The NBA playoffs, like any other big-time sports tournament, is often all about matchups, where the luck of the draw can be just as important as the skills a team brings to bear.
So why does it always seem like it’s former NBA players who feel the need to point this out? Players, it should be noted, who aren’t exactly coming to the conversation with the most objective of opinions.
Take Houston Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon, who recently confided to the Houston Chroncile's Jonathan Feigen that his old team would’ve given the No. 1-seeded San Antonio Spurs a rowdier run for their money than did the Portland Trail Blazers:
It’s deceiving if you just base it upon the playoffs, the loss in the first round. It is deceiving because I believe Portland did a huge favor to San Antonio. If the Rockets got past Portland, they had an opportunity to go all the way. ... My point is that team that lost in the first round was truly a championship team because you see they match up so well with San Antonio. I think they had a better chance than Portland. You cannot judge the Rockets team based upon just being out in the first round. I think they are a better team. I think they just played the wrong team.
Let me see if I have this right: You can be “truly a championship team” if you match up better on paper with a team that hasn’t even won the championship yet?
If Hakeem starts levying that kind of logic at his big-man camps, we’re going to wake up next November 1 to a viral video of Jonas Valanciunas catching the ball in the post, turning around and straight-up dropkicking it into the rafters.
In fairness to Olajuwon, the Rockets did sweep the Spurs 4-0 during the regular season. Although we’re assuming Gregg Popovich was resting Tim Duncan and starting Patty Mills at power forward in at least two of them.
Then again, San Antonio only managed to split its regular-season slate with the Blazers and still wound up brushing them aside like a harmless tumbleweed when push came to playoff shove.
Why? As Bleacher Report’s Stephen Babb recently noted, the Spurs’ unique veteran-rest regimen has paid far more dividends than fresh legs for their starting five:
Those minutes have paid off. According to Hoopsstats.com, San Antonio's bench ranks first league-wide in points and assists. The second unit has become adept at breaking games open in the second quarter. Most teams hope the bottom half of the rotation can hold on to a lead, but San Antonio's actually expands leads more often than not.
In short, health has meant two things for San Antonio: a fluid system and unmatched depth. Those are the kind of force multipliers that make average talent look unbeatable, that make the Spurs winners of 18 straight.
Would the Rockets have beaten the Spurs? Unless you know of a wormhole in Hakeem’s toolshed, it’s impossible to say.
What we do know is, after slogging its way to a seven-game series win over the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, San Antonio has looked every bit the part of last year’s finals team.
Maybe the Rockets really are contenders in wait. Maybe Olajuwon has a point about the potentially ominous matchup nightmare that could’ve been.
Then again, it’s hard to take a team that seriously when the best you can conjure is a legend’s hypothetical.