Sorry, Charles: Spurs are for real


It was two weeks ago and the San Antonio Spurs had just completed their easy handling of the Suns in a win that left everyone impressed -- everyone, that is, except Phoenix forward Charles Barkley.

Don't panic, Barkley promised. He said that the Western Conference is "a three-dog race -- Seattle, Houston and us."

It's not the first time Barkley has made a mistake. San Antonio, now playing the best basketball in the league, has every right to claim top-dog status. The Spurs have won eight straight and 17 of 19.

"We recognize the fact this could be a special season," San Antonio coach Bob Hill said recently after the Spurs had beaten Houston and Phoenix in back-to-back games. "We took a big step, or we should have, in terms of our confidence and realizing we can make this Western Conference chase very interesting."

Give Hill, in his first year with San Antonio, credit for the way he has handled Dennis Rodman. When Rodman rebelled at the start of the season, Hill suspended him and made clear there would be just one set of rules with the Spurs (Rodman was allowed to skip practices and shoot-arounds last season).

Rodman got his act together. The only question about him has been what color hair he'll show up with.

As a player, he has shown why he's the best rebounder in the league. In Sunday's game against Houston, Rodman had 27 rebounds in 38 minutes. Houston as a team had 32 rebounds in a combined 240 minutes. Two weeks ago against Houston, he had 30 rebounds -- the best in the league this season. It took him awhile to play in enough games to appear on the list, but Rodman now officially leads the league in rebounds per game with 17.6.

And that takes a lot of pressure off David Robinson, who, if not for Shaquille O'Neal, would be a lock for league MVP honors.

Robinson is third in the league in scoring (27.5), fifth in rebounding (10.6) and fourth in blocks (3.1).

But the Spurs are far from a two-man show. Much-traveled point guard Avery Johnson is making the best of his third stint with San Antonio (13.3 points, 8.0 assists) and by season's end will become just the fifth player in NBA history to improve his scoring average in each of his first seven seasons.

Sean Elliott, in his second stint with the Spurs, is averaging 17.9 points. Chuck Person, Terry Cummings, J. R. Reid and Doc Rivers and Vinny Del Negro are veterans playing key roles.

"We've really made a quiet climb," Elliott said. "Maybe it's good that people don't know about us."

Houston lacks the rebounding to defend its title. Seattle doesn't have a center to defend Robinson and has no go-to guy. The Suns lack a center, and the loss of Danny Manning hurts. Utah has been impressive but is not championship-ready.

Maybe in the end, Barkley will give the Spurs their proper respect.

Easy, Charles

Speaking of respect and Barkley, maybe the Golden State Warriors should roll out the red carpet the next time they see him. And perhaps a limousine. And a prime tee time at a fine golf course.

Anything to keep Barkley happy.

That's because in Sunday's nationally televised game, the Warriors made Barkley mad. And Barkley made them pay with a 31-point performance in the Suns' 122-112 win at Golden State. In his previous appearance in the Bay area last May, Barkley scored 56 in a win that helped the Suns sweep Golden State in the playoffs.

Barkley, who says, at the age of 32, that he coasts through some games, got angry Sunday when he got bumped by Golden State's David Wood. Barkley at one point reared back and threw a hard elbow at Wood, earning a technical foul in the first quarter. Then he went about dismantling the Warriors.

"David Wood did us a favor," Phoenix coach Paul Westphal said. "He irritated Barkley and gave him a reason to achieve. Charles hates it when somebody plays hard against him."

At the start of the fourth quarter, Barkley walked by the Golden State bench and told nobody in particular, "You all better get somebody out there to guard me." Then he went out and scored 10 of his points, and the Suns had the easy win.

Golden State will be at Phoenix on Sunday. You can bet Wood will be on his best behavior.

Around the league

The Warriors' injury woes continue. Rony Seikaly's season appears to be over, with doctors recommending surgery to correct a bad case of tendinitis in his right ankle. Tim Hardaway has played the past two weeks with a torn ligament in his left wrist and will need surgery. . . . The Cleveland Cavaliers, the surprise team the first half of the season, have lost four straight and won't get back Tyrone Hill (surgery on his right hand) and Mark Price (surgery on his right wrist) until later this month. . . . Former Washington Bullet Charles Jones has resurfaced, this time in Houston. It's the fifth team for Jones, who will turn 38 in April. His signing demonstrates the dearth of talent in the league, which expands to Toronto and Vancouver next season.

Quote of the week

From Los Angeles Lakers 67-year-old assistant coach Bill Bertka, after the team lost Cedric Ceballos, Eddie Jones, George Lynch and Sedale Threatt to injuries in a short span: "I'm finally going to get my shot."

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