5 Factors That Will Decide San Antonio Spurs' Playoff Ceiling
From the offensive scheme to a certain opponent's hot streak, a few internal and external factors will decide the San Antonio Spurs' 2014 postseason ceiling.
The Spurs must first defeat the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks, but eventual matchups pose unique challenges for Gregg Popovich's squad.
San Antonio is seeking a return to the NBA finals with a roster that is arguably better than 2013's Western Conference-winning squad, so the playoff expectation remains a championship.
Granted, as the Spurs found out last season after winning 15 postseason games, the 16th victory can elude a team in the most painful of ways. The trick, of course, is to minimize the negative factors and accentuate the positives.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all stats taken from NBA.com.
The Association's top-scoring bench (per HoopsStats) forgot how to score the basketball in Game 1 against Dallas.
Manu Ginobili had a 17-point, six-rebound, three-assist performance, but the triumvirate of Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills had a rough night.
They shot a combined 3-of-16 from the field, including 0-for-6 behind the arc. Diaw (2-for-8) even passed up a couple triples from straight on, which is the Frenchman's favorite area from long range.
San Antonio should be able to overcome a few lapses by its bench and knock off the Mavericks, but the Spurs cannot afford the lack of production against the elite Western Conference teams.
Tony Parker Entering the Lane
Tony Parker is the catalyst of the San Antonio offense, and the Spurs' success is largely dependent on his ability to penetrate into the lane.
Utilizing pick-and-roll sets, Parker excels at slashing to the rim and freeing up teammates for easy layups or open three-pointers. Plus, if he is consistently knocking down 18-foot pull-up jumpers, the offense is more than likely rolling.
But if the 13-year pro cannot draw defenders or connect on mid-range shots, San Antonio will be looking toward either Tim Duncan or its bench to pick up the scoring.
While those options are certainly feasible, Parker controlling the floor is the optimal situation.
Kawhi Leonard's Defense
Though defense lifted the franchise to its four championships, the 2013-14 Spurs win many games because of their offense. However, Kawhi Leonard supplies the necessary element of most championship teams—a lockdown defender.
Leonard's overall progression has been evident throughout the season, especially his improvement on the defensive end.
Perhaps Zach Harper of CBS Sports said it best:
There aren't very many situations in which he doesn't come through defensively. He's one of the best players in the NBA, especially on the wing, at defending the pick-and-roll. He understands where his help is coming from and how to funnel players into that help. He uses his 7'3" wingspan to make up for a 6'7" height that isn't ideal for defending some of these taller scorers.
So yeah, Leonard is pretty good at defense. Plus, with the likes of James Harden, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Paul George and others looming as potential matchups, the Spurs will be counting on Leonard to limit the output of these elite scorers.
Otherwise, San Antonio will be locked in more offense-focused battles than it would prefer.
Avoiding Injuries to Key Players
A sprained facet joint sidelined Parker for a couple games as the regular season wound down, but his final three outings were comforting. With that being said, Matt McCarthy discussed the severity of such an injury in a recent piece for Deadspin.
"All of the athletes (all were baseball pitchers)," McCarthy said, "were initially given steroid injections into the lumbar spine to treat their pain. Eight weeks later, however, all still had persistent discomfort of the facet joint."
Which is rather concerning. Parker will continue to play through pain, but is there a point at which his body can no longer handle the stress?
During the series-opener against Dallas, Duncan set a pick on Monta Ellis, and their knees were the casualties. Both players limped away from the incident, and Duncan committed a foul to leave the floor before returning for an excellent fourth quarter.
Every time the 17-year veteran hits the floor, many fans hold their breath...until Duncan hops back up. But will San Antonio be able to continue advancing if the 7-footer has to leave the game?
Well, the Spurs would prefer those questions remain unanswered.
Reggie Jackson's Uncanny Hot Streak
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are undeniably the leaders of the Oklahoma City Thunder. San Antonio will have its collective hands full stopping the pair of superstars, but OKC's wild card may be even more dangerous.
This season against the Spurs, Reggie Jackson is averaging 21.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists, shooting 67.9 percent from the field and hitting 8-of-11 attempts from behind the arc.
But the backup point guard's outstanding year is far from dumb luck. According to Basketball-Reference, Jackson boasts a career offensive rating of 131 against San Antonio. That is sheer insanity.
Containing Durant and Westbrook is hard enough, but both players eventually need to take a rest, which is when the Spurs must take advantage. However, Jackson has destroyed San Antonio in place of Westbrook, propelling the Thunder to victory in all four regular-season meetings.
Should the teams meet in the conference finals, that simply cannot happen if the Spurs expect to win the series and return for another shot at a championship.