Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Champions? You gotta believe

by G. Scott 

The 2010-2011 campaign is underway and the Spurs, as usual, are flying under the radar. Most sports analysts question whether Greg Popovich's team can truly contend for a title. In their secret hearts many, if not most Spurs fans, harbor the same question. But for those of us who have faithfully followed the NBA for decades, and remember Rudy Tomjanovich's famous quote - "Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion", there is really only one question: Does this group of Spurs players really, truly believe that they can still win it all?"

There is a certain attitude that is clearly visible on teams that believe, that know, they are on a mission to climb to the top of their sport. It is most often described as a "swagger", although that word is as often wrong as it is right. Anyone who goes looking for a swagger on the Spurs' bench has been asleep for the past decade. This team still undeniably belongs to Tim Duncan. And not only does he not swagger, but any teammate who did would be... well... looked at sternly by the Stoic Mr. Duncan.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing. A quick glance at another Texas team, the Dallas Cowboys, shows just how little a swagger counts for. The analysts picked the Cowboys as a pre-season favorite to reach the Superbowl. But from the first play of the pre-season, there was something missing. All their talk about being the last team standing seemed more like what used to be known as "whistling past the graveyard". False bravado. And now, less than halfway through their season, the Cowboys have swaggered themselves into insignificance. Can you picture the New England Patriots losing a game because of excessive celebration? Doubtful. Can you picture it happening to them a second time? Nope. Teams that are on a mission don't have time for that sort of thing.

So if it's not the swagger, what should we be looking for from the Spurs that will show that they are expecting more than just a playoff appearance? One sign is that great teams win the games they are supposed to win. Too many sporting events are lost when the better team allows their opponents to start believing that they actually have a chance. Great teams don't take their foot off the gas when they get a big lead, because they never take anything for granted. Great teams don't accept that "a win is a win", and they don't see moral victories in close defeats.

The Spurs' opener is a perfect test case. The Pacers have one of the league's most under-rated players in Danny Granger, and if it were a game of one-on-one he might cause the Spurs problems. But as a group, the Pacers are a young, surprisingly un-athletic, turnover machine. They will improve with time, but this season they just aren't in the same league with the Spurs. This is a game the Spurs should win. This is a game that a title contender should win convincingly. This is a game that the Spurs have lost too many of over the last couple of seasons.

If you want to know whether this Spurs team really believes that they can win another title, you can skip the game and watch the post-game interviews. If you hear comments like, "We were a little rusty - but we gave ourselves a chance to win it at the end", it won't matter which team actually came out ahead. Brace yourself for a long season, and a short post-season. But if you hear them talking about their convincing win by saying things like, "It's just one game", and "we just did what we were supposed to do", then maybe this team knows what the analysts always overlook. That it's a long season, and every game along the way sends a message. And that as long as the Big 3 are healthy, they can beat anyone in seven games.

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