Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Express News: Spurs break through at home

Mike D’Antoni walked into the AT&T Center for the first time as coach of the New York Knicks on Tuesday morning, and the memories came flooding back.

“Right there,” D’Antoni said, pointing to a spot on the arena floor. “That’s the scene of the disaster.”

Let the record show he was referring to Robert Horry’s infamous hip check of Steve Nash in the 2007 playoffs, back when D’Antoni was coaching the Phoenix Suns. He was not referring to the injury-plagued mess that had become of the Spurs’ November.

For one night, at least, the Spurs were able to remove the caution tape from around their home court. With injured stars Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in street clothes — and with their team’s best hope for victory supposedly resting with them — the Spurs dug deep to beat the mercurial Knicks 92-80.

Tim Duncan scored 23 points while a pair of former starters — Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen — combined for 27 off the bench, as the Spurs won at home for the first time this season.

The Spurs (2-4) came in reeling from their worst five-game start in 12 seasons and facing up to four more weeks without their high-scoring guards.

They responded as they often have over the past several seasons, winding up their defense and setting it loose on the unsuspecting Knicks.

The Spurs held the Knicks — pinball wizards averaging 102.5 points per game — to their lowest scoring output of the season. New York (4-3) managed to shoot just 38 percent from the floor.

“It was out best defensive game of the year,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “and that’s the reason for the win.”

In some ways, Tuesday night was throwback night at the AT&T Center.

Without Parker and Ginobili, the Spurs’ offense looked straight out of 2001: Dump the ball to Duncan and get out the way.

He made 11 of 17 from the field, and dropped in 15 points in the first half.

Finley looked like he was back in Dallas again, finishing with 14 points.

Coming off the bench for the first time in a Spurs’ uniform, Bowen looked like he was back in Miami.

He responded with 13 points and three 3-pointers — including a back-breaker to put the Spurs up 87-75 with 2:50 to play.

Meanwhile, the Spurs’ once-vaunted defense — the foundation of four titles in 11 seasons — made its season debut.

Ahead 67-64 entering the third quarter, the Spurs held New York to just 16 points in the fourth.

“We got stops, and that’s San Antonio basketball,” said Roger Mason Jr., whose team had been giving up more than 105 points per game.

Throwback night, however, only went so far.

With his team playing for the first time since Parker sprained his ankle, Popovich trotted out a lineup he couldn’t have just two seasons ago.

George Hill started in place of Parker, the first Spurs’ rookie to do that since Beno Udrih in 2004-05. Alongside him in the backcourt were a first-year Spur (Mason) and second-year Spur (Ime Udoka).

Hill accomplished his most pressing mission.

He looked like an NBA point guard, finishing with 12 points and infusing the Spurs with some much-needed youthful exuberance.

The Spurs didn’t always play better Tuesday than they had in five previous outings. But, often, they played harder.

Snapshots from the fourth quarter bear that out.

It was Anthony Tolliver skidding across the floor for a loose ball.

It was Bowen sliding in to draw a charge on little Nate Robinson.

It was Finley — never paid for his defense — bodying up Quentin Richardson and forcing him into a traveling violation.

By night’s end, even D’Antoni was having flashbacks.

Some of the Spurs’ faces had changed. But the results looked awfully familiar.

“These guys are just tough,” D’Antoni said. “Been tough. Are tough. Will be tough.”

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