal. “We need to be more fired up, a tougher team.”
It would be overkill to suggest tonight’s preseason opener against Italian team Montepaschi Siena at the ATT Center represents the opening salvo of the Spurs’ own personal hunger games.
But it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Siena to practice a duck-and-cover drill beforehand, just to be safe.
Popovich’s intent from the start of training camp — which began with a film-session flashback of last summer’s collapse against the Thunder — has been to nurture a growing chip on the shoulder of his players.
“We have to stop saying, ‘Oh, we won a lot of championships and we’ll come back,’?” Parker said. “We have to play with more attitude — like Pop said, more nasty — all season long.”
Nasty lasted for about two games of last year’s series with OKC, as the Spurs watched their 2-0 lead dissolve into a six-game ouster that propelled the Thunder to the NBA Finals for the first time.
“There was an identity theft that took place in that playoff,” Popovich said. “We played like the Spurs the first couple of games. Oklahoma City, I believe, learned from that and they played like we did offensively, sharing the ball and trusting their teammates, and we lost our identity.
“I want to make sure we understand that and get that back.”
Popovich hopes that nasty attitude will manifest itself most often on the defensive end this season. For the 16th consecutive fall, he opened training camp vowing to improve the Spurs’ mercurial ability to guard people.
As the Spurs have transformed into a more offensive-oriented team in recent years, their defensive standing has declined.
In 2011-12, they ranked second in the NBA by scoring 103.7 points per game. Defensively, they were below the league average in both points allowed (96.5 per game) and field-goal percentage defense (44.8 percent).
“We’ve got to do our best to become a better defensive team,” Popovich said. “That’s easy to say, but it’s more about a consistency that we didn’t have.”
A fair question: How can a team that made limited personnel changes, bringing back 13 players from last year’s squad, expect to make those strides?
“It’s just an all-around team focus on being a defensive ballclub,” power forward Tim Duncan said. “I think the last couple years, our focus has kind of been on offense, trying to up our tempo and be more of a scoring team. We want to keep that, obviously. But defensively, we’re going to have to be better.”
As the Spurs proved for a brief shining moment last June, there’s no problem an attitude adjustment can’t fix.
Their season of nasty begins tonight.