Is there a more consistent team over the past decade than the San Antonio Spurs? They've quietly been the best team in the Western Conference, and that's saying something, especially with Oklahoma City as the favorites to represent the West in the NBA Finals.
As it stands right now, the eighth seed in the West is coming down to the Phoenix Suns-Utah Jazz matchup that will occur Tuesday night. The winner will likely continue to take on the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, looking to recapture some of the magic the Memphis Grizzlies were able to show in knocking off San Antonio as the eighth seed last year.
Already boasting two 11-game winning streaks this season, the Spurs rested aging star Tim Duncan in their 114-98 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The win also pushes their current win streak to seven, and with three games remaining, they control their own destiny in pursuit of the No. 1 seed.
If any team is going to knock off the Spurs in the playoffs, here's a guide to the blueprint they will likely use.
The Spurs are only shooting 74.5 percent from the free-throw line—good for 20th in the league. They also only average 21.6 attempts from the line per game, putting them in the bottom half of the league in that category as well.
San Antonio lives at the three-point line and thrives off timely shots from their role players. Teams that face them in the playoff should make a concerted effort to send the Spurs to the line more, sans Tony Parker.
In a loss to the Dallas Mavericks earlier in the season, the Mavericks sent the Spurs to the line 18 times, and San Antonio only came away with 10 made shots. Those eight points proved to be the difference as the Mavericks won by a seven point margin, 106-99.
Clearly, the Spurs won't be worried about Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker at the free-throw line in pressure situations. But the rest of the team has some proving to do, and if the Spurs continue to shoot at a poor mark in big games, don't be surprised to see teams attack that weakness.
Tony Parker won't win the MVP this year. But he might mean the most to his team, and his 18.7 points, 7.7 assists and 48 percent shooting from the floor show that he means business in pursuit of his fourth NBA championship.
Parker is the engine that runs the offense in San Antonio. His penetration spreads the floor for the best three-point shooting attack in basketball, and he also creates opportunities close to the basket for Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan.
The Mavericks used Shawn Marion on Parker. Should the Spurs reach the finals, it wouldn't surprise me if LeBron James took the defense assignment.
Teams know that Parker is the key to the San Antonio puzzle. If they can hone in on ways to shut him down, it will force Ginobili to be more of a playmaker and Tim Duncan to recapture his glory days, which bodes well in later playoff series.
As much as San Antonio will hope to play Tim Duncan 35-40 minutes a night in the playoffs, odds are they are going to have to use Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter without Duncan on the floor in certain stretches.
That doesn't bode well on the defensive end. Although they are one of the better team-oriented defensive teams in the league, other teams can still exploit individual matchups for success.
For example, if San Antonio sees Utah in the first round, give me a Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson or Derrick Favors matchup against Matt Bonner any day of the week. Los Angeles can throw both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol at teams too.
Since the Spurs are always good on the defensive end, opposing squads need to isolate their chances against weaker defenders.
At 39.3 percent, the Spurs are the best three-point shooting team in basketball. What's even better about that stat is they are only seventh in attempts per game, showing that they are more quality over quantity when it comes to launching the trey.
The Spurs are going to get out in transition and shoot the three, too. With marksmen Matt Bonner, Stephen Jackson, Gary Neal and Kawhi Leonard all shooting it well and surprise starter Danny Green playing like his pants are on fire, this team can shoot you out of the gym.
It's going to take a concerted effort to run these shooters off the three-point line. You'd have to live with mid-range jump shots from the likes of Bonner and Leonard and live and die by the ability to keep the Big 3 of Parker, Duncan and Ginobili in check by throwing the best defender at them for the majority of the game.
One thing is clear: San Antonio can beat you from three. Any team that will move on past the Spurs will find a way to limit the damage from outside.
No one would accuse San Antonio of not being tough. They've added Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw since the deadline and still have the core of their most recent three championship teams.
However, injury and old age have clearly affected the ability of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to play full seasons. The craftiness of Duncan and the all-out style of Ginobili will certainly win them games in the postseason, but how long will that last in a physical, ground and pound game?
The Spurs are a good team. They are the best in the West. Injury and fatigue aren't something any player, coach or fan would wish on a team, but those are the things that are the most likely to derail their title hopes.
Let's not anoint the Spurs quite yet. They'll have to roll through Oklahoma City and possibly Los Angeles just to get to the Finals. But if they stay the course, they have a definite chance to be right in the mix on the last day of the season.