Heading into Thursday night's matchup against the Chicago Bulls, the San Antonio Spurs had prevented eight consecutive opponents from scoring in triple digits. A meaningless three-pointer from Nikola Mirotic on the final possession prevented the streak from continuing, but there was no doubt the San Antonio defense was locked in during the 109-101 victory.
How do you score on a team that has such confidence it can open the game with Kawhi Leonard switched onto Derrick Rose? How do you poke holes in a defense built to withstand any style of offensive basketball?
The Bulls found out, just as so many others have in 2015-16, that you don't.
Entering their latest outing, the Spurs were allowing only 97.7 points per 100 possessions—3.9 fewer than the Atlanta Hawks' No. 2 defensive rating. If we compare that mark to the league average (106), these Spurs have an adjusted defensive efficiency of 108.5, a number surpassed by only eight teams in NBA history.
On the backs of that defense, San Antonio has surged out to a 55-10 start, posting a record unmatched by any of the franchise's championship teams of yesteryear. Of course, it also helps that Leonard is capable of taking over on offense, as he did against the Bulls to the tune of 29 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the field, 4-of-5 from three-point range and 5-of-5 at the stripe.
At this point, it's tempting to consider the possibility of a 70-win season for a team that, thanks to the Golden State Warriors, somehow still sits at No. 2 in the Western Conference.
But for one important reason—the remaining portion of schedule—that pace may be a bit aggressive:
|March 21||@ CHO||35-28|
|March 26||@ OKC||44-20|
|March 28||@ MEM||38-26|
|April 5||@ UTA||29-35|
|April 7||@ GSW||57-6|
|April 8||@ DEN||26-38|
|April 13||@ DAL||33-32|
That's almost unfairly difficult.
From now until the end of the season, the Spurs only have the luxury of playing three teams that sat below .500 before Thursday night's four-game slate. One is against Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans—a team that's already handed San Antonio one of its 10 losses. The other two come on the road in arenas at elevation, and there's no guarantee the Utah Jazz will still be struggling when April rolls around.
There are three games against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Three contests with the Warriors also still loom large on the schedule.
All in all, the remaining opponents have a combined record of 680-402, which gives them a winning percentage of 0.628. In other words, the Spurs' average foe will be as good as an imaginary team sandwiched between the Boston Celtics (0.600) and Los Angeles Clippers (0.651) in the overall standings.
San Antonio may have asserted itself as one of the two premier teams in the NBA, but that's a murderer's row. Emerging from just the six games against the other top-three Western teams is a near-impossible task.
Plus, we all know about Gregg Popovich's penchant for resting key cogs down the stretch. Does anyone actually believe Leonard, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, LaMarcus Aldridge and Manu Ginobili will suit up in each of the remaining outings?
None of this sets up well for a run at 70 victories. In order to achieve that historic feat, the Spurs would need to lose only two of those 17 games, and that's not even remotely realistic.
But lest we forget, 70 wins is still an arbitrary benchmark. Instead, let's set a different one:
Throughout all the years of NBA basketball, only 10 teams have won 67 games in a single season. This year's Dubs will almost certainly join the club for the second consecutive campaign, but for the first time in franchise history, the Spurs should as well. Doing so only requires a 12-5 record from this point forward.
Even if when San Antonio fails to hit 70, it shouldn't be banned from the table reserved for the greatest teams of all time. Barring an inexplicable collapse after St. Patrick's Day, this is a squad that's unquestionably earned a spot in that group, and you don't have to dig deep for evidence.
Prior to the victory over Chicago, it had outscored its opponents by an astounding 13.2 points per 100 possessions. Not only is that the best mark in the league (Golden State's net rating sits at 10.7), but my databases show that would be the No. 2 score ever, trailing only the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' 13.4 net rating.
Basketball-Reference.com's Simple Rating System, based solely on margin of victory and strength of schedule, tells a similar story:
Forget about the quest for 70 and live in the moment. Each time these Spurs take the court, they're putting on a defensive show while demonstrating some serious offensive chops. Regardless of their final record, they've already asserted themselves as one of the best teams ever.
