Feb 23, 2010, 10:37 AM EDT
The legendary “rodeo trip” — when the San Antonio Spurs are forced into a long road trip because horses, bulls and cowboys fill the AT&T Center — is usually when the Spurs bond and start to make a run heading into the end of the season and the playoffs.
This year, not so much.
They return from this year’s rendition having gone a fitting 4-4, the same inconsistent ball of problems that left for Sacramento on Feb. 2.
At 31-23, the Spurs are seventh in the Western Conference, a game ahead of Portland, two ahead of ninth-place New Orleans and facing an upcoming schedule not exactly conducive to making an upward push.
For the first time in the Tim Duncan era, the Spurs are being forced to contemplate the postseason in terms of “if” and not “when.”
When they do make the playoffs, the Spurs likely will get bounced by Denver or Dallas in the first round. That will be the ultimate sign that attempts to keep the right pieces around the core — and keep the core healthy — have fallen well short. Richard Jefferson may have looked like a good move on paper but he doesn’t fit in. Roger Mason has been off. The list goes on and on.
But the biggest shock, and the biggest problem, is that the Spurs used to be one of the best defensive teams in the league, and now they are just average. They are 11th in the league in points given up per possession and they are 28th in creating turnovers (which means fewer easy tranistion baskets). The man defense on the wings, the crisp rotations, the unit thinking as one on defense is largely gone.
Basically, the Spurs have been playing like the AT&T Center smells for the week after the rodeo is in town, something Gregg Popovich described as “moist and earthy.” And that seems unlikely to change soon.