Spurs return, NBA Finals loss still seems fresh

AP - Sports
Spurs return, NBA Finals loss still seems fresh

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- Family vacations, scouting, free agency, rest and relaxation, playing in the European Championships.

The staff and players of the San Antonio Spurs had a hectic offseason, but not even the busiest day this summer could make them forget what might have been just three months ago.

San Antonio was five seconds away from winning its fifth NBA title only to watch the Miami Heat rally for an improbable 103-100 overtime victory in Game 6. Almost as heartbreaking was a 95-88 loss in Game 7 that gave the Heat their second consecutive title and handed the Spurs their first series loss in the NBA Finals.

''Suffice to say I've thought about it every day,'' San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. ''I'm wondering if it will go away, I'm anxious for it to happen, but it hasn't happened yet.''

Returning to the court as a team should help ease the pain. That's what the players and coaches are hoping for.

The Spurs open a four-day training camp in Tuesday at the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colo.

''As time goes on, as we all know in our lives, you get back to the day-to-day stuff pretty easily, because it's the nature of life,'' Popovich said. ''Basketball might be like the 11th- or 12th-most important thing on your list. So, it's time to get over it.''

That's the mentality the veteran Spurs take into their 18th season under Popovich, but it's one that will be different in a number of ways.

San Antonio's Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili return to a roster basically unchanged from last season. Still, the bench is going to look vastly different after assistants Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown left to become head coaches at Atlanta and Philadelphia, respectively.

''We really don't know yet (what impact the departures will have),'' Ginobili said. ''But, for sure, we're going to miss them. If any of us had a doubt during the game we would go bother Brett probably before Pop because Pop is doing so many things and controlling other stuff that if you have a question you go to them because you knew they were going to think the same as Pop.''

Jim Boylen, formerly of the Pacers, was added to the coaching staff along with former Spurs player Sean Marks. Popovich joked he may turn over player instruction during training camp to his Big Three because he will be too busy ''coaching the coaches.''

The Spurs have added Marco Belinelli, Corey Maggette, Sam Young and Jeff Ayres, who changed his surname from Pendergraph in the offseason, through free agency. Maggette and Young will compete to spell Kawhi Leonard, the talented third-year forward who is expected to take on a bigger role in the team's offense after a breakout campaign last year.

Leonard averaged 11.9 points and 6.0 rebounds last season and had a career playoff-high 22 points as well as 11 rebounds and three steals in Game 6 against Miami.

''I think Kawhi is the new Parker, Ginobili and Duncan kind of guy,'' Popovich said. ''He's going to take over as the star of the show as time goes on. He's been phenomenal. He's improved more quickly than any other player we've ever had because his mindset is such that he wants to be great and he has all the reasons to be so we have to put him in position where he can be a great player.''

Leonard's development will be needed on a veteran team that many thought was too old to make it past the first round let alone to fall in a heartbreaking defeat in the Finals.

Can San Antonio overcome that disappointment for another improbable run?

The Spurs can look to their French teammates to see a rebirth is possible.

Parker, Boris Diaw and Nando De Colo took some of the sting out of their Finals loss by defeating Lithuania on Sept. 22 to claim France's first title in the European Championships.

''I had a great summer,'' Parker said. ''Obviously it was worth it. Big win for France, first win in history. That last week it was an experience that you only live once in a lifetime; it was crazy in France.''

Popovich was proud of his players, but jokingly said he wasn't going to take it easy on Parker during training camp even though his All-Star point guard spent most of the offseason playing for France's national team.

''No, what does he make, like $200 million a year?'' Popovich said with a wry smile.

Still, the jovial mood didn't quite hide the disappointment he said he continues to feel. A former player and assistant coach with the Air Force Academy, Popovich said holding training camp in a new environment should quicken the team bonding.

''It's going to be a lot of fun, just to do something different,'' Popovich said. ''Take them to altitude, take them to mountains; get them away from everything. It will help the coaches. And look at the players that have been her for a while, it will be good for them to meet the new coaches. We've got some new players in camp, so it's a good camaraderie thing.''

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