Your move, San Antonio.
The NBA's Western Conference has never been more wide open than it is now and while every team stands to benefit from the west's current state, no faction is in as good a position as the San Antonio Spurs.
Injuries to Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and just about everyone else on the Los Angeles Lakers not named Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol allowed the Spurs to traipse their way through the first round. They sent a depleted Lakers outfit home in four games, winning each contest by an average of 16.3 points and now have the luxury of sitting back and watching the rest of the picture unfold.
San Antonio will be playing the winner of the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors series (most likely the Warriors). Though the Spurs were a combined 4-4 against both teams during the regular season, neither is at full strength.
Denver is missing Danilo Gallinari and Golden State, while rolling against the Nuggets, will be without David Lee should it move on. Those absences don't guarantee anything for the Spurs—who are still hoping Tiago Splitter is alright—but they present easier matchups than they initially did when Gallo and Lee were both healthy.
Looking even further ahead, should the Spurs make it through to the Western Conference Finals, they'll see one of the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies or Oklahoma City Thunder. The Houston Rockets are theoretically still a possibility, but no NBA team has ever come back to win a series when falling behind 3-0. Their win in Game 4 was an impressive steal, but the potential for an upset is dwindling, if not dead.
Oklahoma City should be the favorite to reach the conference finals, and had the Thunder not lost Russell Westbrook for the remainder of the season, they would be. But they did, and so they aren't. Not clear favorites anyway.
Again, this doesn't guarantee anything. The Spurs are 2-2 against each of the Clippers, Grizzlies and Thunder. Should they make it to the conference finals, the potential to fall at the hands of any one of those three is still there. It's just not as great as it once was.
The Thunder are down their second-best player. They played .500 basketball against the Spurs with him. Will they be able to win four of seven without him?
Memphis and Los Angeles are both healthy, but dating back to the regular season, the latter has lost two straight to San Antonio. And the Spurs themselves are healthy. And well rested. Don't discount that.
No one on Gregg Popovich's combine was forced to average 35 minutes per game through their Round 1 sweep of the Lakers. Only three players—Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard—averaged more than 30.
Not all matchups will favor the Spurs as much as the Lakers one did, but the wealth of minutes that were divvied up are both indicative of their depth and ability to put games away early.
And so, if there was ever a time for San Antonio to make run to the NBA Finals, it was now.
We'd like to believe that they could have made the trek through to the finals even if the injury bug didn't hit just about everyone in the conference. And the could have. But the chance of doing so now is even greater.
They'll be facing one of two teams (Nuggets and Warriors) that aren't whole in the second round and then it's feasibly onward to the Western Conference Finals, where the Clippers, Grizzlies, or Westbrook-less Thunder await.
Why can't they make it through that not-so-terrifying gauntlet? The Spurs run one of the most balanced attacks in the league. They can win by relying on offense, defense, or both. Like a more seasoned version of the Clippers.
It's worth mentioning that the Spurs are just a combined 10-10 against the remaining playoff teams in the west (not including the Rockets). Playing .500 basketball doesn't suggest a title run is imminent. But it's possible. Now more than ever.
The Spurs can play their way through the west. That was true before, and it's especially true now. Will it be easy? Even with certain teams handicapped, no. And even if it was, a team like the Miami Heat—who they're 0-2 against on the year—could await them in the finals. The Spurs are even 0-2 against the second-place New York Knicks as well.
Remember our prevailing theme here: Nothing is guaranteed.
Injuries to opposing aggregates have rendered San Antonio's path to the NBA Finals much more reasonable. They haven't made an appearance a certainty or even easy. And whoever the Spurs face should they manage to get there (barring any injuries of their own) isn't going to roll over like the Lakers.
So believe that the Spurs can make a title run. Believe that they can win it all. And let that belief mean more now than it did before the Lakers, Nuggets, Warriors and Thunder incurred the most surprising of personnel losses.
Just don't buy into the championship sea having been parted. It's a bit more open and the Spurs aren't drowning in deep or uncharted waters, but they're not championship locks. They're contenders. Just like the Thunder and Clippers and Grizzlies, among others, still are.
Only more so.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.
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