Memories of 2011 are fresh in San Antonio Spurs fans heads every time a first-round series rolls around. The loss to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies serves as a perennial reminder that no amount of regular-season success guarantees anything.
Top seeds don't count for much, not in this hyper-competitive NBA landscape.
The Dallas Mavericks will be reminding themselves too. They were the top-seeded victims of a similar upset in 2007 and will look to find themselves on the opposite end of the equation this time around.
These Spurs are no ordinary top seed. They're playing some of the best ball we've seen since the 2012-13 version came within a rebound of winning the title. Bleacher Report's Joe Flynn says it all, noting that while, "There is no guarantee that the Spurs will survive three rounds in the brutal Western Conference...this team is far too good—and playing too well—to bow out in the first round."
Of course the Mavericks aren't the only culprit about which San Antonio must worry. The upset threat will grow with each round, and San Antonio's resolve along with it.
It's coming into this postseason with seriously unfinished business.
All of them. For a team that used to suffer from a lack of attention, the media has been forced to exhaust every last narrative when it comes to the Spurs' success: their system, chemistry, IQ, depth, institutional knowledge and—of course—rock pounding.
We get it. Or, anyway, we should.
Part of the reason these themes are so tired by now is that the Spurs have been a model of excellence for so long. The four titles of the Duncan era are almost a side-story now. It's all the first seeds, the dominant regular seasons, the endurance throughout injuries, the sustained excellence in the face of age.
The quest for explanations hasn't had to go very far. The Spurs' formula is simple enough, really. Spread the ball around. Keep players moving on both sides of the ball. Push the tempo in an intelligent way. It's fundamentally sound, well-coached basketball, and it's succeeded through countless iterations of role players and supporting casts.
What's often lost in the explanations is why San Antonio succeeds where so many teams fail. It's not as if this model is any great secret. Executives and coaches around the league can be found attempting to emulate San Antonio. We see it to some degree in coaching styles, team-building blueprints and a host of philosophies replete with things head coach Gregg Popovich has been saying (or gruffly intimating) for more than a decade.
Why has it continued to work in San Antonio so much better than it works anywhere else?
There's much to be said for execution, the symmetry between talent general manager R.C. Buford acquires and the approach taken by Popovich. The players always seem to fit, even seemingly marginal pieces like Marco Belinelli. He was acquired during the 2013 offseason and averaged 11.4 points this season, exemplifying how effortlessly this organization retools on a seasonal basis.
The Young(er) Folks
Namely Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. You'd be hard-pressed to find a pair of better perimeter defenders on the same team. They're long, quick and committed on the defensive end. They're arguably the league's best hope of slowing down Kevin Durant.
But most importantly, their offense has come a long way.
Leonard actually produced more this season despite playing less.
But the most interesting facets of Leonard's game don't show up on the stat lines. He's asserting himself on the offensive end more confidently, shooting off the dribble and exploring his mid-range game far more than he did a season ago.
The Spurs can now put the ball in Leonard's hands and expect him to create. He's no longer just a corner spot-up shooter with a penchant for scoring in the open floor. Now he can do things in half-court sets too, suggesting he'll be able to do even more when games slow down in the playoffs.
Leonard's expanded game comes as San Antonio needs a more consistent third or fourth scoring option. Some nights Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili fit that profile—but other nights it's got to be someone else. That's just how the Spurs work.
The 22-year-old Leonard is San Antonio's best young player, but he's not the only one worth mentioning. Green has become no stranger to taking the big shot, and he's become much more comfortable putting the ball on the floor when defenders close out on him. Now you can't discount the possibility that he'll dribble by his man for a floater or layup. That's a dimension that just wasn't there the last time San Antonio entered the postseason.
But San Antonio's biggest X-factor is Patty Mills, the other sixth man. He's been hyper-efficient this season (18.80 PER) and averaged 10.2 points per game in just under 19 minutes of action. The Spurs will depend on his fearless scoring in these playoffs, especially if they go on to face teams like the Houston Rockets or Oklahoma City Thunder—high-octane offenses that run away with games.
The Spurs' youth has been key to ensuring depth. The team's second unit ranked first league-wide in points, assists and defensive efficiency. Veterans Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw deserve their shares of the credit, but it's been the youth movement that's kept San Antonio's energy up throughout each game.
That energy is about to go up another notch.
You have to like San Antonio's chances in the first round, and not just because the Spurs bested the Dallas Mavericks 4-0 during the regular-season series. The Spurs are deeper, they're more well rested, they're still playing off momentum built during a 19-game winning streak.
Leonard and Green will smother Monta Ellis and Vince Carter. The Spurs can throw a combination of long-armed bigs at Nowitzki, forcing him to do most of his work on the perimeter.
There's nothing stopping this series from going six games, but you'll have a tough time finding anyone who believes the Mavericks will win it.
The real upset threat doesn't come until the second round, when San Antonio would face the winner of the Houston Rockets-Portland Trail Blazers series. That's where things get more dicey. Either opponent would put pressure on the Spurs to play serious defense from one game to the next.
Both opponents lack the clichés. They don't yet have the intangibles that define championship contenders. They do have loads of talent. Enough to pose problems. But there's a difference between posing problems and posing a legitimate threat to upset.
These are the kinds of scenarios where adding up talent isn't enough. The Spurs know each other well as any team. Their synergy is a force multiplier, capable of turning guys like Danny Green into a Chandler Parsons on any given night, capable of making Patty Mills every bit as effective as Jeremy Lin.
Looking at the averages is always deceptive until you look at team-wide stats. Then you remember the Spurs had the best point differential on the season (+7.7) by a long shot. That system works, and it works against everyone. If anything, the regular-season accolades tend to understate that efficacy.
The Spurs are better defensive team than they were a season ago. If they stay healthy, don't expect to see the Rockets and Blazers posting 120 points per game. It could be a horse race, but San Antonio will have ample firepower to match the occasion.
The big question is already the conference finals. That's when San Antonio would either face the Oklahoma City Thunder or L.A. Clippers. In what's widely considered a three-team race, there really isn't an outcome in one of those series that would properly qualify as an "upset."
If the Spurs lose to OKC or LAC, they'll have lost to an equal foe—not an underdog.
Until then, the real underdogs can only bark so loudly.