Spurs sweating defensive breakdowns

By Jeff McDonald

Before Spurs players could hit the court Wednesday for their longest practice of the season — a 2 1/2-hour marathon in preparation for Friday’s game at Dallas — they first had to sit through the horror film that was their 110-80 loss at Miami two nights earlier.

In between, players discussed summer vacation plans — namely, how long they hoped to put them off.

“The way we are playing now, it will be a quick exit in the playoffs,” point guard Tony Parker said. “We need to forget about our record and go back to playing good Spurs basketball.”

Throughout the franchise’s championship past, the term “good Spurs basketball” has been synonymous with “playing some semblance of defense.”

That was the emphasis Wednesday, and it will continue to be during the season’s final month for the Spurs, who are trending downward defensively at the precise moment they’d hoped to be hitting their stride.

With 15 games left, and a seven-game lead in the loss column on Dallas and the L.A. Lakers, the Spurs (54-13) appear a shoo-in for a No. 1 playoff seed. How far they go with the top slot, coach Gregg Popovich said, will be largely tied to the strides they make — or don’t — on defense.

During the past five games, the league-leading Spurs have allowed teams to shoot 47.7 percent and average 104.6 points, numbers that rank in the bottom third of the league. This month, the Spurs have posted three losses to probable playoff teams by a combined 62 points.

“We’re not as good in that area as we used to be,” Popovich said. “We’re still struggling and trying to get better.”

Of the past nine NBA champions, only one — the 2005-06 Miami Heat — finished the season worse than sixth in field-goal percentage defense. Coming into Wednesday, the Spurs were tied with Dallas and Philadelphia for 10th.

After Wednesday’s epic practice and film session, veteran center Antonio McDyess attributed the team’s defensive woes to “a lack of communication, getting back on defense, assignments where we’re supposed to be someplace and we’re kind of off.”

“Going into the playoffs you have to be more focused,” McDyess said. “In the last four or five games, like Pop said, we lost focus on a lot of things.”

Ironically, the Spurs’ communication breakdown could be rooted, at least partially, in a personnel move designed to improve defensive consistency.

Four games ago, Popovich installed McDyess, a 14-year pro, as his starting center in place of second-year big man DeJuan Blair.

“As we get closer to playoff time, theoretically, I want to start the games with a bit more experience on the defensive end of the court, a little bit more size,” Popovich said. “We’ve been saving McDyess’ minutes all year for the stretch run and the playoffs.

“It might work, it might not, but it seems logical.”

Not only did the lineup shift produce a new combination among the starting frontline, it left Blair and Matt Bonner — two players who haven’t spent much time on the court together this season — paired on the second unit.

In four games since the switch, the Spurs have surrendered 110, 107, 103 and 104 points. Monday, Miami’s Chris Bosh had a good deal of his 30 points at the expense of Blair and Bonner.

“Some of the guys are not in sync with each other,” McDyess said. “I don’t think we’ve seen Matt and DeJuan playing a lot with each other this year. We’re trying to get them used to playing together.”

In light of the lineup changes, perhaps the Spurs’ defense needed to take a step back to readjust before it could take a step forward.


“That’s no excuse against Miami,” Parker said. “Our defense was terrible.”

The Spurs have exactly one month to iron out the kinks. The postponement of their vacation plans depends on it.

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