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by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW - San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, whose team will play the Trail Blazers in Portlands home opener Saturday night, says he expects to get as much or even more out of his veteran players this season than he did in 2012-13, when the Spurs took Miami to Game 7 in the NBA finals.The trendy picks in the NBA’s Western Conference race this season are Oklahoma City, Houston, the Los Angeles Clippers and even Golden State.

So heed this warning: Don’t sleep on the San Antonio Spurs, who visit the Moda Center Saturday night for the Trail Blazers’ home opener.

Four reasons: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and — the biggest reason by far — Gregg Popovich, one of the great coaches in NBA history.

The inclination for some is to downplay San Antonio with the Big Three aging (Duncan 37, Ginobili 36 and Parker 31) and the several top West clubs getting stronger.

“There are five or six teams in the West where you can pick a name out of the bucket and any one of them could end up being in the finals,” Popovich tells me in a phone interview from San Antonio.

The Spurs are one of them. And there is reason to believe they’ll be better than they were a year ago, when they came within a whisker of notching their fifth NBA championship since 1999, losing in seven games to Miami in the NBA finals.

Nobody knows how to manage players’ minutes better than Popovich, beginning his 18th season at the San Antonio helm. His deft touch in that regard has lengthened the careers of Duncan and Ginobili — the former a future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, the latter on the short list of the greatest international players in NBA history.

Is it reasonable to think the Spurs can get the same kind of production out of the Big Three as that of a year ago?

“I think we’ll get better production,” Popovich tells me. “There’s an opportunity for

Manu to have the best season in the last four years. He had a good Game 5 in the finals, but he had a tough time in the playoffs. He felt weak. His legs weren’t there. When he didn’t have his legs, he wasn’t as good a shooter.”

For the first time in many years, Ginobili — who missed 70 of 164 regular-season games over the previous two years with the Spurs due to injury — didn’t play for his native Argentina in world competition. He spent the summer in Argentina, working with a trainer sent from San Antonio by the Spurs, building his body.

“He lifted the whole summer,” Popovich says. “He is stronger than he has been for three or four years. That’s what we were looking for.”

Duncan, Popovich says, “looks exactly like he did last year,” when the 7-footer had his best season since 2009-10, averaging 17.8 points and 9.9 rebounds while shooting .502 from the field.

“And Tony is pretty motivated coming off France’s championship in (EuroBasket). We’re excited, but we know how tough it’s going to be.”

Parker, Spurs forward Boris Diaw and the Blazers’ Nicolas Batum were teammates on the French team that beat Lithuania in the EuroBasket final over the summer. Does Popovich worry about the extra mileage on the advancing bodies of Parker and Diaw (31)?

“It’s not a total worry,” Popovich says, “but it’s something that should be considered when preparing for the season. Tony sat out a couple of preseason games and a practice here and there, which helps keep him fresh. In Boris’ case, I don’t care. I told him I wanted him to play as much as possible so that fat butt doesn’t get bigger.”

Duncan and Parker will be joined in the starting lineup by emerging small forward Kawhi Leonard, shooting guard Danny Green and center Tiago Splitter.

The bench includes Ginobili, Diaw, veteran forward Matt Bonner and the Spurs’ lone off-season acquisition, free-agent guard Marco Belinelli, who averaged 9.9 points in 18.7 minutes and shot 50 percent from 3-point range through the preseason.

“Marco was very good” in the preseason, Popovich says. “He’ll be a main rotation player, for sure. He brings a good basketball IQ, is very unselfish and a good shooter. He gives us a good scoring duo off the bench with him and Manu.”

The Spurs — who opened the season at home Wednesday night against Memphis and face the Lakers Friday night at Staples Center — took their training camp to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

It was like a trip back in time for Popovich, who played four years of basketball there and graduated from the Academy, had a five-year stint of active duty in the Air Force, then later served six years as an assistant coach for the Falcons. In 2008, he was honored with the

Academy’s distinguished graduate award. Popovich — who took the Spurs to NBA crowns in 1999, 2003, ‘05 and ‘07 and has twice been named the league’s coach of the year — said the Academy award might have been the most meaningful honor he has received.

“I just wanted a change of venue,” Popovich says of holding Spurs’ training camp there. “We’ve trained in San Antonio almost every year. I thought it would be a unique experience for the players. They knew I graduated from there. I’m always telling them stories. I thought it would be cool to have them go there, train at 7,200 feet and get away from all the distractions of being at home for five days. I figured it would be a good variance for them.”

The Spurs players lived the lives of the Airmen for those five days.

“I had them run the obstacle course with rifles and sergeants on their butt,” Popovich says. “They jumped right in. You go two at a time. A minute later, the next two go. There are 16 obstacles you have to accomplish. It’s not easy. I was scared to death the whole time somebody might get hurt.

“They did the whole thing. It was really a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience for them.”

San Antonio suffered one of the most heartbreaking defeats in NBA history in Game 6 of last year’s finals. The Spurs, ahead 3-2 in the series, led 94-89 inside the final minute. But Ray Allen’s 3-pointer with five seconds remaining sent the game into overtime, and Miami won 103-100. That forced a Game 7, won 95-88 by the Heat.

Does memory of Game 6 provide extra inspiration for the Spurs to win it all this season?

“Oh sure,” Popovich says. “It was a devastating loss. We had the game. Some things happened. We let it slip away. It still hurts. I think about it every day.”

When I ask Popovich about how the Blazers will fare, he answers with a chuckle.

“I have no clue, but I know one thing,” he says. “We haven’t won up there in like two decades. I always go up there thinking, ‘We have to go to Portland again.’ I love the city — great people, great restaurants, great interest in the NBA. I just don’t like getting beat by them all the time.”

Popovich is exaggerating, but only slightly. The Spurs have lost eight of their last nine visits to Portland dating to 2008, having won 112-109 here early last season. The Blazers prevailed in the other two meetings, including a 136-106 thumping at San Antonio in March.

Gregg and wife Erin have made several vacation trips through Oregon in the past. Gregg — a wine connoisseur — has ownership interest in A to Z and Rex Hill vineyards in north Willamette Valley wine country.

“They do a great job for the price,” Popovich says. “A to Z has some of my favorite wines on an every-day basis.”

Popovich, who turns 65 in January, ranks 12th on the NBA coaches career win list with 905. His winning percentage (905-423, .681) is better than everyone ahead of him except for Phil Jackson (.704).

And Pop’s playoff record (133-83, .616) ranks him third all-time behind Jackson (229-104, .688) and Riley (171-111, .606) in number of wins and second in win percentage.

In a recent vote of general managers, Popovich — the NBA’s coach of the year in 2002-03 and 2011-12 — received 75.9 percent of the votes as the league’s best current coach.

Pop’s ticket to the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., is secure. So how much longer does he want to do this?

“I don’t even give it any thought,” he says. “When you get to 64, people start asking, but it doesn’t even go through my head. I feel like I’m 25. I just can’t dunk anymore.”

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