Having very few games to play is one way to ensure San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t rest any of his players in the early rounds of the playoffs.
The Spurs swept the Lakers and could easily sweep the Golden State Warriors in the second round.
That’s how well set up San Antonio is to reach the Western Conference Finals in a rested, ready mode—and in light of Russell Westbrook’s season-ending knee injury, it’s not even clear if Oklahoma City will be there again in the Spurs’ path to the NBA Finals.
Things are breaking quite nicely for San Antonio, and the Spurs have always been just the sort to take advantage of what opportunities arise.
Besides the rash of Lakers injuries that included a back-breaking one to Kobe Bryant, it was human nature that the Lakers would suffer a major letdown after pushing and pushing for a month-and-a-half just to qualify for the playoffs. Once they made it and achieved their goal, it was time to exhale and let focus slip against the Spurs.
The same thing is going to happen in the second round.
The Warriors are now classically happy to be here, having barely held on to advance at home in Game 6 and avoid a low-percentage Game 7 task in Denver. The Warriors are impressed by their accomplishment in knocking off the West’s No. 3 seed in the opening round, even though that was made far easier by Kenneth Faried’s injury costing the Nuggets most of their hustle, and Danilo Gallinari’s injury removing their best shooting.
The Spurs will step up to the plate now and knock this fat pitch out of the park, same as they did in handing the Lakers the worst beating in their entire history. (The total point differential of 75 was the most by which the Lakers have ever been outscored in any of their 150 all-time playoff series.)
There was no easing up by the Spurs just because the Lakers were terribly undermanned. There was no emotional distraction at the prospect of making a statement to the Spurs’ only peer as far as recent excellence in this league.
Here’s how Tim Duncan put it—and put it very well—after the sweep of the Lakers was complete:
“We came in here to win four games. We didn’t come here to play who they had, who they didn’t have. We respected the team for what it was; we respected them for the talent that they had. We understand that they were short-handed, and we respect that as well.
“But we come in here and we lose a game, or two, or three, or whatever it may be, and then it’s a different story: We didn’t respect them, and we didn’t do this, and we didn’t do that. But we came in here, we put our best foot forward, we respected what they had and what they could do, and we took care of business.”
Businesslike winning is the stuff of champions in the NBA playoff world, where it’s far more about execution than it ever is about emotion.
For anyone scoffing at the idea the Spurs can win both Game 3 and Game 4 in Oakland, where the Warriors are known to have a fantastic home-court advantage because of their loyal fanbase, here’s the truth: Golden State’s 28 home victories this season were fewer than the 29 posted by the Lakers or Rockets.
And nobody aside from Miami shrugs off the intensity of a great home playoff crowd like the tested veterans from San Antonio.
It’s going to be a reality check for the Warriors after their perfect series matchup: a Denver team that wants to push the pace as much as anyone and didn’t try to take Golden State out of its up-tempo comfort zone. Running into the Spurs, however, is going to challenge the Warriors’ ability to do all the right things in the half court—which is more unlikely with David Lee limited by his hip injury.
It’s also inescapable that Popovich is a superior basketball tactician to Mark Jackson, whose forte is motivation.
Golden State is the league’s best three-point shooting team—Denver was actually 25th in the NBA, believe it or not—but won’t be able to pull away from the Spurs easily on that front either. San Antonio is the NBA’s best-executing offense, equally capable of working in the post with Duncan or in pick-and-roll sets with Tony Parker and finishing as the league’s fourth-best three-point shooting team despite neither Duncan nor Parker being able to make them.
Make no mistake, the Warriors are on the upswing in every possible way—with a free-agent splash coming a year from now in 2014 when the contracts of Andrew Bogut, Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins expire. The move to a waterfront arena in San Francisco in 2017 will position the Warriors to be a true large-market power.
After reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and second time in the past 19 seasons, they just took a big step and deserve to enjoy it.
But the Spurs won’t be happy even if they sweep the Warriors, which tells you all you need to know about how different the teams’ expectations are entering this series.
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.