Spurs' Fastbreak Attack Will Key Richard Jefferson's Second San Antonio Rodeo

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IOctober 20, 2010

SAN ANTONIO - APRIL 25:  Richard Jefferson #24 of the San Antonio Spurs in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 25, 2010 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Established perceptions and reputations are often difficult to change.

The task becomes more laborious and fruitless when it involves a consensus idea about a sports franchise formed during its decade of unprecedented success.

A few words come to mind, aside from winning and Tim Duncan, when non-San Antonio supporters attempt to characterize the Spurs, and none of them fall in the "flattering" category: Old. Slow. Boring. Cryptkickers.

Uh, thanks?

Perhaps the 1999 championship planted the seed for these often erroneous descriptions of the NBA's greatest ever small-market success. Do these same detractors realize that "dust bowl" San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the U.S.?

I would not even bet a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on it.

As long as Duncan mans the middle, analysts will tend to see the Spurs in his image. He has dissected defenses like a meat grinder since 1997, his game emphasizes fundamental brilliance over ESPN-worthy panache and his climbing age has become an increasing concern for Gregg Popovich.

Never mind that Kobe Bryant will begin his 15th NBA season Tuesday night, even if he rode the pine during his first two campaigns.

The 1999 squad was loaded with veterans, long in the tooth and short on high-flyers known for fast-break alley oop finishes. Even "Memorial Day Miracle" author Sean Elliott has admitted that game tape of that title team, which boasted an average age well in excess of 30, might lull him to sleep.

Mario Elie led a group of wily role players who could have finagled their way into the senior citizens discount at IHOP.

David Robinson and Tim Duncan, the Twin Towers, represented the lifeblood and most of the youthful exuberance on the first ever San Antonio iteration to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

Cue the laugh track; perusal of that roster confirms "old" as a suitable label.

Six players, all of them rotation fixtures, were born during the 1960s. Duncan was the lone Spur born in 1975 or after.

The most memorable line from that 1999 NBA Finals came courtesy of then NBC analyst Doug Collins: "[Duncan's] only been in the league a year and a half, and he's already one of the best players in the NBA. How scary is that?" It was frightful prospect for the 29 other GMs indeed, but it also explains the still alive stereotype of the Spurs as a wise bunch fit for nursing home admission.

Duncan dominated the interior from the moment he first stepped on the hardwood. In his first ever road game, he hauled down 22 boards opposite Dennis Rodman, a Hall of Fame-worthy master of that art. Duncan averaged 21 points, 12 rebounds and 2.5 rebounds en route to runaway Rookie of the Year honors.

Bryant's road to all-time greatness involved a bumpier pavement with some potholes. Ditto for Chauncey Billups, Steve Nash, and some other Springfield possibilities on the wrong side of 30.

The Spurs have rarely exhibited the symptoms of youth under Popovich's stewardship, so it stands to reason that the coach's latest call for his team to run more will fall on deaf ears.

San Antonio Express-News writer Jeff McDonald's piece earlier this week, "Pop Pushes Spurs to Push the Ball," might have inspired some yawns and shrugs. Popovich demands this every preseason, right?

I could spend a decade firing off the reasons silver and black basketball qualifies as a caffeine rush more than Nyquil. There is not enough space available on the Internet for me to refute the wrongful notion of the Spurs as boring.

I can, however, tackle and mute the "old" and "slow" cliches for good.

San Antonio should not plan to contend without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in grade-A form. Two of those guys are 33 and 34 and closer to retirement than a career zenith. No one can dispute that the team's stars are venerable with well-traveled legs; Antonio McDyess, 35, has also been around the block enough times to memorize the addresses and names of all the residents. Richard Jefferson and Matt Bonner turned 30 this year.

Yet, the Spurs will not sniff a postseason berth, much less a title, without major contributions from a cadre of early-to-mid 20-somethings. Tiago Splitter, James Anderson, George Hill, Dejuan Blair, and Garrett Temple matter as much as Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, because Popovich will task them with playing well enough to afford the star trio plus McDyess ample regular-season rest.

