Spurs get no first-round break against Kings

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SAN ANTONIO – Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs have won plenty of postseason prizes in recent years. This first-round playoff matchup definitely isn’t one of them.

As a reward for the best regular season in franchise history while holding off Dallas for the Western Conference’s top seed, the defending NBA champions open the postseason on Saturday against Ron Artest and the Sacramento Kings, who surged into the playoffs on a 25-11 run and caught the league’s attention with their newfound toughness.

“It seems like if you ended up first, you ought to play the eighth-best team in the West,” said Popovich, who coached the Spurs to three titles in the last seven seasons.

“These guys are – whatever you want to call them – the third-, fourth-, fifth-best team in the West with the way they’re playing here lately. It’s a very, very, very tough draw, but that’s the way the cards have been dealt.”

No, the Kings aren’t the average eighth seed. While the top-seeded Detroit Pistons – San Antonio’s foe in last season’s finals – are expected to toy with the 40-42 Milwaukee Bucks in the East, the Spurs will take on a hungry, veteran club that Artest boldly called “the team to beat” on Thursday.

The Spurs won’t go that far, but the matchup should provide a quick test of the Spurs’ readiness for another long playoff haul – or a quick exit if the Kings pull a best-of-seven shocker.

“We think we’ve probably got as good of a shot as anybody against them, so I guess we’ll take it,” Kings center Brad Miller said.

But if anybody can handle such an unorthodox matchup, it’s the seasoned Spurs. San Antonio was as consistent as Tim Duncan’s footwork this season, going 63-19 while overcoming injuries and quietly building the bench’s cohesion and toughness for the difficult days of May and June.

The Kings (44-38) had more peaks and dips than a roller coaster, nearly flopping in January before surging to one of the NBA’s best finishes. Artest’s arrival in a trade for Peja Stojakovic transformed Sacramento into “one of the better defensive teams in the entire league now,” according to Popovich – a shocking concept to fans of the Kings’ freewheeling past clubs.

That’s why it’s hard to determine what the longtime Western powers’ first playoff meeting will resemble. Will the clubs lock down on each other in a defensive struggle, or will high-scoring point guards Mike Bibby and Tony Parker coax their clubs into long stretches or run-and-gun ball, as the Spurs adeptly played last season against Phoenix?

“Their personality has changed,” Duncan said. “They’re a better defensive club. They also do the things they’ve always done. They’re very good passers. They’re very unselfish, and a very good shooting team. They move well without the ball. They still do that stuff, and (Artest) fits right into it.”

While eight members of the Kings’ 12-man roster weren’t even with the club last spring, the Spurs knew their mission from the first days of training camp, when Popovich reminded his core players they had never repeated as champions.

Duncan, the three-time NBA Finals MVP, played the stretch run with a nagging leg injury. He averaged a career-low 18.6 points, but showed a toughness that never surprised his teammates. Like most clubs, the Kings never have found a consistent way to slow Duncan.

“Nothing’s changed at all. Timmy is our go-to guy,” said Parker, who averaged a career-best 18.9 points. “I think they will have problems with Timmy. They have no one who can stop him. Manu (Ginobili) and I will try to get baskets in transition, but it all starts inside with Timmy.”

Nobody in a purple uniform is hungrier for the playoffs than Artest, who spent most of the past 11/2 seasons at home. He was suspended for 73 games and last season’s playoffs for the infamous brawl in the Detroit stands, and the Indiana Pacers deactivated him for 25 games this season following his trade request before shipping him to Sacramento.

“I only watched the Pacers last year,” Artest said of his television viewing habits. “Every day I would just work out and get ready for this year. It was kind of hard, though. … (Duncan) is too tall for me, but if I had to guard him, I would. I just want to be out there.”

AP-ES-04-21-06 1702EDT

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