The worst nightmare of the San Antonio Spurs is to replicate what they did last season.
In last year's playoffs, the top-seeded Spurs lost their opening-round series to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, which was surely a devastating way to end what had been an impressive season.
After last year's bitter ending, many thought the Spurs would fade from the basketball landscape due to their age. But Tony Parker's MVP-like play and the emergence of some quality young players has San Antonio positioned to likely nab the Western Conference's top seed again.
What are the crucial factors for San Antonio to avoid what happened last year? What will it take for them to make a championship push?
Here are five burning questions for the Spurs as they head into the playoffs.
As with any team come playoff time, health is as important as anything.
The Spurs can't afford to see one of their main contributors suffer a setback or simply grow overly-fatigued. This is pivotal for San Antonio because veterans like Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili won't be able to recover from setbacks like they could've five years ago.
The Spurs are no longer a youthful bunch who scoff at the bumps and bruises they accumulate. They're like an old (yet still high-quality) car who is piling on the wear and tear. Can they hold up effectively enough to make a deep playoff run?
If all injuries are avoided (including minor setbacks), then yes. But that's a big "if."
Manu Ginobili has only played in 32 games this season due to injuries, but he's now returned and has put up some stellar performances as of late.
The question is this: Will the 2012 playoffs witness the characteristic Ginobili or a Ginobili that is a shell of his former self?
The answer to that question could be the difference between another early playoff exit and a deep playoff journey.
In the past nine years, Ginobili has been a pivotal member to every Spurs' playoff run. In their three championships they've won in his tenure ('03, '05, '07), he's been their "X-factor" contributor who has put them over the top.
If Ginobili doesn't produce effectively or gets injured, the Spurs' title hopes will close very fast.
People tend to view the Spurs as the "elder statesman" of the NBA. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili seem like they've been around forever.
What people can quickly overlook is the fact that this year's Spurs feature a bevy of young contributors. Rookie Kawhi Leonard is looking like one of the top selections of last year's draft, contributing efficiently on both ends of the floor.
San Antonio is also receiving ample contributions from Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter and Daniel Green, all whom are relatively younger players without much playoff experience.
Are these young guns ready for the big stage? If they're poised to make a name for themselves in the next couple months, then the Spurs could be headed towards another title.
But if these youngsters prove inept come playoff time, it's unlikely the Spurs will advance to the later rounds.
Most championship teams have an unsung hero who emerges as the postseason drama unfolds.
Last season, it was J.J. Barea of the Dallas Mavericks, who made timely play after timely play in the Mavs surge to the NBA mountaintop.
Do the Spurs have a player who could become this in this year's playoffs? Gary Neal would seem to be a great candidate, or perhaps a veteran presence, such as new additions Stephen Jackson or Boris Diaw.
No matter what, an unsung hero must step to the forefront. The Spurs lack the firepower they've had in years past, so they must feed off of defensive grit and timely contributions from their role players. Such seemingly small contributions could lead to large rewards for the 2012 Spurs.
San Antonio's role players will undoubtedly need to step up come playoff time, but the heart and soul of the Spurs still lies in the hands of Tony Parker and Tim Duncan.
Do Parker and Duncan still have the capacity to compete with the rising duos in the league, particularly Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the L.A. Clippers' Chris Paul and Blake Griffin?
Most people would argue that the Spurs' time has past and a new era has now begun. But it's no coincidence that the Spurs are once again going to finish with close to, if not the best, record in the league.
They must now prove they're still elite by exclaiming it in the playoffs, and Parker and Duncan must be at the center of this quest.