San Antonio Spurs' Ideal Path to the NBA Finals

Eric EdelmanCorrespondent IApril 14, 2013

San Antonio Spurs' Ideal Path to the NBA Finals

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    Basketball is a game of matchups, and with playoff basketball right around the corner, the right matchup will make or break a team’s destiny.

    If anyone knows this, it’s Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich.

    Popovich’s tactical style of coaching is in many ways a key reason they've been so successful over the years. Humility over highlights, team success over individual stats, hustle over looking cool—all are maxims likely held dear by Popovich and his veteran Spurs.

    Popovich's squad can certainly take comfort in their skillful execution and focus, but they are undoubtedly not ignorant to what will ultimately make or break their success.

    While they have numerous strengths, they have plenty of weaknesses as well. Despite a deadly one-two punch with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, brilliant role players and solid coaching, they are a team whose age might prove a factor.

    In the defeat to the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, they appeared gassed and physically outmatched as the series wore on.

    They are a team that needs to maximize its experience, good shooting and star players if they are to handle some of the league’s elite. While they are certainly capable of winning a championship, it won’t happen unless they find themselves on an ideal path to their ultimate goal.

    So that begs the question: What would be the ideal path for San Antonio?

    Well, let’s take a look and chart the course the Spurs would need to have the best chance of winning it all this postseason.

The Underhanded Los Angeles Lakers

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    If the Spurs finish the regular season as the No. 1 seed, they would face the Los Angeles Lakers (assuming LA edges the Utah Jazz out). If they finish second, they would face the Houston Rockets. 

    While some have speculated that San Antonio would tank games to avoid a first round meeting with the  Lakers (and a certain shooting guard), a freak injury to one of the game’s greatest talents changes the complexion of such a series.

    Now with Kobe Bryant out indefinitely with a torn Achilles tendon, a Lakers-Spurs series would mean LA would take on San Antonio without their primary offensive catalyst.

    Despite owning a 2-1 series advantage over the Rockets this season, a playoff matchup with L.A. would likely be much less of an up-and-down game. The Rockets are high scoring, fast and athletic—three things that could wear the Spurs down quickly.

    No Kobe means the offense will flow through the frontcourt of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, and considering their perimeter shooting has been suspect, it would be a prime opportunity to expose a stagnant offense and porous defense.

    Depending on how the games are officiated, the pace would likely be slower and more predicated on half-court offense. This type of pace would favor a Spurs team that could easily take advantage of one of the league’s worst interior defenses.

    Assuming they roll past the Lakers in Round 1, Round 2 would mean meeting a familiar foe from last year.

A Second-Round Rematch

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    Not only would a No. 1 seed benefit the Spurs in the short term, it would also help them in the semifinals as well. Winning Round 1 means the Spurs face the winner of the Clippers-Grizzlies series, a series whose winner could be a prime opportunity to expose an old foe yet again.

    Assuming the Los Angeles Clippers battle past the Grizzlies, they would have an extremely favorable matchup.

    Although they’ve split this season’s series with the Clippers 2-2, in the playoffs last year they swept the Clippers with ease. Now, obviously, this isn’t the same Clippers team they faced.

    This Clippers team is deeper and more experienced.

    However, the playoffs are a whole different animal. Games are far more physical, and although regular season wins or losses should be accounted, the playoffs itself are totally independent of how past games went.

    The playoffs are also officiated differently—games become far more physical.

    For the Spurs, ideally the Grizzlies-Clippers series would be a war. The Clippers will emerge banged up, and if history repeats itself, Chris Paul will walk into a Spurs-Clippers series already fatigued and wore down.

    San Antonio did a great job last season of never allowing the Clippers to get in rhythm offensively. They forced Chris Paul to defer, and as a result most possessions ended with tough jumpers or Blake Griffin forcing the action. Chris Paul wasn't at full strength during that series, and if he is similarly ineffective this year it would give the Spurs a much greater edge.

    The Spurs would completely outmatch a Clippers team that sometimes struggles to score without Chris Paul, and their interior defense would be eviscerated by pick and rolls as it was last year.

    If they can get past the Clippers, they would be one more step from their goal of an NBA Finals berth, but not before they face their toughest test yet.

A Showdown with OKC

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    For the Spurs to make it to the NBA Finals, it would mean facing their biggest nemesis in the West.

    The Oklahoma City Thunder are exactly what the Spurs would be wary about facing—speed, athleticism and youth.

    After two favorable series, they would have to take a swing at a true test. Although, on paper this matchup would have San Antonio pegged as underdogs, it is possible for them to win but the conditions would have to be ideal.

    For San Antonio to have a chance, they would need Oklahoma City to have a bad shooting series. Much of OKC's offense is dependent on jump shots and free throws, and for the Spurs to really cripple them, it would mean they’d have to prevent from fouling and close out on the Thunder's shooters.

    Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and how efficient they can shoot the ball will be a huge factor for San Antonio. Although they no longer have James Harden, Kevin Martin isn't a slouch by any means. He's less of a creator, but he can light it up with the best of them, and he is adept at drawing fouls as well.

    They would also need Oklahoma City to beat themselves by turning the ball over—one of the fatal flaws of OKC.

    It won’t be easy, and the odds are certainly against them, but it’s entirely possible that San Antonio can pull off the upset.

    Assuming Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have a bad series, San Antonio could very well emerge victorious, and doing so would mean they’d face the best team in the NBA.

Spurs Versus LeBron James Part Two

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    The Spurs will have to face the inevitable greatness of Miami, but there is no question they are built to withstand it. Such a matchup would also rekindle memories of past glory for the Spurs—and tremendous disappointment for LeBron James.

    James’ first trip to the NBA Finals happened to be against the San Antonio Spurs.

    The Spurs completely dominated the series in four games, but the Miami Heat are an entirely different animal than the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers.

    Miami has a lot of shooters, incredible athletes and they have a lot of glue guys who can stretch the floor and play defense. Beating Miami would involve treating them a lot like they would treat the Thunder.

    Keep Miami out of transition, close out on shooters and pray for a miraculously bad shooting series from LeBron, Dwyane Wade and the rest of their offensive catalysts.

    The Spurs would have to really exploit the three-ball, and they would have to abuse Miami’s smaller frontcourt. Tim Duncan could really go to town against Chris Bosh or whomever else they attempt to throw at him, and double teams would mean better looks for shooters.

    Tony Parker would have to play a huge role in this series because if him and Timmy get it going on pick-and-roll looks, it would be a long series for Miami.

    This is another game that would be a battle of tempos—the Heat would rather run, the Spurs would rather run pick-and-rolls in the half-court offense.

    Whoever controls the tempo, will likely control the series.

    As far as coaching is concerned, Popovich could easily outmatch head coach Erik Spoelstra of Miami, and if he can find a way to force James and Wade to settle for perimeter looks, it would play right into the hands of the Spurs.

    With their combination of experience, depth and talent, the Spurs could certainly dethrone the reigning champs in a seven game series.