Get ready to smash at least one long-held perspicacity. This time, I believe Pop. You should do the same.

The Spurs are going to run more than ever, even if analysts insist the hated silver and black empire wants to turn every game into a crawl that resembles the afternoon traffic snarl on Loop 410.

The Spurs were one of the 10 least productive teams in the open court. They averaged just 12 fast-break points in the 2009-2010 campaign.

While Popovich does not intend to morph into Mike D'Antoni or his mentor Don Nelson, he has encouraged the regulars to seek out more transition buckets. The dizzying output in a pair of preseason affairs, 29 and 30 fast-break points, attests to the new-found commitment to a breakneck pace.

Is it new? The 2005 title team, perhaps the greatest chameleon of the four championship editions, beat the Phoenix Suns at their own game in the Western Conference Finals.

The Spurs dropped 121, 111, 102, 106 and 101 points in a quick ouster of the NBA's fun-and-gun darlings. D'Antoni never again confused San Antonio's hoops outfit for a molasses manufacturing company.

"Their small lineup killed us," D'Antoni told then Express-News beat writer Johnny Ludden. Brent Barry, Ginobili, Parker, and others excelled in fast-break situations.

Fast forward to 2010, and the latest Duncan-led unit figures to pull off a lot more open-court drive-bys. The success of the front office's expensive acquisition from a year ago, Richard Jefferson, depends on how much this team can run.

His arrival was supposed to inject a decrepit roster with athleticism and a championship-level spark; instead, he averaged career-lows in 36 minutes of inconsistent action. On some nights, he was the dunking, jumping and running influence R.C. Buford imagined two Junes ago; on others, he needed GPS assistance just to find his sneakers.

The popular theory: A forward who made his living on the break could not fit in a half-court system. The established Spurs, not Jefferson, need to prove that wrong. The time has come to tweak a culture and smash a perception.

The team also needs to flex that familiar defensive muscle more than once a week. The Spurs, though, can afford to surrender a few more points if they compensate with an up-tempo offense.

Do not expect the sudden installation of the seven-seconds-or-less scheme. Popovich has supervised four championship runs because he demands that his players think before they shoot.

San Antonio may not become Golden State part two, but the on-court product should also not remind of 1999. Fans will not long for the "boring" days again, but they will also not request pillows and blankets each time the Spurs take the floor.

Popovich needs his players to adapt to Jefferson's running ways, not the other way around. Better use of the athletes on this roster should bump up his much-maligned scoring average by three or four.

The Spurs do not need Jefferson to approximate his New Jersey totals to contend, but constancy is essential. If his teammates want a more consistent Jefferson, they must give him more opportunities to do what he does best: pour in transition points.

The man can still dunk a basketball. A step too slow to make an impact? Please.

The four-year, near $38 million deal Jefferson signed this summer, after a surprise decision to opt out of $15 million in guaranteed money July 1, will not make any economic sense if the Spurs just trudge along.

All of the individual workouts in the world cannot change that. Among the players expected to crack the rotation, only Duncan and McDyess are seen as half-court cement.

Hill, Ginobili, Blair, Splitter, Parker, Gary Neal, Temple and Bonner can get up the floor in a hurry. The Red Rocket will not catch any alley-oop passes after steals, but even he can spot up or finish lay-ups on the break.

Will the Spurs still try to win a number of 88-83 slogs? Sure. The Spurs need a culture tweak, not an overhaul.

The difference: San Antonio will hope to score six to eight more points in the open-court. The execution of Popovich's command should yield a march up the standings.

If "push it" and "run" sound like tired refrains, maybe it is time to wake up and realize that rosters and the adjectives used to describe them can change.

This time, Popovich preaches his "speed it up" mantra with sincerity and authority. I believe him, even if most think evidence from the previous decade cheapens the coach's proclamation.

The running of the Spurs? Blink and you might miss it.


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