5 Things to Watch for During San Antonio Spurs' Final Games
Though the San Antonio Spurs draw detractors every season, the vast majority of them disappear by March.
This season has been a bit different, though. Despite characteristic dominance on their part, the Spurs' ability to contend for another NBA championship has been questioned, especially as of late.
Though his statements may not seem justified, the Spurs are not, in all actuality, a guaranteed playoff juggernaut—especially with the recent string of injuries that has brought the team's overall health into question.
Fortunately, San Antonio has plenty of time to correct its flaws and guarantee that it is in the best place to succeed when the postseason arrives.
With Gregg Popovich pulling the strings from the sidelines, you can bet that the final quarter of the season will be both interesting and meaningful as the team prepares for its true test.
Initial Reintegration of Core into Offense
For the first time in a long, long while, the Spurs' entire roster is healthy, aside from Jeff Ayres, who missed Thursday night's contest against the Miami Heat with a minor hand injury.
Though the Spurs were able to maintain their groove despite injuries to key contributors like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter, the fact that the team has not played together since early January is a bit unsettling.
Fortunately, the Spurs have plenty of time to integrate the core talents back into the offense.
They'll have to do so shrewdly, though, so as to not disrupt the hot hands of Patty Mills or Marco Belinelli. Even more importantly, the team needs to stay healthy in order to maximize its postseason potential.
While most of the formerly injured studs are once again playing significant minutes, Gregg Popovich needs to monitor them carefully while also ensuring that the team is operating cohesively come playoff time.
Some Minor Fine-Tuning
Contrary to common belief, the San Antonio Spurs are not, in fact, flawless.
Like any other team, they have their fair share of faults that could potentially doom them if not addressed prior to the regular season's end.
For starters, the squad has demonstrated a turnover issue as of the late, and that alone has proven to be the Spurs' downfall on numerous occasions, especially during single-quarter draughts.
In addition, the Spurs faltered a bit on the rebounding and defensive fronts during the long-lasting injury stretch, and while they rank comparatively highly in both categories, the issues that have surfaced certainly need to be addressed.
Whether or not things will work themselves out with the return of Splitter, Leonard and Green remains to be seen, but if any signs emerge that San Antonio may struggle in these spheres come playoff time, Popovich will need to make the proper adjustments in order to, at the very least, offset these deficiencies.
The Establishment of a Definitive Rotation
Lineup consistency is crucial in the playoffs. It is harmful to both the players and the team if definitive roles are not set before the regular season's end.
Unfortunately for San Antonio, the extended absences of numerous top performers has done little to help solidify the team's rotation.
Parker, Mills, Leonard and Tim Duncan have fixed roles. Beyond that, though, exists unfortunate ambiguity.
Boris Diaw and Splitter have been used interchangeably as starters, though that has been purely the result of different opponent strengths.
The real issue lies in the shooting guard and backup big-men—excluding Diaw—spots.
At the 2, Ginobili, Belinelli and Green have all emerged as top rotation players. However, a definitive pecking order has yet to be set. Green is often tabbed as the starter, though Ginobili is often used as the principal player at the position. That said, it can be argued that Belinelli has played the best of the three.
While all of them will need to have significant playing time in the postseason, the Spurs will likely use the final few weeks to experiment with different late-game lineups in order to ensure that nothing is unclear by the playoffs.
Similarly, the big-man rotation behind Duncan, Splitter and Diaw is anything but confirmed. Jeff Ayres has been the most used of the remaining names, but he has done little to separate himself from the rest of the pack. As to where the raw but talented Aron Baynes enters remains unclear, as does the usage of three-point specialist Matt Bonner. Throw in the newly acquired Austin Daye, and the Spurs have some lineup issues that need to be addressed.
Luckily, they have time to experiment before coming up with a finalized solution, though a solidified rotation should be established as soon as possible.
As mentioned before, the Spurs' primary concern as they prepare to enter the playoffs is health.
This is true every season, though this recent string of injuries makes it even more important this year.
In order to ensure that no player is injured once the playoff bracket is set, the Spurs will—and this much I can guarantee—begin resting their key players once the season enters the final stretch.
The veterans will likely be given more time to rest than their teammates, although Leonard and Splitter, among others, will likely receive nights off for rest as well.
Any and all measures to preserve their health should be welcomed, and it would be surprising to see the team's collective well-being compromised at any time prior to the postseason.
A Push for the West's Top Seed
For a short while, a late push for the West's No. 1 seed seemed unlikely for San Antonio.
Plagued by injury, they had fallen well behind a surging Oklahoma City Thunder. However, the Thunder have been shaky recently, and the Spurs have been the ones on a hot streak.
Capped by a win over Miami, the team has won its last five and sits just 0.5 games out of first place.
If the current trends continue, the Spurs may very well make a run for that top seed in the regular season's final stretch.
Of course, it is unlikely that Pop would sacrifice his team's health to gain a potential home-court advantage, although the Spurs have shown that they can win even with their starters resting.
If it's close when the final two weeks arrive, the Western Conference's playoff seeding may become a leading storyline, and considering their strong play, the Spurs will be right in the middle of it.