In 2012, the San Antonio Spurs embarked on what many believed may be their final deep postseason journey. Losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the run was cut short, and the franchise was left searching for a fifth title.
Now, with the playoffs here, the Spurs will look to add another banner to the rafters of the AT&T Center.
Having earned the second seed in the Western Conference, San Antonio will face the Los Angeles Lakers in the opening round, a matchup that has amassed an abundance of attention throughout the NBA world.
The Spurs will enter the postseason struggling, but they have made it perfectly clear that it would be unwise to count them out of the equation completely—many have in previous years.
The 2013 playoffs have plenty to offer, and the Spurs are right in the middle of it, so let's find out what exactly to expect from the Silver and Black.
Routine dominance is the fitting description for the San Antonio Spurs' first half of the season.
Coming off of a devastating Western Conference Finals loss, critics once again threw the Spurs out of the championship equation, but after only a few games, the Spurs made it obvious that they have no intentions of letting Father Time get in their way.
Tony Parker continued his MVP-caliber play showcased in the season prior. Averaging over 20 points per game on a remarkable 52-percent shooting, the 30-year-old point guard made a strong statement about his place among the league's best, earning an All-Star bid as a reward.
Joining him on the West's All-Star roster was veteran Tim Duncan. At 36, little was expected from Duncan, who had shown signs of slowing down leading up to the 2012-13 season. Quickly, however, the future Hall of Famer proved that he was much more than a mere afterthought.
Executing as if he was a rookie, Duncan pushed himself to one of his best seasons—a remarkable feat considering his age.
Around the dynamic duo, everything fell into place, with Tiago Splitter emerging as a legitimate big man, Kawhi Leonard showing a vast improvement and Manu Ginobili contributing all the while.
Even injuries would not deter the rolling Spurs...until after All-Star break.
As the injuries grew in magnitude and impact, the second half of the season ended poorly due to lengthy injuries to Ginobili and Parker and the first seed—which they had grasped for the majority of the season—fell just out of reach.
An ugly April showing slowed the Spurs down, and despite reaching the 50-win plateau for the 14th consecutive season, the team showed signs of struggle down the stretch.
With the No. 2 seed, the Spurs will look to find their way back on track and prove to everyone that the late-season struggles were negligible in comparison to the big picture.
A late-season decline by the Spurs in addition to a late-season push by the Los Angeles Lakers rewarded fans with the matchup everyone wanted to see.
Having been two of the most dominant teams in recent history, the star-studded rosters will go head-to-head, each looking to leave the final mark.
Despite the rivalry aspect of the matchup, a season-ending injury to Kobe Bryant will rid fans the opportunity to watch the Black Mamba square it off with Duncan and Co. for what may be the final time.
Even without Bryant suiting up, the first round has plenty to offer.
Overflowing with stars, the Lakers will turn to Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol for leadership, and the Spurs will look towards Duncan and Parker to get the team back on the winning track.
Game 1 - Sunday April 21, L.A. Lakers at San Antonio, 3:30 p.m. (ET), ABC/R
Game 2 - Wednesday April 24, L.A. Lakers at San Antonio, 9:30 p.m. (ET), TNT
Game 3 - Friday April 26, San Antonio at L.A. Lakers, 10:30 p.m. (ET), ESPN
Game 4 - Sunday April 28, San Antonio at L.A. Lakers, 7 p.m. (ET), TNT
Game 5 * Tuesday April 30, L.A. Lakers at San Antonio, TBD, TBD
Game 6 * Thursday May 2, San Antonio at L.A. Lakers, TBD, TBD
Game 7 * Saturday May 4, L.A. Lakers at San Antonio, TBD, TNT
The Spurs won the regular season battle, 2-1. However, the point differential was zero, and each game was decided by single-digits.
Entering the playoffs, here is where each team stands:
Offensive Efficiency: Spurs 7th, Lakers 8th.
Defensive Efficiency: Spurs 3rd, Lakers 18th
Rebounding Rate: Spurs 19th, Lakers 8th.
Assist Rate: Spurs 1st, Lakers 18th.
The depth charts are as follows:
San Antonio Spurs
PG: Tony Parker, Nando De Colo, Patrick Mills, Cory Joseph
SG: Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Gary Neal
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Tracy McGrady
PF: Tim Duncan, Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw
C: Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, Aron Baynes
Los Angeles Lakers
PG: Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Darius Morris, Chris Duhon
SG: Jodie Meeks, Andrew Goudelock
SF: Metta World Peace, Devin Ebanks
PF: Pau Gasol, Antawn Jamison, Earl Clark
C: Dwight Howard
Tim Duncan vs. Dwight Howard
In with the old, and out with the new—or so we all thought.
