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Are the San Antonio Spurs Better off Entering Playoffs Without Momentum?

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Are the San Antonio Spurs Better off Entering Playoffs Without Momentum?
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
'Did you hear what the rest of the league is saying about us?'

By now, NBA fans have grown accustomed to the general dominance of the San Antonio Spurs. It stands as a constant, like time or the number one-third.

Then again, Heraclitus once stated that the only constant is change. Who knew he was a basketball fan?

Last season, the Spurs entered the playoffs with a ridiculous head of steam—winning 10 straight and 21 of their final 23 regular-season games. Then they won their first 10 playoff games and looked invincible.

That is, before they dropped four consecutive contests to the Oklahoma City Thunder and headed back to Texas with their tails between their legs. 

Spurs vs. Thunder, Game 6, 2012

This season, San Antonio dropped six of its final nine games including its final three, stumbling into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed. That's a great result for most teams, but the manner of the Spurs' skid was particularly unbecoming. 

Consider that they only finished two games above fifth place, and you'll realize just how close they came to blowing home-court advantage completely.

Nevertheless, it's not like the Los Angeles Lakers are licking their chops. No one wants to face Tony Parker and Tim Duncan in a playoff series, but they are no longer a mortal lock to beat all comers

And here is why a sputtering Spurs team should scare the bejeezus out of the rest of the West.

 

Health: Resting or Recuperating?

The Spurs' Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili have missed a combined total of 51 games this season.

Since coach Gregg Popovich doesn't acknowledge journalists to be the same species as him, and he also refuses to use language and conversation as a form of communication, no one is ever sure why any of his players are on the bench. 

But even Pop is not above scrutiny from the league, which fined the team $250,000 for resting its stars against the Miami Heat on Nov. 29 (per NBA.com).

Of course, the Spurs only lost by five points, but the fact that no one from the Big Three was even with the team was detrimental to TV ratings.

USA TODAY Sports
Matt Bonner, the Red Mamba, started vs. Miami on Nov. 29.

On April 25, Tim Duncan will turn 37 years old. And he was still an MVP candidate this season (17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.7 blocks), so I wouldn't worry about Timmy.

Tony Parker is the much bigger concern, as he's been dealing with a sore neck and sat out as recently as Monday because of it. He did, however, manage to play 27 minutes in Wednesday's loss.

Parker has also played tremendous basketball this season (20.3 points on 52.2 percent shooting, 7.6 assists), but the sprained ankle he suffered in early March threw cold water on his MVP buzz. 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Jordan!

As for Manu Ginobili, he's a different story entirely. The 35-year-old told Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News that he'll play limited minutes in the playoffs.

He also predicted that he wouldn't do much on offense, saying, "I’m not going to probably be a factor scoring-wise, but I’m going to try to be solid, create for my teammates, play good defense and help."

Perhaps he's just playing possum, but this is not encouraging news from the Argentine. Still, there has been a continuing trend over the last two seasons of Parker leeching Ginobili's offensive production, so his injury is slightly less significant.

USA TODAY Sports
Don't get used to seeing this.

Manu's scoring average has declined from 17.4 points per game in 2010-11 to 11.8 this season; he's also playing about seven minutes fewer per game. In that span, Parker's PPG rose from 17.5 to 20.3. 

If one of the Big Three is going to be hurt or diminished, it's best that it's Ginobili. 

 

Hunger: Winning Ain't Easy, but It's Necessary

Everyone knows the Spurs are an excellent team. There is no way to argue otherwise, because there are very few things it doesn't do well. 

The Spurs finished the season seventh in points scored per 100 possessions and third in points allowed (via ESPN.com).

Their offense was even more efficient than that if you look at advanced shooting metrics. The Spurs finished second in effective field-goal percentage and third in true-shooting percentage (which accounts for free throws and three-pointers). 

USA TODAY Sports
They ain't what they used to be, but they're still really, really good.

They also led the league in assist ratio (percentage of a team's possessions ending with an assist). But turnovers and rebounding have been San Antonio's bugaboo. It ranked 19th in turnover ratio and 20th in team rebounds. 

Still, the Spurs are capable of beating any team in the league, and they typically save their best ball for the postseason. 

Too much winning can cause complacency. When the W's come easy, a team can lose some of its edge. And that killer instinct can be the difference between closing out a playoff victory in the final minute or getting embarrassed on national television.

The Spurs' bumbling April should provide all the extra motivation they need. 

 

Faith: No One Believes in Us?

Popovich is the NBA's longest tenured coach at 15 seasons. He's won four championships since 1999 and hasn't missed the playoffs since 1997. Pop boasts a sparkling 905-423 record in the regular season, and his 118-77 mark in the playoffs (prior to this postseason) is almost as good.

Can the Spurs really play the underdog card?

This is a team who posted a 35-6 record at home!

But there's no law preventing a good team from fostering that mentality as a motivational tactic. The New York Giants used this strategy even after their victory over the previously unbeaten New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Even an underdog can win two championships in four seasons.

Newsday's Tom Rock spoke with sports psychologist Dr. Jack Bowman, who expounded on the power of thinking like an underdog:

 When you engage the underdog position, it automatically gives you a psychological and physiological advantage. These are some very powerful psychological effects that they're engaging here. This is stuff that actually gets the job done…When you are in the underdog position, it activates a perceived lack of pressure. 'We're the underdogs, they're the ones feeling the pressure.' You hear that all the time. When you do that, it's much easier to focus on the process.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin agreed about the power of considering yourself an underdog, but that and $2 will get you a cup of coffee.

He stated, "I think from a motivational standpoint in all athletics, whatever the sport is, [the underdog mentality] works to a certain extent. But when all the talking is done, you have to go play. That is what you have to be able to establish" (per Rock).

Who would be the favorite in Round 2?

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Motivation only goes so far. You still have to win the games.

While no one will call the Spurs underdogs against the Lakers in Round 1, San Antonio would face the winner from the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors series.

And there have been numerous pundits claiming the young, athletic and superstar-less Nuggets can outrun the rusting Spurs and power into the conference finals (such as Robert Dougherty of Examiner.com).

After all, Denver finished just one game back of the second seed. They also posted the best home record in the league at 38-3, and the thin air at the Pepsi Center should keep the series tight.

So it seems these aging, hobbled Spurs are no longer considered the juggernaut they once were, and some feel that the torch of Western Conference dominance will be passed any day now. 

Tim Duncan would love to prove everyone wrong and get Coach Pop a ring for his thumb.

 


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