One of the key elements to believing your team has the ability to win the NBA title is having another gear to reach in the postseason.
Everyone tries harder in the playoffs, so it logically follows that the teams with better talent—while trying harder—win more of those playoff games.
So in many ways, the San Antonio Spurs are exactly whom you want to face. With their continuity and old system and dependable role players, the Spurs are not going to scare anyone.
Something to that argument has been applicable in recent seasons, especially as Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili have faded to less than star players. Even with Tony Parker playing at an extremely high level, the Spurs just didn’t have that extra gear come playoff time, like the Oklahoma City Thunder did in the 2012 Western Conference Finals.
That’s how the Thunder won the last four games of that series and moved on to the NBA Finals. And looking ahead this season, as hotly contested as it has been, there's a similar expectation.
The Thunder, even without James Harden, have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook ready to reach a level that Parker, Duncan and Ginobili won’t or can’t individually if the Spurs get that far.
That was the generally accepted and understandable premise entering the Spurs’ playoff opener Sunday, when they handled the Kobe-less but still-talented Lakers quite easily; Los Angeles' only lead was at 2-0.
And despite Spurs coach Gregg Popovich describing Parker pregame as “healthy,” the slow movements and lack of blazing speed on display on the AT&T Center court from Parker in an 8-of-21 shooting outing against Steve Blake was not impressive.
Parker was quoted in the San Antonio Express-News recently as saying his poor performance one week ago in the loss to the Lakers came when “everything was hurting” after his March 1 left ankle sprain.
Ginobili went into Sunday having only returned to play the regular-season finale after a frustrating right hamstring problem, and Popovich said Ginobili was on a suggested minutes cap of 25-30.
Entering the postseason, it was hard to expect the creaky 35-year-old would be anything close to his former self—especially when you consider the reality that Ginobili averaged only 11.8 points on 42.5 percent field-goal shooting.
For reference, Danny Green averaged 10.5 points on 44.8 percent shooting. That’s how generic Ginobili was this season, producing the lowest scoring average he has since his first season in the NBA.
And then, of course, he proceeded to hijack the playoff opener by scoring 18 points in 19 minutes off the bench.
The coaches who’ve seen it before so many times, from both sides, weren’t surprised at all.
“That’s what he does,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He’s good at it. Obviously, 3-of-5 from 3. Even in the first half, I thought he kept them ahead of us.”
Said Popovich: “He does what he does. He makes big shots. He creates problems for the opponent, and he’s got great will.”
And to see Ginobili rev it up to a higher level offers a new perspective that there might be another level for the Spurs to reach this postseason. They’ve been scuffling along at 16-12 since the All-Star break. Their defense is shaky, but most crucially, the three lynchpins—Duncan, Ginobili and Parker—have not had much time together. .
Even Sunday, Ginobili’s big burst late in the third quarter didn’t come that way. He started off his run with Parker on the court, but not Duncan; he finished with Duncan but not Parker.
There is little as certain in these NBA playoffs as those three guys knowing how to play with each other—contrasted in Game 1 by the Lakers fielding and struggling with a Dwight Howard-Pau Gasol-Metta World Peace-Steve Blake-Steve Nash starting lineup that didn’t play together whatsoever in the entire regular season.
The two active NBA players with the most regular-season games together are Duncan and Parker, at 816. And San Antonio’s tandems of Duncan and Ginobili (677) and Parker and Ginobili (660) are second and third on that list. All those games were played with a legendary coach guiding them, same now as then.
The Spurs’ extra gear, if they have one, will be putting those old pieces back together after Parker’s ankle and Ginobili’s hamstring broke the puzzle apart down the stretch of the regular season. Duncan has already changed the landscape by producing nothing short of a renaissance season at nearly 37 years old.
It’s not the ideal playoff extra gear, but for a San Antonio team that hasn’t won it all for five full years after piling up three titles in the previous five years, it’s a reasonable hope.
“Until the beginning of April, we were in the top five in every category,” Parker said. “Then for various reasons and some injuries, we had a very tough month of April.”
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.