Dwight Howard has emerged as one of the best big men in the NBA, leading a pack of stars to dominate the current era. Tim Duncan is long removed from his prime, and—with an evident decline in years past—many wondered if age would finally get the best of the veteran big man.
To everyone's surprise, Duncan emerged as a rejuvenated version of his former self, while Howard struggled in comparison to his previous campaigns.
However, with the latter having seemingly found his identity with the Lakers, the first-round battle will feature two of the league's best big men.
Howard has proven himself as one of the league's best rebounders as well a strong defensive player. Duncan has executed beautifully on the defensive end too, but his offensive prowess has been top-notch this season.
With the ability to dominate down low or from mid-range, Duncan possesses the offensive advantage, though Howard's spectacular defense will force the 36-year-old to work harder.
The same can be said on the opposite end, where a battle of sheer force will dictate whether or not Howard can lead the Lakers to a potential upset.
Whether it be on offense, defense or the boards, the big man matchup will be on full display in round one.
Push, push, push.
By the time the series comes to an end, Gregg Popovich will have likely spoken the above word a record number of times.
In transition, the Lakers defense struggles greatly, and the Spurs have the tools to fully expose it.
Tim Duncan has garnered a reputation for his pinpoint outlet passes, while Tony Parker's speed and playmaking aptitude allows him to be one of the NBA's best transition players.
With athletic wing players in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the starting lineup alone has multiple assets to dominate in transition. Add Manu Ginobili's flashy talent to the mix, and the Spurs should take advantage of fast-break opportunities.
At the same time, the Spurs will need to find success in the half-court set in order to succeed, and in order for that to happen, Tony Parker must take full control.
With Steve Nash's notorious defensive skill being the primary deterrent between Parker and the basket, Parker must command the ball at all times.
Between Duncan and Tiago Splitter, the Spurs have a strong post unit, but scoring opportunities will be harder to come by with Howard clogging the middle.
Ball movement is key—as to ensure that the Spurs can find open looks—but a fair share of plays should begin and end with Parker.
Game 1: The series will begin in San Antonio, where the Spurs will have the crowd behind them as they look to bounce back following a disappointing end to the regular season. The Lakers, on the other hand, will have momentum. Still, the talented Spurs are in dire need of a win, and the coaching of Gregg Popovich should allow them to finish out on top.
Game 2: The Spurs will once again host the Lakers, and with a solid win behind them, the confidence should be high. With everything running smoothly, Game 2 should end in similar fashion—with a Spurs win.
Game 3: Once the teams travel to Tinseltown, the atmosphere will completely change. With the stadium having transformed into a sea of yellow, the Lakers will look to use the cheers as motivation to bounce back—which they will do, though the Spurs will push hard to the very end.
Game 4: After dropping a game, the Spurs will return to L.A. searching for a much-needed road win. Having adjusted to the crowd, the Spurs will steal one from the Lakers, giving them a 3-1 lead as they travel back home.
Game 5: With a first-round victory just a game a way, the Spurs will enter the game with more motivation and energy than their seventh-seeded opponents. Enjoying home-court advantage, the Spurs should top the Lakers for a final time in 2013, as they prepare for the second round.
Spurs win in five games.
If the Spurs play the Nuggets, a win should come as well, as Denver has faced significant injuries down the stretch, including a season-ending ACL tear to Danilo Galinari. The Warriors, too, should be little trouble for the Spurs, who have the stronger all-around players, as well as more experience.
From there, the Spurs' postseason run may be cut short. Presumably facing the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs will be the underdogs for the first time.
Though James Harden is no longer with the team, the Thunder have proved that they have the talent to beat the Spurs and may send them home for a second-straight year.
At the same time, the Spurs are stronger from a talent perspective than last year, with Duncan playing at a higher level and their role players having matured. A win for San Antonio is just as likely.
If the Spurs should find themselves beating the Thunder, a matchup with the defending champions, the Miami Heat, will prove too much for the Spurs.
LeBron James will prove to be too much, and the Spurs will fall short of a title.
Even so, if the Spurs can make it to the Finals, the season should be considered successful in San Antonio.
The Spurs enter the playoffs after a questionable end to the regular season. Losing three straight games for the first time in two seasons, San Antonio don't appear as dangerous as it has in other years.
However, three losses also concluded the Spurs' 2007 regular season—a year in which they captured a title.
So as we enter the playoffs, the enigmatic Spurs have plenty of eyes on them as they seek redemption and another ring.
Perhaps San Antonio truly is struggling, and a fifth title will fall just beyond its reach. But it is never a good idea to count the Spurs out. Maybe, just maybe, Gregg Popovich has the team right where he wants it to be—flying under the radar, waiting to surprise the NBA world one more time.