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Daily Babble: Here Come the Champs

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By now, you've heard it all before.  Each and every rationalization

They aren't what they used to be.

They aren't playing well on the road.

There is 'just something missing' with this group.

The defense isn't what it used to be.

They are a year older.

Their best three players have had trouble staying healthy, missing 25 games between them thus far this season.

They are being passed in the West.

The list goes on.

But sure enough, as the final month and a half of the NBA's regular season begins none other than the defending champion San Antonio Spurs sit atop the Western Conference standings.

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Of course, it's worth disclaiming that with the teams with the West's top six records separated by a total of two and a half games, being at the top of the standings on any given day at this time of year certainly doesn't mean all that much in the greater scheme of things.

But considering all that has been said about this Spurs team over the course of the year -- and combined with the knowledge of what the black and silver has been up to lately -- it at the very least bears noting.

Three weeks ago today, the Spurs came to the TD Banknorth Garden to play the Celtics and came in second place that day.  They haven't done so in the eight games since.   Or in the four games prior to the loss to the C's.  For those scoring at home, that would make the boys from the Alamo 12-1 in their last 13 contests.   While the new-look Lakers (deserved), Suns and Mavs and the youthful Hornets are sopping up most of the attention in the West, the Spurs have quietly done what they do best: silently besting the competition time after time.

Once more, it is beginning to look like Gregg Popovich has had the pulse of his team marked perfectly all along.

The defense that folks all over the place seemed so worried about?  The Spurs are suddenly sitting at third in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing just 103.9 points per 100 possessions.  They are up to eighth in opposing field goal and three point percentage as well, rankings only likely to get better as the defense continues to solidify.  Over that 12-1 run, the Spurs have held opponents under 90 points six times.

The Spurs' three studs are kicking another gear as well.  Tony Parker is back form injury and shaking off the rust now so that he doesn't have to do it in April.  With a rare lackluster performance last night, Tim Duncan broke a string of nine straight games with double-digit rebounds.  He also averaged 2.5 blocks per game in February and is shooting 72 percent from the foul line for the season, his best figure since 2002. 

Meanwhile, Manu Ginobili has simply been out of his mind as of late, averaging 24.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.5 assists to go with 50.9 percent shooting over the course of February before opening March with a 30-point effort last night.  Over the past month, Ginobili has put up single-game totals of 46, 44, 34 and 30 (twice) to go with two other games with at least 20 points.  He is scoring with incredible efficiency and forcing teams to guard him (to no avail) nearly everywhere on the floor.

Just in case that wasn't enough, it's worth remembering that the big reinforcement has arrived.  No, Kurt Thomas hasn't done much in his early days as a Spur, but we would have to be kidding ourselves to not expect this guy to make an impact down the stretch.  Between his defensive prowess, dominant rebounding ability and all-around supercharged intensity, KT's presence could make a huge difference for the Spurs come playoff time, especially when it becomes clear that no other team will be able to guard Duncan with him.   This acquisition will prove to be nothing short of huge for the Spurs -- and it appears to not have cost them Brent Barry either.

This isn't to say that because the Spurs are half a game up on the Lakers on the first weekend of March that they are some sort of shoo-in -- or even the dominant front-runner -- in the West.  Much of the accolades and attention given to other teams in an excellent conference have been very well merited.

But it is worth remembering that these Spurs are still the champs, and they won't be going anywhere without one heck of a fight.