The San Antonio Spurs' sweeps of the Utah Jazz and the formidable Los Angeles Clippers is testimony to the incredibly deep squad General Manager R.C. Buford has built and that Head coach Gregg Popovich has cultivated.
Popovich's achievement of integrating all his players into the mix is even more remarkable in light of the work stoppage and curtailed preseason which has meant a packed schedule and limited practice time.
Examination of the elimination game versus the Clippers is fascinating. Finally, injury-plagued star Chris Paul was producing at his best and his team was comfortably ahead most of the game.
Spurs' star center Tim Duncan kept his team in contention with a stellar third quarter. But it was the contributions of role players such as Gary Neal who hit two three-pointers, one with nine minutes to go and the other with six minutes remaining, that are distinctive.
Danny Green hit a big three-pointer mid-third quarter to blunt a Clipper run and then with only four minutes left in the game hit another to tie it.
Tiago Splitter had a couple of key offensive rebounds and put-back layups, and Boris Diaw scored a couple free throws at key junctures of the game. In the NBA where it is conventional to run isolation plays for the iconic stars Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, etc., the Spurs' approach is markedly different.
Next up is the Oklahoma City Thunder and their three stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and off-the-bench James Harden.
What does recent history of San Antonio versus Oklahoma City games tell us about the series to come? San Antonio has won five of the six games between the two clubs the past two seasons but one could argue that the losing team in each of these games except one was playing the second night of a back-to-back.
The theme of the 2010-11 Spurs victories November 14, 2010, January 1, 2011, and February 23, 2011 was that the guard tandem of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili thoroughly outplaying Westbrook and whomever he was paired with.
Moreover, in each game there were stunning Spurs' bench contributions. In the November 14 game, Matt Bonner hit all seven of his three-point attempts and his 21 points sparked the Spurs 117-104 road win. DeJuan Blair contributed 11 rebounds in only 16 minutes play.
In the February 23 game, Bonner teamed with Gary Neal to hit six of eight three-pointers and combined for 31 points in a 109-105 win. And in the January 1 101-74 blowout, backup guard George Hill had 16 points.
The theme differed in the 2011-12 season primarily because Ginobili was injured and missed all three Thunder games.
Popovich, perhaps experimenting with an eye towards a future playoff matchup or perhaps out of necessity, instead started three forwards along with center Tim Duncan and guard Parker. In the Spurs January 8, 2012 road loss, Parker suffered a rare miserable one-for-eight game and backup T.J. Ford was bad as well.
Another noteworthy aspect of this game was that Thunder forward Nick Collison shot six-for-seven for 12 points and secured 10 rebounds in just 22 minutes.
The Parker bad game and Collison good game was entirely reversed in the Spurs' February 4 win. Parker produced the following amazing box score: 42 points on 16-of-29 shooting, nine assists and zero turnovers, 3 rebounds and a blocked shot.
In that same game Collison took no shots in 19 minutes of play and committed three turnovers.
By their March 16 meeting Popovich had determined that forward Richard Jefferson and guard T.J. Ford were not going to be important parts of his rotation. He had settled on starting three forwards Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and DeJuan Blair.
In this road win at Oklahoma City, they exploded for 58 points on a collective 24-of-36 shooting, including seven-of-12 on three-pointers. Blair's 11 rebounds combined with Duncan's 19 resulted in a 49-37 rebounding dominance for the Spurs. Both Parker and Westbrook played fine games but this contest was dictated by the big men.
I have not mentioned MVP candidate Kevin Durant.
In the three Spurs games he has averaged 22.7 points per game, below his 28.0 season average. I believe he, Westbrook, and Harden are going to have combine for 80 points per game for the Thunder to win. I do not believe they can do so four times.
It seems like destiny is dictating that the last team standing will be the healthiest, deepest one remaining.
With the return to form of Ginobili there is no other team that matches the Spurs' top ten and so consequently, San Antonio is less vulnerable to any single individual going down. Look how they thrived in Ginobili's absence.
The Spurs undefeated string will end but they will take the series in only six games and move onto the NBA Finals.