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Are We Overlooking the San Antonio Spurs as Title Contenders Again?

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Are We Overlooking the San Antonio Spurs as Title Contenders Again?
USA Today

You’d think we’d have learned by now.

Once again, the San Antonio Spurs are in the Western Conference mix, a paltry game-and-a-half behind an Oklahoma City Thunder team the NBA cognoscenti claims could be unbeatable.

Once Again, Gregg Popovich has marshaled an offense that ranks in the top 10 in both overall efficiency and true-shooting percentage—a smart, savvy attack executed with a watchmaker’s care and an assassin’s precision.

Once again, we’re not paying enough attention.

Every year, it seems, we scour and search for some reason—any reason—to justify what must eventually come to pass: the formal, final demise of San Antonio’s flashless dynasty.

This season, it was the bevy of injuries that befell All-Star point guard Tony Parker, whom Popovich told reporters as recently as two weeks ago would be out for “the foreseeable future.” From Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News:

Parker has battled a variety of injuries — a shin contusion, groin strain and lower bask spasms — for more than a month and Popovich sent him back to San Antonio before the final stop on the first leg of the rodeo road trip last Wednesday in Boston

'Well, he doesn’t have a pulled hamstring, or anything (serious) but he’s got a lot of little things,' Popovich said. 'Basically, a lot of basketball the last three years: All season long, all summer long. He played for the (French) national team and that’s not a week at a time. It’s the whole summer, so it’s caught up to him.'

But the spindly floor general looked anything but hobbled in San Antonio’s 112-106 win over the Dallas Mavericks Sunday night, when he notched 22 points (on a crisp 10-of-15 shooting) and seven assists over 32 fluid minutes.

Whether Popovich was playing possum with Parker’s pains—a “variety of maladies,” he called them—is anyone’s guess. After all, the Spurs managed to go 5-1 in Parker’s absence, during which his lone respite was a brief appearance in last month’s All-Star Game.

With Parker back in the fold against their old rivals, the Spurs registered an offensive efficiency of 118.7, well above their season average of 107.3.

That the Spurs would need little in the way of a learning curve to recalibrate their offense with Parker at the controls certainly isn’t surprising.

At the same time, Parker’s seamless resurrection might reveal a bit about the true secret to the Spurs' time-tested success:

Their offensive production has become so consistent, their familiarity with one another’s niches and nuances so profound, that Popovich essentially folds injury time—even at its most precautious—into the greater goal of making sure everyone is rested come playoff time.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Tim Duncan has been the most famous face of Pop’s insistence on effective minutes management: Since 2005-06, Duncan has seen his average minutes decline in every season except one—last year, when he logged 30.2 per game, up from 28.2 the season previous.

But even when the playoffs arrive—bodies healthy, the production foolproof—the tendency is to assume their NBA Finals path is too littered with pitfalls and precarious matchups.

Last year was no different. Pitted against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals, the Spurs—who had dispatched the Los Angeles Lakers in sweeping order the series before—were thought to be too slow on defense to keep up with the Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

The Spurs won in six.

Against the team that ousted them the season before—the Memphis Grizzlies—the Spurs were doomed to watch their trademark offensive polish mucked and muddied by "grit and grind."

Four games, four wins.

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Faced in the finals by defending champs, the Miami Heat, the Spurs would hit a wall, watching helplessly as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade ball-hawked, rim-bludgeoned their way to a second straight title.

San Antonio took it the distance and came within one missed rebound from collecting its fifth NBA championship in 14 years.

Of course, when the playoffs begin anew in less than two months, we’ll do it again.

We’ll take some statistical esoterica and extrapolate disaster.

We’ll add up the years and the count the too-few treads about the tires and predict collapse.

We’ll look at the throng of conference upstarts and pine for a changing of the guard, because watching the best is only fun if it faded away on our schedule.

And you know what? So long as they heed Parker’s remarks, delivered immediately after the Dallas game, the Spurs wouldn’t have it any other way. From Spurs Nation’s Dan McCarney:

It feels great to have everybody back. Hopefully, everybody can stay healthy and try to make a run at it. Everybody recharged their batteries. Everybody should be fresh. Every year I like our chances so as long as we stay healthy and play our best basketball when the playoffs come. That’s the main thing.

If the NBA were the holiday season, the Spurs would be the Christmas Eve showing of It’s a Wonderful Life: You’ve seen it a million times before, you enjoy it and respect it, but seriously, isn’t there something else on?

Then the movie starts and the narrative grabs hold—an old classic whose movements and morals seem to pop through the black and white.

This might be the year we witness San Antonio’s overdue death rattle—that point when the powers of programming finally pull the plug on an old classic.

But if we owe the Spurs one thing—if not our fandom or fervor—it’s the respect and deference to history that says one thing: We’ll believe it when we see it.

 

All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 3, unless otherwise noted.

Jim Cavan is a Featured Columnis at Bleacher Report. Follow him @JPCavan.

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