Can the San Antonio Spurs Be Upset in the First Round of the NBA Playoffs?

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Can the San Antonio Spurs Be Upset in the First Round of the NBA Playoffs?
Eric Risberg

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is not an easily satisfied individual.

You may have noticed this by studying his facial expressions on the bench during any one of his team's myriad blowout wins. No matter how many points the Spurs hang on their overwhelmed opponents, Pop's face usually carries the scowl of a man who cannot stand the haphazard basketball being played before his eyes.

Does Popovich really need that grimace at the moment? After all, his Spurs are the toast of the league. They are riding a 16-game winning streak, the second longest in franchise history and one game short of that record, which was set in 1996. No Popovich-coached team has ever won so many games in a row. Shouldn't that be enough to turn Pop's frown upside-down?

Of course not. Pop is still Pop. He is still going to point out the misplaced brush strokes in the Mona Lisa. And if his team continues to win, then, Gosh darn it, he's just going to have to find a problem with that too.

Per the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald:

Welcome to Planet Spurs: Where the only concern is winning too much. San Antonio likely made their coach fret even more by dismantling the Nuggets in Denver on Friday night, 133-102. The win was vintage Spurs: Six players scored in double figures, and 12 Spurs saw at least eight minutes of playing time.

While San Antonio is unlikely to finish the regular season undefeated—with tough games remaining against Oklahoma City, Indiana, Memphis, Dallas and Phoenix—the Spurs have all but locked up everything there is to play for.

The games won't really matter until late April: the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Once the postseason begins, Popovich will be singing a different tune about losing not being a bad thing. 

Those playoff games are undoubtedly on the coach's mind at the moment. Popovich remembers not only the sting of Ray Allen's last-second shot to deny San Antonio its fifth title, but the heartbreak that came with their stunning first-round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies as the No. 1 seed in the 2011 playoffs.

Nobody is better attuned to the capricious nature of the NBA playoffs than Coach Pop. In his mind, the Spurs are always on the verge of defeat.

But does this team actually stand a chance of suffering the same fate of that 2011 squad? Could the powerhouse Spurs lose in the first round of the playoffs?

 

Ghosts of Playoffs Past

San Antonio sits three games ahead of the second-place Oklahoma City Thunder for the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. Given the Thunder's recent struggles and their need to rest gimpy point guard Russell Westbrook, they don't pose much of a threat to make up that three-game deficit in the next few weeks.

Better yet, San Antonio also leads the top team in the East, Indiana, by five games—the significance being that they are essentially assured home-court advantage should they make it to the NBA Finals. And given the fact that they were up 3-2 in last season's Finals before dropping the last two games to the Heat in Miami, that should prove no minor prize to this team.

Of course, the Spurs still need to get to the Finals, or all those regular-season wins will be for naught.

The 2011 club also claimed the No. 1 seed in the West on the strength of a superlative regular season. They finished 61-21, four games ahead of the next best teams, the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks. But winning the Western Conference has been no easy task over the past few seasons. Even the No. 1 seed can find itself matched up against a team that finished the regular season at least 10 games above .500, as the Spurs did in facing the 46-36 Grizzlies. 

The Grizzlies built their reputation for tough, hard-nosed play off of that series. The potent inside-out combination of Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph decimated San Antonio, as the Grizzlies shocked the basketball world, winning the series 4-2.

 

The Contenders to the Throne

Don't look now, but if the season ended today, those same Grizzlies would face the Spurs in the first round. Memphis fell into the eighth seed following Friday night's loss to the Golden State Warriors

But these Grizzlies are no joke. They still have Conley, Gasol and Randolph, and they are one of the hottest teams in the league. Since the beginning of 2014, Memphis has compiled a 30-12 record; only their early-season struggles have kept them from a higher seed.

Does that mean that mean the Spurs are doomed to suffer the same fate as the 2010-11 squad? Absolutely not.

Believe it or not, this season's Spurs team could be better than the 2012-13 club that swept Memphis in the conference finals before bowing out to the Heat in one of the greatest championship series in sports history.

This year's Spurs are not just beating teams; they are annihilating them, per sports statistician Arturo Galletti:

Not only is this San Antonio squad undefeated against Memphis this year, it has lost only one game to any of the three teams they are likely to face in the first round:

  • 3-0 vs. Memphis
  • 3-0 vs. Dallas Mavericks
  • 2-1 vs. Phoenix Suns

There is no guarantee that the Spurs will survive three rounds in the brutal Western Conference. But this team is far too good—and playing too well—to bow out in the first round.

San Antonio would handle Dallas or Phoenix with ease. The Grizzlies might prove a more difficult matchup, but even they will not keep the Spurs from the second round.

 

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