By PAUL NEWBERRY, Associated Press
As this lockout-condensed NBA season winds down, with its rat-a-tat schedule and heightened sense of urgency, look who's sitting on top in the West.
That Over-The-Hill Gang in San Antonio.
No, it's not Kevin Durant and those young gunners from Oklahoma City.
Nor Kobe Bryant and that perennial Lakers powerhouse.
Not even the new power couple in Los Angeles, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
Yep, the Spurs — who just keep chugging along no matter how much the hairlines recede (Manu Ginobili, meet George Costanza) and the years keep falling off the calendar.
They tend to get lost, way down in the heart of Texas, but it's time — past time, actually — for everyone to recognize this franchise for what it is: one of the greatest dynasties in not just the NBA, but all of sports.
The Spurs never seem to get top billing on the marquee, and this year is no different. While everyone keeps oohing and aahing over Miami's Big Three and Chicago's MVP and Oklahoma City's staggering array of 20-something talent, the Spurs simply do what they always do.
Win, win, win.
And, when the regular season is done, they'll be the team sitting atop the standings.
"They've been hanging banners for a reason," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro — a former Spur himself — marveled Tuesday night. "Everyone falls into place with the culture and history they have there."
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Co. have put together another sterling record — this will be their 15th season with a winning percentage of at least .610 — and wrapped up the top seed in the Western Conference with a couple of games to spare.
Sorry, LeBron James and Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant, all of you championship worthy, but the perfect capper to this imperfect of seasons would be San Antonio celebrating its fifth NBA title.
They deserve it.
"They're all pulling in the same direction," Del Negro continued. "If you don't, you're not going to be there. It's been like that for years."
Just a year ago, the Spurs appeared to be teetering on the brink, their amazing run about to be done in by Father Time. They had finished with the best record in the West, only to be ousted in a first-round stunner by another of those up-and-coming teams, the Memphis Grizzlies, that have been nipping at their heels for years.
After going down in six games, even Parker, it seemed, was ready to concede the end was actually here. He went home to France and gave journalists in his native language a quote that was converted into English this way: "We will always have a good team but can no longer say we're playing for a championship."
Now, maybe something was lost in translation, but Parker didn't exactly deny saying something to that effect when he got back to Texas. And, really, no one could really blame him for expressing that sort of sentiment.
Duncan turned 36 on Wednesday. Ginobili isn't far behind, his 35th birthday just a few months away. Parker is the spring chicken of the bunch, but even he is less than a month away from turning 30.
Well, surprise, surprise. For anyone who thought these ol' geezers couldn't possibly stay on top, Gregg Popovich pulled off perhaps his greatest coaching job yet.
He pushed back the start of Duncan's offseason training regimen by a month, so he'll be fresher for the postseason. He switched from morning to afternoon practices, so his geriatric bunch could sleep in. Most notably, he rested his Big Three en masse at crucial points, not concerned about losing a game or even home court, his eyes always focused on the prize they hand out at the end.
Pop — a most appropriate nickname for any of these guys — was absolutely determined to take his aging team into the postseason with everyone as healthy as possible, which really hasn't happened since San Antonio's last championship in 2007.
It looks as if he got his way.
"We're a little bit older than most," Popovich said, "so we've always put a big emphasis on rest to make sure we have our energy and try to stay healthy."
Never mind the angry letter he got from a fan in Portland, who complained about paying for a full-priced ticket but being denied the chance to see a full-strength Spurs. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili all sat out a game against the Trail Blazers.
"I understand totally," Popovich said. "I would feel a little shorted if I went to watch Miami play and LeBron and Dwyane (Wade) weren't playing, and they were resting. It's a natural human reaction, totally understandable. But I have a different priority, a different responsibility. That rules for me."
Clearly, he hasn't forgotten what happened in 2011, when Ginobili sprained his right elbow and played the Grizzlies wearing a bulky brace, a mere shell of himself.
"Last year was a huge disappointment to us," Popovich said recently. "To win 60 games and then basically lose Manu on the last game of the year, when should I have sat him? I don't know. I'll ask myself that forever probably."
Actually, the perception of this team — everyone carries AARP cards and stops off for the Early Bird Special on the way to the arena — is a bit of a misnomer. The Spurs began the season with their youngest roster in the Duncan era, including seven players who had no more than three years of NBA experience.
The Spurs got a bit older late in the season, but trading for Stephen Jackson at the trade deadline and signing Boris Diaw after he was cut by Charlotte were vintage moves by the Spurs. Jackson had previously played in San Antonio, so he had no trouble fitting in. Diaw had played with Parker on the French national team, so that was another easy transition.
For good measure, the Spurs also signed Australian point guard Patrick Mills, who played in China during the lockout.
All played valuable roles down the stretch.
All could be even more valuable in the playoffs.
"They've made some great acquisitions," Atlanta Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "Had they not made all these changes, I don't know where they would be record-wise."
Chances are, they would've found a way to be right where they are now.
A team deserving of another championship.
AP Sports Writer Paul J. Weber in San Antonio contributed to this report.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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