The Spurs' big trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are entering their ninth year together.
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SAN ANTONIO -- You'll have to excuse the Spurs for any possible confusion about the Big Three.
Would that be the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh combo that stepped down from Mt. Olympus or straight out of a TV studio over the course of a hot, clamorous summer on South Beach and so far has won exactly nothing?
Could it refer to the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen trio in Boston that has more miles on its odometer than a long haul tractor trailer and a ticker tape parade's worth of accolades, but so far has hung only one more banner to the rafters in Boston?
Or is it the Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol-Lamar Odom connection that used a boost from Ron Artest and his psychiatrist's coach to deliver back-to-back championships to the Lakers?
Meanwhile the Spurs might be given to wonder: What about us?
Shouldn't any discussion of current NBA big threesomes really begin with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker?
"We like what we have," said a smiling Parker back when training camp opened on media day.
That is a resumé that already includes three championships together and the kind of familiarity with each other that is a big step toward achieving another.
That's just one of the reasons why Ginobili was hardly surprised to see the celebrated Heat struggle in their opening night debut in Boston.
"None of them have ever played with a player like the others," he said. "They're going to need some time to adjust."
Meanwhile the Spurs ticked along like three synchronized Swiss watches in their season debut. At one time or another against Indiana, they were a flawless relay team handing off the baton in smooth exchanges as they cruised around the track. And when the Spurs finally got their defense to bite in the second half, they showed they still have the potential to be every bit as capable as any time in the past decade.
For one, there are still plenty of moving and complementary parts to be tightened and worked into the mix. Celebrated big man Tiago Splitter will be making a belated NBA debut after missing the preseason schedule with a strained muscle in his right calf. Last year's big addition, Richard Jefferson, who never quite fit into the lineup, continues searching for a proper rhythm and place. The undersized DeJuan Blair still must find a way to translate all of that hustle and aggressiveness into productivity against teams with great length on the front line.
Yet this is a San Antonio team that has its core healthy and fit for the first time in three seasons. Each of the past two seasons began with Ginobili trying to play his way back into shape following surgery. Parker eventually missed 26 games with two ankle sprains, a hip flexor, food poisoning and a broken hand.
The product of those aches and ailments was a slow and fitful start from which the Spurs never recovered. Though it had long been a tradition for San Antonio to really get rolling around the time of the All-Star break in February, last year took things to an extreme. The Spurs were still slightly better than a .500 team near Christmas and it took a frantic 17-8 finish to the regular season to get them to their 10th consecutive 50-win campaign. Their 50-32 mark was good enough for the No. 7 seed in the West and, even though the Spurs knocked off No. 2 seed Dallas in the first round of the playoffs, they returned realizing that was not good enough.
"We all know our margin for error is not so big as it was five years ago," Ginobili said. "We've got to go after every single game."
The implication that he is a scientist in the lab tinkering with formulas and willing to sacrifice early wins is puzzling to coach Gregg Popovich.
"I never have it in my head that we're going to start slow on purpose," Popovich said. "When players say they want to have a quicker start, well, they need to shoot better and turn it over less and we'll probably win more games."
To zoom out of the starting blocks, the Spurs will also have to defend much better than they did in the first half of the opener against the Pacers, when they surrendered 65 points. When they eventually got down to serious business in the third and fourth quarters, the Spurs looked like their old selves. They got a solid contribution from Jefferson and a boost from rookie James Anderson.
More than anything the Spurs are fueled by the NBA's longest running three-man combination, now starting their ninth season together. Of course, the ingredients didn't always fit together on the same as tastily as fajitas, guacamole and refried beans. It wasn't snap-your-fingers easy right from the start. It took a while to sort things out, to figure each other out, which is where the Spurs are way ahead of the Heat in this tentative first part of another season.
"Those guys in Miami will eventually be OK," Ginobili said. "They are great players. They have the talent. But I didn't expect everything to just be perfect for them at the start. You have to learn about the other players' games. You have to learn about the other players. After all these years, that's where we are.
"We know each other very well. When that happens, everything becomes easier. I know what Tony wants, when he's going to attack and when he's more in a passing mode. T.D., after four possessions when he doesn't touch it, we need to feed him and don't forget about him."