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Spurs sputter while stuck in the muck

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They don’t make marquee matchups in the Western Conference the way they used to.

The Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs, winners of eight of the last 11 NBA titles, renewed the rivalry that defined the West on Monday night, just with a few things missing, like the old Spurs, the Lakers’ franchise player and the Lakers’ center.

The Lakers were without the injured Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum. The Spurs had all their old core players, the problem being they were all older.

Coach Gregg Popovich, whose team started the night No. 6 in the West, now paces his team, like the time he didn’t put Tim Duncan in until the second quarter on the second night of a back-to-back, noting, “Not that much happens in the first quarter of NBA games.”

In the real bad news, with all the Spurs healthy and rested, they lost to what remained of the Lakers anyway, 101-89.

The Spurs, who used to turn their season around with their “Rodeo Trip,” are 2-2 on this one, and their season is still wobbling in the same direction it was.

“The Lakers were short-handed and played mentally tougher and physically tougher than we did and got a win,” said Popovich after the game.

“Don’t ask me why we didn’t play tougher. Because if I knew, we’d have played differently.”

Popovich, known for saving a tirade for midseason to get his team’s attention, said he has already tried that -- “five of six times.”

“For some reason, I’m not getting through to this group.”

From 1999 to 2003, when the Spurs and Lakers won five titles in a row, their rivalry defined the entire NBA.

Having turned their old roster around with the late draft picks that became Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs then came back to win in 2005 and 2007.

By 2007, however, Duncan was 31 and the minutes he played were beginning to show. Ginobili, 30, suffered a series of injuries, including the one to his ankle that he aggravated playing for Argentina in the 2008 Olympics.

Then after all the Spurs’ slick personnel moves came last season’s blunder, trading Luis Scola, the Argentine forward they had waited years for, to Houston to get the Rockets to take Jackie Butler’s contract.

Last season the creaky Spurs, with Michel Finley starting and Kurt Thomas backing up Duncan at ages 35 and 36, respectively, finished No. 3 at 54-28, but were stunned by No. 6 Dallas in a 4-1 first-round series.

That led to last summer’s moves for Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess, who are still learning the system, slowly.

Popovich, who had set lineups for 10 years, spent this one auditioning Finley, Keith Bogans, DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner and Roger Mason for the starter spots alongside Duncan, Jefferson and Parker, before settling on McDyess and George Hill.

“Bottom line, we just haven’t jelled as a group, to date,” said Popovich before the game.

“We haven’t developed a trust, a communication, a camaraderie as far as executing on the court -- which is strange for us. We’ve never had that situation, really. . . .

“Everybody [in the West] is kind of in the same muck. The Lakers aren’t playing as well as they have in the past, although the Lakers are better than everybody else in the West.

“We’re all in the same boat, really. Nobody’s really stepping out of it and playing really good consistent basketball. We’re all kind of up and down.”

Fortunately for the Spurs, they got to play a Lakers team that was well below full strength. Or maybe it wasn’t so fortunate.

“I’d rather have it the other way,” said Popovich before the game. “It’s more a situation, if you win the game, you’re not sure that you take a whole lot from it.

“If you lose it, you feel like hell, to be honest with you.”

Four games into this “Rodeo Trip,” it’s not the way it used to be, either.

And, as former Raiders coach Tom Flores once said, “It’s still early but it’s getting late.”

mark.heisler@latimes.com


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