SAN ANTONIO (AP) – Gregg Popovich has long credited Larry Brown for bringing him into the NBA and teaching him much of what he knows about basketball. That’s why the NBA Finals between Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs and Brown’s Detroit Pistons is creating mixed feelings.

“It will be a strange situation,” Popovich said Tuesday, “trying to beat somebody up and hoping they do well at the same time.”

Not too well.

Given the long basketball kinship between them – Brown hired Popovich as a Spurs assistant in 1988 and later tapped him as an assistant for the 2004 Olympic team – it’s not a surprise the Spurs and the defending champion Pistons would have similar, defense-driven styles.

San Antonio, which won titles in 1999 and 2003, allowed the fewest points per game (88.4) in the league during the regular season, and Detroit was a close second at 89.5 ppg. Both squads were in the top five in blocked shots, opposing field goal percentage and fewest assists allowed.

Detroit’s Ben Wallace was the league’s defensive player of the year, and San Antonio’s Bruce Bowen was runner-up. Together the Pistons and Spurs accounted for five of the 11 players selected to the All-Defensive first and second teams.

So it’s not a surprise the Spurs expect defensive execution to decide the best-of-seven series, which begins Thursday night in San Antonio.

“It’s going to be very tough to score, we all know that,” said Manu Ginobili, who has averaged 21.8 points in the postseason. “It’s not going to be 110-, 115-point games.”

The Spurs proved in their last series that they can score big when necessary – they averaged 108 points in their five-game series win over high-scoring Phoenix in the Western Conference finals.

Against Detroit they could be looking at final scores that more resemble halftime ones against the Suns.

“I don’t really care if it’s 1-0 as long as we have one more point at the end of the night,” said center Nazr Mohammed, a late-season pickup who became a starter when Rasho Nesterovic sprained an ankle in April. “We’re going to be focused on stopping each other because defense wins championships.”

Ginobili said Detroit’s defensive size and speed will make it hard for him and other Spurs to take the ball inside.

He contrasted the Pistons’ big men to Miami’s Shaquille O’Neal, another dominating inside presence.

“It’s not the same going against Ben Wallace or Rasheed (Wallace) than to Shaq, where you know he’s a big body that’s going to wait there,” Ginobili said. “They’re very athletic and they understand their defense very well.”

Detroit uses that same size and athleticism on the offensive end, where they can be effective posting up and take advantage of their offensive rebounding for extra chances.

Bowen, the league’s best perimeter defender, will concentrate on Richard Hamilton, who scored 22 points in Monday’s decisive 88-82 victory over Miami.

“It’s a matter of trying to match a guy’s energy and at same time try to take away some of his strengths,” Bowen said. “Rip is very good off screens. He understands how to get his shots. He’s the prototype of Reggie Miller.”

Popovich says most of his time will be spent preparing the Spurs for the Pistons on court, but he’ll also expects to get together with Brown off the court to visit and share some laughs.

“Both camps want to win badly,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it.”

AP-ES-06-07-05 1919EDT


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