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Forget the Alamo? Spurs struggle with inconsistent play but remain near top of NBA

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SAN ANTONIO — There are only a handful of teams in the NBA that have won 30 or more games this season, and the San Antonio Spurs are among them.

Yet even San Antonio has acknowledged in recent weeks it is undergoing some struggles, inconsistent play foremost among them.

"The patience has to be there," said star forward Tim Duncan. "We're so up and down right now. We have to stick with what we have here and find a way to win with the guys we have."

The team's habit of squandering big leads to nearly give away games, or in a couple of cases lose them altogether, makes for somber post-game talk. So does the fact that the Spurs already have lost more home games this season (eight) than all of last season (seven).

"It's very different than other years. We used to play great all season long and dominate our opponents," guard Tony Parker said. "But this year is different, we're losing a lot of games at home and so we just have to figure it out."

Everything is relative. Compare any team to the league-leading Dallas Mavericks or Phoenix Suns, and it looks as though something's wrong.

"Everybody keeps saying that. I don't see it," said Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy. "They're on pace to win 58 or 59 games. I don't see it.

"I think it's unfair to San Antonio to think that something is amiss. The West is really hard, no matter where you go."

It's true that San Antonio is only a few games off its pace from last year, when the Spurs went 63-19 and ended up losing to the Mavs in the second round of the playoffs.

And the stats aren't far off, either. The team last year averaged 95.6 points a game on 47.2 percent shooting from the field and 38.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. San Antonio gave up an average of 88.8 points a game last season.

Heading into this weekend, the Spurs were hitting about the same numbers this season, averaging 98.2 points a game on nearly 47 percent shooting from the field and 37.8 percent 3-point shooting. They're giving up an average of 91.1 points a game.

Most NBA teams would be glad to have the Spurs' problems.

They haven't been as hobbled by injuries as some teams. Duncan is healthy this year after being troubled in the past by plantar fasciitis. Last season he averaged 18.6 points and 11 rebounds per game. This season he's averaging more than 20 points a game and just under 11 rebounds.

The only player on the injured list right now is Matt Bonner, who was averaging about five points per game before tearing a knee ligament in January.

The Spurs have had a successful start to their annual "rodeo" road trip, which takes them away from the Alamo City for much of February. The trip has brought them success in the past. Last year they went 6-2 and the year before that 5-2.

"It's very important for us," said guard Manu Ginobili. "Especially the way we have been playing the past couple weeks. January hasn't been very good for us, so going on a long road trip is either going to pull us together or apart. Hopefully it is together. Usually it is the part of the season where we make the biggest step forward."

The Spurs began the road trip with a 96-94 overtime win over the Los Angeles Lakers, despite shooting a season-low 33.7 percent (32-of-95).

But they lost to Utah 97-93 on Wednesday, giving the Jazz their 30th win of the season. San Antonio completed January with a 9-7 record. And on the second night of a back-to-back, the Spurs fell to Phoenix on Thursday, 103-87.

"To coaches, everything is a concern. It's a game of mistakes," said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. "It's a game of missed shots. We're all trying to do things better."

The Spurs lost double-digit leads to let Memphis get ahead in the second half during a home game in December and another in January. The Spurs ended up winning both. They did the same against Philadelphia, also managing to win.

But against the rival Mavericks in January, the Spurs blew a 12-point lead before Dallas pulled away for the win.

"We have stretches where we play aggressively, we play well defensively, we play solid," Duncan said. "And we have stretches where we have lapses and give up bunches of points in a small amount of time. I always talk about getting to that point where we can play 48 minutes the right way, and right now we're not close to that."

For the Spurs, close wins that could have been blowouts are not good enough.

"It's frustrating not to close people out," Duncan said after the Spurs beat the Boston Celtics 93-89 on the road this month, again after giving up a big lead. "It shouldn't have been that close. We allowed them to get back in the game."

Popovich said he doesn't intend to make a high-profile trade before the Feb. 22 trading deadline.

"Guys care here," said guard Bruce Bowen. "We care about what's going on out on the court. We know where we've been and we know where we need to be, or I should say we know how we need to play to be where we would like to be toward the end of the year. Guys will give it a great effort toward the end."