No One Is Catching the Toronto Raptors
Go ahead and pencil in the Toronto Raptors for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Except do it with a permanent marker this time.
Technically, there's still an outside shot the Raptors could catch the Cleveland Cavaliers and earn the top record in their half of the NBA. But if Thursday night's 104-96 victory over the Atlanta Hawks did anything, it made perfectly clear that no one below was going to jump past Toronto.
Battling back from an early bout with turnovers, the Raptors asserted their superiority over a Hawks squad that has been suffocating virtually every opponent since the All-Star break. As Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun pointed out, the guards were finishing at the rim with ease:
DeMar DeRozan 8-for-8, Kyle Lowry 3-for-3 at the rim against Atlanta so far.— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) March 11, 2016
Well, the "ease" refers to the nature of the Atlanta challenges. Some of the finishes, like the one below from DeMar DeRozan, were anything but lay-ins:
And for that matter, we can just overlook Terrence Ross' slam:
Regardless of which wing had the better jam, there was no doubt DeRozan's overall game stood out. He finished with 30 points and five rebounds, shooting 11-of-20 from the field and helping carry the offense while Kyle Lowry uncharacteristically struggled with his outside shot.
Toronto now boasts a 43-20 record—five games clear of the Boston Celtics and everyone below them in the Eastern standings.
So again, go ahead and pull out those Sharpies.
Kobe vs. LeBron, One Last Time
There was no way Kobe Bryant would fail to show up in his final matchup with LeBron James. Though he passed the torch to the younger superstar years ago, he needed to prove himself one more time. And despite the struggles he's endured throughout the 2015-16 season, that's exactly what he did.
Though the Cleveland Cavaliers ultimately beat the Los Angeles Lakers by a final margin of 120-108, Bryant turned back the clock. He produced 26 points, five rebounds, two assists and a steal for the Purple and Gold with no shortage of highlights.
Chief among them was this devastating post move that got James up in the air, clearing an easy path to the hoop:
But how about following up a slam from James with a contested triple?
And if one's not enough, how about two contested treys?
Fear not, we also had a few vintage turnaround jumpers. First, one that came after backing down J.R. Smith:
But even more special was the throwback release over James' extended arm:
Enjoy the highlights. Watch them over and over.
It's not every day two future first-ballot Hall of Famers go head-to-head for the final time, and it's even more rare when the elder player puts on a convincing show, refusing to let Father Time slow him down during what was surely a meaningful outing.
Young Talent on Display in Denver
The Denver Nuggets' 116-98 victory over the Phoenix Suns won't have much of an impact on the Western Conference standings. Both squads sit well outside the playoff picture, and that's not changing anytime soon.
But despite their lowly records, each team had to feel good on Thursday night while watching plenty of young talent shine brightly in the Mile High City.
Phoenix was led by yet another explosive scoring performance from Devin Booker, who dropped 35 points, three rebounds and five assists on 12-of-24 shooting from the field, a 1-of-5 performance from beyond the arc and a 10-of-11 showing at the charity stripe. Not only was this his fourth 30-point outing as a rookie, but his new career high also now serves as his third 30-point game in March alone.
Since 1963, Booker is now one of just five teenagers to score at least 35 points in a single outing, and Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Cliff Robinson don't make for bad company. But the Phoenix guard wasn't the only rookie to post a career high on Thursday.
Emmanuel Mudiay did for the Nuggets, putting up 30 points, two rebounds and five assists while shooting 13-of-20 from the field and 4-of-7 from beyond the arc. It was one of those nights where everything clicked for the young guard. His shot was falling, his aggressive mentality led to easy buckets against a porous Phoenix defense and he was one of his team's biggest sparks in victory.
We also can't gloss over Nikola Jokic's performance.
The first-year big man continues to shine when he's afforded significant minutes, this time to the tune of 18 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, two steals and three blocks on just eight field-goal attempts. Since 1983, Dwight Howard and LaSalle Thompson are the only players to produce such a well-rounded line while taking so few shots.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are from Basketball-Reference.com or Adam's own databases and are current heading into games on March 10.