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Bob Ryan

High-level meeting

The perennially potent Spurs bring the NBA’s best record to town tonight — to face the team with the second-best record

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / January 5, 2011

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Are the Celtics the Spurs North? Or are the Spurs the Celtics South? Each should be flattered by the comparison.

Root for a Lakers-Heat NBA Finals if you must. That would put you firmly in the majority of NBA fans worldwide. And it would be appealing, no doubt.

That’s not the Finals I want. I want the Finals featuring the Big Fundamental vs. the Big Ticket. I want the Finals with a point guard battle between the elegant Frenchman vs. the Next Great Thing. I want the Finals spiced by a confrontation between the two cagiest combination games of the ’50s and the 21st century, one belonging to an Argentine and the other to a guy from Inglewood who now plays with an Old Celtics soul.

We even would have a meeting between Shaq and mini-Shaq (DeJuan Blair).

The Spurs are in town tonight, and that is cause for celebration. It always was going to be an enticing matchup, but it’s safe to say that nobody foresaw the Spurs arriving here on the fifth of January with a 29-5 record. It is being done in typical San Antonio fashion, which is to say that there are very few Spurs sightings on ESPN’s daily list of top 10 highlight plays. About all they ever get is another somber report testifying to another methodical conquest of another NBA foe.

That, of course, is how Gregg Popovich likes it. The only coaching graduate of a service academy (Air Force ’70) in NBA history isn’t much for on-court histrionics. He insists that his players play the game straight and exhibit proper behavior. One Dennis Rodman was enough.

At the center of it all are the relationships between Popovich and Tim Duncan, and between the two of them and the city of San Antonio. Pop is a low-key guy. Duncan is an even lower-key guy. San Antonio certainly has its charm — college folk rank it second only to New Orleans as a favored site for a Final Four — but it’s not New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or even Boston in terms of media scrutiny and just plain buzz. It’s waaaaay down there, out of the way, often requiring two plane changes to get there. It couldn’t suit Tim Duncan any better.

San Antonio had its own role in professional basketball history even before Pop and Duncan showed up. Under Doug Moe in the late ’70s, the Spurs were a rootin’-tootin’, high-octane team that got up and down the floor and put enormous pressure on the foe to get back on defense. The marquee player was George “The Iceman’’ Gervin, a man who was halfway to his usual 28-point night by “. . . rockets’ red glare.’’ Their one great chance to reach an NBA Finals came in 1979, as they lost a Game 7 to the Bullets when Billy “The Whopper’’ Paultz was called for a bogus offensive foul while setting a pick.

Popovich, who broke into professional basketball as an assistant to Larry Brown in 1987, became the Spurs’ general manager and vice president of basketball operations in 1994. Unhappy with the way things were going under Bob Hill, he fired his coach and replaced him with himself 18 games into the 1996-97 season.

He’s still there.

The great stroke of good fortune that guaranteed ongoing happiness for the franchise was finishing with the league’s worst record the year a true franchise player was available. As is almost always the case with a Mt. Olympus-level superstar, you knew Tim Duncan was good, but you never dreamed he’d become this good.

The first title came in 1999, when Duncan was supposed to be riding shotgun for David Robinson. The truth is, it was the other way around. Duncan won the first of his three Finals MVPs, and the Spurs were off and running. Duncan has been the ideal player around whom to build a franchise: a no-nonsense, no-maintenance, multiskilled player whose only goal is winning.

Tony Parker arrived in 2001 as the last player chosen in the first round. The French-born guard was taken just after Jamaal Tinsley and seven spots behind Boston’s selection at No. 21, Joseph Forte. That was three rings ago.

The third member of San Antonio’s ruling triumvirate is Emanuel “Manu’’ Ginobili, a native of Argentina who was the next-to-last player chosen in the 1999 draft, but who didn’t join the team until 2002. At 33, Ginobili is healthier and friskier than he’s been in some time. Like Paul Pierce, he has bags of old school tricks that both befuddle and infuriate opponents. If they ever played on the same team, the league would be forced to have a shrink on call in the opposing locker room each game.

Since winning their fourth NBA title in 2007, the Spurs have been good but not great. Until now. The difference comes in the enthusiasm and raw skill being provided by such young auxiliary players as guards George Hill and Gary Neal, undersized center (6-7) DeJuan Blair and rookie big man Tiago Splitter, a 6-11 Brazilian who is the reigning Spanish League MVP.

Pop’s rotation includes veterans Richard Jefferson, Matt Bonner (the pride of Concord, N.H.), and Antonio McDyess. It is a great mix of stars, near-stars, solid role players, and very talented young’uns, all superbly coached up by a man who someday will find it necessary to prepare an acceptance speech for a Hall of Fame induction.

The Spurs are among the hardiest of NBA perennials. Since the 1976 ABA/NBA merger, they have won 16 division titles, more than all other teams but one (Lakers). They have missed the playoffs only four times since 1977, and Pop and Duncan have been in the playoffs every year they have been together. (Think Belichick and Brady.) They have won 50-plus games 11 consecutive seasons (winning 60-plus twice), but they never have had a start like this.

Pop suggests that anyone who believes they can maintain this relentless pace must be hitting the hard stuff at breakfast. Pay him no mind. The Spurs have won every one of those 29 games on merit. Attention must be paid.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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