The top-seeded Spurs manhandled the Portland Trail Blazers, defeating them in five games in the second round to earn a Western Conference Finals berth. Tony Parker went down with a hamstring injury in Game 5, but it doesn’t appear to be all that bad, per Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News.
San Antonio finished the year with the best record in basketball, which is an impressive feat; but it guarantees nothing.
The Spurs know this all too well after a collapse of epic proportions in their last Finals appearance.
What the Spurs Must Avenge
In Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, San Antonio led the series 3-2 and was the proud owner of a five-point lead with 28.2 seconds left
Champagne bottles were prepared and "Spurs win fifth!" headlines were likely already in the works. However, between San Antonio failing to get stops and missing free throws, the Miami Heat had a chance to tie the game and send it to overtime with a three-point shot. And then, well, this happened:
After Ray Allen hit perhaps the greatest jumper in the history of the NBA Finals, the game went to an extra period, where the Heat prevailed and forced a seventh and deciding game.
Overcoming such a painful loss can be incredibly difficult, and head coach Gregg Popovich admitted as much before the start of the season to Harvey of the Express-News: “I think about Game 6 every day. Without exception. I think about every play. I can see LeBron's [James] first shot, and the rebound, and the second ...”
Although it seems practically impossible to move on from such a crushing defeat, winning the championship in the following season might alleviate some of its sting. The Spurs appear headed in that direction.
The Spurs finished the season with a league-leading 62 wins, which is far more impressive than it sounds.
Popovich expertly managed his group by selectively resting players in an effort to reduce the wear-and-tear effects of the 82-game grind. Despite his best efforts, though, his stars still suffered a few injuries.
San Antonio's top six players were shelved at one point or another because of health concerns. Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter all missed some time. Have a look:
Despite the injuries, the Spurs took over the standings thanks in large part to their depth. Popovich continues to find the right pieces and incorporates them almost seamlessly into his team.
San Antonio signed Marco Belinelli in the offseason to stretch defenses with his career 39.5 percent three-point shooting. He's been terrific at finding open spots in the Spurs' motion offense and fitting in with both the starters and reserves.
Also, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw have looked like starting-caliber players throughout the year because of their solid production in limited minutes. Quickly glance at their respective per-36-minutes production:
Granted, that's all fine and dandy during the regular season, but what happens when they get called upon with the added pressure of the playoffs?
Coaches traditionally shorten their rotations and ride out their starters during the postseason, which tends to negate the advantage of a good bench. That's not exactly the case with San Antonio, though. Have a look at the playoff per-36-minutes numbers of Belinelli, Diaw and Mills:
That type of bench play perfectly complements the starters. The Spurs’ synergy prompted Point Forward’s Rob Mahoney to offer this take on the team in mid-March:
But the Spurs are the only participant from last year’s NBA Finals who can claim to be tangibly better than they were last June, augmented by internal tweaking. That development puts them in a select class of contender — a team not just with hopes of winning it all, but a pretty good shot.
Remember, San Antonio also has Ginobili coming off the bench, even though he feels like a starter more than anything because he is such an integral part of the team.
San Antonio has the right blend of shooting, scoring and playmaking with its opening lineup, and the reserves allow the Spurs to avoid suffering a substantial dropoff whenever a starter or two is catching a breather.
Diaw does a good job of moving the ball around and creating plays, while Mills helps on this front and provides solid long-range shooting. The Spurs are a defensive guru's nightmare because of all the offensive options they have at their disposal.
To add insult to injury, whenever teams think they've finally figured out San Antonio, Popovich breaks out some fun basic stuff that ultimately confuses defenses.
For instance, San Antonio put Parker in a bunch of ball screens in last year's NBA Finals and saw its advantages occasionally nullified by traps and switches. The coaching staff changed things up and had Parker isolate at the top off the floor early in possessions for easy scores.
Watch him attack Norris Cole last season:
Popovich brought another wrinkle to the table in the playoffs this season by posting up Kawhi Leonard. It's one way to get away from their traditional sets and create high-percentage looks without going deep into the shot clock.
Observe below as Leonard scores with his back to the basket in Game 3 of this year’s Western Conference Semifinals:
The Spurs are the "standings champs," which could very well be a precursor to the forthcoming events in June.
The Game Has Changed
On paper, last year's run was easier. In reality, it's possible that the path to the 2014 title will offer a more favorable set of circumstances.
It’s worth noting, if San Antonio makes it all the way to the title round, its opponents will have a winning record equal to last season’s foes or possibly superior. Have a quick look at the combined win-loss records of the Spurs' adversaries from last year:
Unless San Antonio faces off against the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Finals and the Miami Heat in the championship series, their opponents this year (potentially the Oklahoma City Thunder or Indiana Pacers) will have a superior number of wins.
