Thursday, November 13, 2008

Express News: Spurs fall short again

MILWAUKEE — If Gregg Popovich had been awarded one wish walking into the Bradley Center on Wednesday night, it would have been this:

For the Spurs to play defense as well and as hard as they had the night before against New York.

If Popovich had been awarded a second wish upon leaving the Bradley Center some hours later, it would have been this: Eighty-three points.

That's all it would have taken.

One wish granted, one wish denied, the Spurs left Milwaukee on the wrong end of an 82-78 tally against the Bucks, their bid for the season's first winning streak rebuffed by one clank-filled stretch of the fourth quarter.

“If we can hold a team to 82 points, I'm thrilled, I'm jumping up and down,” Popovich said. “We ought to be able to win that basketball game.”

Richard Jefferson scored 19 points to lead a balanced list of five players in double figures for the Bucks, who overcame a nearly game-long deficit to break their three-game losing streak.

The Bucks outscored the Spurs 14-2 to start the fourth quarter, transforming what had once been a 13-point Spurs lead into a narrow Milwaukee victory.

The Spurs had a chance to tie with five seconds left, but Tim Duncan's short hook missed.

At 2-5, this is the Spurs' worst start since going 2-13 to open the 1996-97 campaign. Wednesday's loss marked their third of the season by five points or fewer.

“The whole thing is frustrating now matter how you look at it,” said Duncan, who led the Spurs with 24 points.

Less than 24 hours removed from a hard-earned 92-80 victory over New York, accomplished with injured guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili inactive, the Spurs ran headlong into a reality check in Milwaukee.

For the second game in a row, the Spurs held an opponent to a season scoring low. This time, they couldn't score enough for it to matter.

“We're a little challenged offensively right now,” Popovich said.

This is what life will look like for the Spurs with two of their three top scorers sidelined. They will have to fight and claw and scratch and defend, defend, defend just to stay in games.

And sometimes, perhaps often, it won't be enough.

Up until the fourth quarter, Wednesday appeared to be one of those nights when it would be enough.

The defensive energy the Spurs used to suffocate the Knicks the night before carried over, as the Bucks — playing their fifth game without leading scorer Michael Redd — shot below 38.6 percent for the first three quarters.

The Spurs did not trail from the 10:23 mark of the first quarter until the 8:25 mark of the fourth, when Jefferson swished a 19-footer to put Milwaukee ahead 63-61.

“San Antonio isn't at full strength, but they're a very disciplined team,” Jefferson said. “They're going to win a lot of games at half strength.”

No matter how hard the Spurs might have wished it, this wasn't destined to be one of them.

Ahead by 12 points at the half, and by six entering the fourth quarter, the Spurs suddenly went cold from the field. And the Bucks suddenly couldn't miss.

Milwaukee's Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, a rookie from UCLA making his first career start, had eight points in the fourth quarter, while Ramon Sessions had nine.

When Andrew Bogut dunked home Sessions' lone fourth-quarter miss with 5:24 to go, it gave Milwaukee a 69-61 lead.

That cued Duncan, who totaled 14 of his points in the game's final 41/2 minutes to help keep the Spurs in wishing distance. Michael Finley, who finished with a season-high 19 points, hit a 3-pointer with 12.3 seconds left to pull the Spurs within one.

Sessions missed the second of two free throws at the other end, giving Spurs a shot to tie. But Duncan's hook was short, and Jefferson hit two clinching foul shots at the other end.

“The bottom line is we made enough plays to win the game,” Duncan said. “We just didn't do it in time.”

Yet another case of too little, too late. It was, however, encouraging to see the Spurs come out strong for once.

For the first time this season, the Spurs found a comfort zone, then they let themselves fall asleep in it. This is one of those lessons that seems to be learned every season.

Still, every win without Parker and Ginobili is crucial, and the Spurs should've had that one in their back pocket.

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