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January 5, 2011
On the Beat
Pop Unimpressed by Start

by John Perrotto

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Even after Tuesday night's loss to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the San Antonio Spurs own the league's top record. However, ask Gregg Popovich to provide reasons for his team being 29-5 and the veteran coach shrugs.

"I don't try to figure things out," Popovich said. "Just play each day, go to practice, go to the game, and the stats are what they are. There are a lot of factors. I have no clue which one is more important than the other. Sometimes things just happen, but it's early in the year and you don't take much from the record."

The Spurs lead the league in offensive efficiency (110.5), opponent free throw rate (24.6) and offensive turnover rate (12.5). They were also on pace for a 72-10 record entering Tuesday, though Popovich scoffs at the idea of a 70-win season.

"We know there are tough periods during the year that are going to come, and it's still the same thing, trying to get better," Popovich said. "The record doesn't reflect really how well we're playing all the time. There's a whole lot of improvement that can be done on any team, so the record is something I don't think about very much. It's going to change to some degree. There's no doubt about that. We're not going to keep this pace up for the entire year."

Popovich is certainly glad San Antonio sits atop the Western Conference, but he doesn't expect the team to maintain its torrid pace.

"We know there are tough periods during the year that are going to come, and it's still the same thing, trying to get better," Popovich said. "The record doesn't reflect really how well we're playing all the time. There's a whole lot of improvement that can be done on any team, so the record is something I don't think about very much. It's going to change to some degree. There's no doubt about that. We're not going to keep this pace up for the entire year."

The Spurs hold a three-game lead in the Western Conference over the Southwest Division-rival Mavericks and an 11.5-game bulge over the Trail Blazers, the conference's No. 8 team. However, Popovich still believes it is too early to talk about his team separating itself from pack.

"So many teams have health issues," Popovich said. "You look at Houston and Portland, for instance, it's ridiculous what those two teams have gone through over the past few years. Years. Not the last two months or something like that, but years. Teams get healthy and players get back, again the positioning doesn't mean a whole lot. No. 1 will still be scared to play No. 8, and 2 will be scared to death to play 7, and so on and so forth. Assuming everybody is healthy on those teams."

Another West coach, the Oklahoma City Thunder's Scott Brooks, sees SAn Antonio often. He says that achieving the best record to this point of the season is not a fluke and one of the reasons is because the Spurs have more team speed than in past seasons.

"They put so much pressure on you defensively because they're quick and they have multiple scorers, and they all seem to love to get into the paint and kick out to shooters," Brooks said. "They're unselfish, all of them. Everybody on that team has one agenda--just finding a good shot and moving the ball. Defensively, they've improved as the season has gone along. When push comes to shove, they're going to get stops. And now they have the speed and the quickness to make you work extremely hard on defense. And you have to pick your poison a lot."

Chicago Not Apologizing for Schedule

The Chicago Bulls are 22-10, hold an eight-game lead over the Indiana Pacers in the Central Division and are winning with more ease than at any time since their championship era ended in 1998. They also are 13-2 since December 4.

Yet that isn't enough for some critics, who like to point out that the Bulls have amassed most of their victories against the league's lesser teams as they are 17-1 against team at or under .500. However, forward Carlos Boozer disputes the idea that the Bulls aren't as good as their record because they've been fattening up on cupcakes.

"It's not easy to win in the league, no matter if you're playing against a .500 team, an under-.500 team," forward Carlos Boozer said. "They've got pride. They love playing ball. They have a plan. They have a coach that wants to win. For us, we take it for what it is. We want to play better, and we will play better. But we're also happy we're winning."

There is also a perception that Chicago is winning despite not always being completely engaged. Coach Tom Thibodeau, though, is not questioning his team's desire.

"I think we're trying pretty hard," Thibodeau said. "We'll take the wins any way we can get them, but we know we have to improve in a number of different areas."

Johnson Likes Nets' Progress Despite Record

When the calendar turned to 2011 last Saturday, first-year New Jersey Nets coach Avery Johnson was excited. He believes a new year is going to bring a reversal of fortune for a franchise that has fallen on hard times since making six straight playoff appearances from 2002-07.

The Nets are just 9-25, but Johnson also knows that represents improvement considering they were 12-70 last season.

"The thing is, people don't really see what I see with this team," Johnson said. "All they really see is 9-25, and some of the games we lost this year, you know, a team that's kind of banged up now."

So what does Johnson see?

"I see some of our players really contributing in our program as we move forward," he said. "I see Brook Lopez going to that next level. And I can go on down the road. So I see our draft situation, the amount of money we have to spend in this next free agency. I really see the future as being bright."

Drew Doing Job for Hawks

Most of the Atlanta Hawks' players lobbied for assistant Larry Drew to be promoted last spring when Mike Woodson was fired as head coach. They got their wish and the Hawks are 22-14, including 10-9 on the road--where they traditionally struggled during Woodson's reign.

Drew isn't one to brag about himself. However, the players are happy to be talk about the job he is doing.

"Anybody that had any questions about how he could handle this team have their answers," power forward Josh Smith said. "He's like our team in a lot of ways in that nobody really gives him the respect he deserves. But he just goes out there day after day and does what he does. And that's win."

Drew, for his part, prefers not to discuss his performance in his first shot at being a head coach.

"We've got a lot of goals that we set out for ourselves before this season," Drew said. "The minute you put any one person's situation ahead of the collective goal, you're not doing the job."

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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