Granted, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be tougher to win the title. If anything, the Spurs might have a better shot at getting Tim Duncan a fifth ring this time around.
The No. 2-seeded Thunder struggled to score in the opening round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis’ perimeter defenders made it quite tough to drive to the basket, while Marc Gasol patrolled the paint and made it difficult to score near the rim.
Splitter and Duncan will likely reproduce some of what Gasol did, and interestingly enough, the Spurs will unleash Leonard on Kevin Durant. No one can stop Durant, but the 6'4" Tony Allen provided the blueprint for slowing him down.
Allen was physical with Durant and got him off of his sweet spots by forcing catches farther away from the basket than anticipated. Leonard has the strength to do that, and at 6'7", he’s tall enough to contest and bother some of Durant’s shots.
If Durant looks mortal against the Spurs, San Antonio should make it to the title round, and Bleacher Report’s Kelly Scaletta believes that’s where it is headed should it face OKC: “I think the Spurs are just too good and too deep, though, and win that potential series in seven.”
Granted, the Thunder might not even make it to the conference finals because of the Los Angeles Clippers.
These tandems played each other in the 2012 playoffs, but the Clippers weren’t ready, as evidenced by a Spurs sweep. It was their first playoff run as a collective unit, and the Spurs were far too experienced.
Los Angeles has narrowed the gap, but it’s certainly still incredibly wide. What’s more, Griffin is the Clippers' best chance at taking down the Spurs, but he’s had his own set of issues.
In post-ups against Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors and Serge Ibaka of the Thunder during the playoffs, he’s had difficulty making shots. Both defenders have sat on his pet moves (right hook shot and baseline spin move) and forced him to beat them elsewhere; he hasn’t consistently managed to do so.
That’s incredibly pertinent considering that Duncan and Splitter basically neutralized LaMarcus Aldridge after he averaged 29.8 points on 47.9 percent shooting in the first-round series against the Houston Rockets, per NBA.com.
There’s always the possibility that Chris Paul could carve up the Spurs, but the ability to shut down Griffin might propel the Spurs into the NBA Finals, where the Heat or Pacers will be waiting.
Winning the NBA Finals
Miami has regressed compared to last season. The Heat still have the best player in the world in LeBron James, but the remainder of the roster has taken a step back. Dwyane Wade missed 28 games during the regular season and has been inconsistent throughout the course of the playoffs.
Chris Bosh has been good for small stretches this year, but he seems to disappear at times during games. More importantly, Miami needed a miracle shot in Game 6 and a final seventh game at home to defeat the Spurs last year.
This time around, the Spurs would play Game 7 at home if they were to face the Heat in the NBA Finals and go the distance. ESPN's Skip Bayless made it clear before the start of the playoffs that he didn’t think the Spurs would need Game 7:
Yet ... the San Antonio Spurs are about to ruin what shape up as all-time great, superstar-studded Western Conference playoffs by winning them, then wreaking revenge on the Miami Heat by beating them in six games in the NBA Finals in Miami, as they should have last June.
Granted, there’s no guarantee that Miami comes out of the East. The Indiana Pacers could very well dispatch the Heat and obtain a date with the Spurs.
The Pacers are perhaps unlike any other No. 1 seed in recent memory. Indiana has nights where it looks like a juggernaut, and then there are other contests where one could practically confuse them with a lottery team. They needed seven games to eliminate an Atlanta Hawks team that won 38 games and finished as the eight seed.
The Pacers then proceeded to drop the second-round opener at home against the Washington Wizards. They rebounded by winning three straight and then laid a colossal egg in Game 5 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They were destroyed on the boards (62-23 Washington rebounding advantage) and lost by 23 points.
Part of Indiana’s problem has been Roy Hibbert’s camouflage. He has games where he’s hiding from everyone, himself included, as evidenced by the box scores. Given that Hibbert and the Pacers have struggled against middle-tier opponents (Atlanta and Washington), it’s not a huge stretch to think San Antonio would run circles around them.
The Spurs have a solid group of role players surrounding the star trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, and they helped San Antonio collect the most victories in the league during the regular season.
San Antonio was the dominant unit of the 2013-14 campaign, and it even flexed its muscles during the Western Conference Semifinals, where it blew out Portland four times in the series.
The Spurs might have some terrible memories from the 2013 NBA Finals, but they should be able to overcome the post-traumatic stress the loss created, given how different the landscape is this time around.
The team records suggest that San Antonio’s possible opponents on the way to a potential title are better, however, those contenders all appear to have a few question marks.
As it pertains to the Spurs, their one glaring weakness might be a lack of athleticism. It certainly helps to have players with impressive physical gifts, but that’s hardly a requirement to win a title. Otherwise, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan would have a few appearances in the Finals by now.
Thus, it looks as though the Spurs have a very legitimate shot at avenging their loss from last June.