They are “the quiet guys you should FEAR” professes an NBA “BIG” commercial that has been cycling the airwaves throughout the 2012 playoffs. The Spurs have been quietly and systematically eliminating opponents, out of the limelight and away from the microscope of the media. And that’s the way they like it.
After winning 30 of their last 32, all eyes have fallen upon the Spurs and the fear-invoking streak they have put together in the beginning half of their playoff run. San Antonio entered the postseason with 10 straight wins, only to extend it by nine more games in series sweeps over the Utah Jazz and the LA Clippers, and a critical Game 1 victory against OKC. On the doorstep of a 20-game win streak in itself is an impressive feat, but their 9-0 start is a franchise best and ties the 2001 Lakers for the fourth best start in playoff history. As CBSSports.com put it, “the Spurs [are] flirting with history.”
But San Antonio isn’t after records; they are in the hunt for their fifth title. The pending question then, is whether the win streak will help or hurt their chances of winning the NBA Finals.
Tony Parker claims, as reported on Spurs Nation, that the streak is moot and they take it one game at a time: “We don’t even think like that. Each game is different.” Whether TP is bona fide or bluffing, there are two major concerns surrounding the streak.
The first is the amount of time off between series, bringing into play the fabled rust vs. rest debate.
The Spurs were the first to admit that their first half play was anything but deft and precise. They had an aberrant 14 turnovers. Parker, leading the way with four, attributed it to “not playing for a week.” In postgame interviews, both Popovich and Duncan described the team’s tentativeness and lack of rhythm. Being blunt, Duncan told Spurs Nation “In the first half it was awful. You know what, it was a very rusty game.” The Spurs, like a true veteran team, however, pieced together a strong fourth quarter and found a way to win despite the slow start.
With the rust most likely all shaken off, the six days of rest proved to be a critical advantage for San Antonio against the younger and faster Thunder. The Lakers, a team of comparable age, looked lethargic and worn out in their pitiful Game 1 performance against OKC. The fatigue of a grueling seven game series took its toll on the team. ESPN.com posted “Lakers championship hopes are over thanks to the Nugs! Exhausted after round one.”
Instead, the Spurs looked fresh, able to keep pace with the fleet-footed Russell Westbrook and stay in the face of Kevin Durant. Rest takes precedent over rhythm with a team who has as much playoff experience as San Antonio.
The six days were just as critical for strategy as it was for the veteran legs. The time for Greg Popovich to break down film and organize a game plan could be a discerning factor in San Antonio’s attempt to counter the Thunder’s dynamic offense. Timothy Varner of ESPN affiliate 48minutesofhell.com writes the coaching staff has “done a terrific job of outlining the crucial Xs and Os…this series is very much a chess match. And in that sense, I don’t think I’d say Thunder fans should be terrified as much as Spurs fans should be confident.”
A second looming concern of the Spurs streak is the hype that follows it. In the era of omnipresent media and hysterical hype-machine headlines, being in the spotlight can eat away at a team’s psyche. It is important for the Spurs to “play to win” as opposed to “not to lose” or they will find themselves drowning in OKC’s voracious transition game.
Hype can be a double edged sword. The streak puts just as much pressure on the opponent as it does the Spurs. The more they win, the more daunting the task to finally beat them may seem.
Lastly, team hype is good hype, (if there is such thing as good hype). In a postseason fixated with individual performances, focus on the team helps take pressure off of each player. No one feels the obligation to carry the load alone, which really plays into San Antonio’s favor considering their team-oriented offense.
I’ll take Parker’s word that the streak is nothing more than evidence of the Spur’s ability to achieve their day-to-day goal which is to win and keep winning. And what is more important than that, especially in the playoffs?