Here we are: the last and most likely team to defeat the Lakers in the Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs. This series culminates with the team that has what is truly needed to defeat the Lakers in a seven game series.
You need a team with experience, a player capable of hitting clutch shots. A player who can attack the Lakers where they are weakest. A legitimate inside presence. Young legs. Championship experience and world-class coaching. The Spurs truly have all of these and more, so we will conclude this series with the Men of the Alamo.
Tim Duncan is simply put, the best PF of all-time. Karl Malone, that great Laker, showed what he was about when he choked for Utah in the late 90's Finals. Timmy has got four titles, with three MVP trophies, to go along with two regular season MVP trophies, 12 All-Star games, 13 All-Defensive teams and 13 All-NBA teams that he has made.
His career is clearly on the downside, and he has trouble keeping up with the more athletic PF's (hence Amare Stoudemire scoring well against the Spurs last playoffs), but in crunch time, he has been clutch more times than not.
Surely Coach Greg Popovich will reduce Duncan's minutes further to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Just as Doc RIvers' approach of managing minutes helped propel the Celtics to the Finals, Duncan may be very willing to follow suit for the games that matter the most.
Laker Pau Gasol is being called the best PF of today; however, the advantage that Stoudemire had over Duncan, his athleticism, is not matched by Gasol. And what Duncan does is match up better at 7-0, 260 lbs than did the 6-9, 245 lb Stoudemire.
Also, with Brazilian big man Tiago Splitter (6-11, 260 lbs) coming over, the Spurs match up better with the Lakers big men now, as opposed to the 6-9, 245 lb gritty, gutty Antonio McDyess.
Greg Popovich is the best coach in the NBA, in the words of Charles Barkley. Who am I to argue with such an authority on the game? Besides that ringing endorsement, Coach Pop does have those four championship rings as backup to his coaching acumen.
Pop can stand toe-to-toe with Phil Jackson as a coaching great. Though not always blessed with the most talented roster, he has done wonders with molding the Spurs organization into the second best organization in the League since 1997.
Without question, Pop is itching to get back into the gym to get this current group back together for a run at the Finals. He has more talent on the roster than he has in a few years, maybe 2003 or 2005. His playbook, though not easy to digest, is as championship-tested as it is voluminous. His variations on offense, defense and out of bounds plays take a backseat to none.
Pop, get your jeweler on the horn.
With dexterity and corazon galore, Manu Ginobili has seen three championship reigns come to the Alamo as a key player, and did not resign to in essence finish his career with San Antonio if he did not think a legit chance was there to win again.
Remember, Manu was to be a member of this free agent class and could have gotten a swell deal from some other team that had deep pockets and an appreciation for his unique skill set (New York, anyone?) but he decided to stay with his only NBA team.
His clutch play has been irrefutable and his ability to play through injuries can only serve as a catalyst to another deep playoff run this upcoming spring. Having fully recovered from the ailments of the last few years, Manu will be all set to challenge Kobe Bryant and the Lakers come May-June.
Tony Parker is the prototypical PG that is like a virus to the defense of the LA Lakers. Quick, able to generate his own offense, with a knack for getting into the teeth of the defense and create opportunities for his teammates, Parker will have the chance to go for ring number four for himself.
His pending free agency in 2011 will allow the playoffs to be his personal showcase. What, did you say that he may get selfish? Don't worry, Pop knows to pull Parker and put in George Hill if that became the case. However, I have never heard of a situation where the Frenchman has been accused of not being a team player.
The 2007 Finals MVP trophy he won is proof positive that he can do it on the higest level. Derek Fisher CANNOT stay in front of him and he may have to sit more in this series in hopes that Bryant, Shannon Brown or Steve Blake can do a better job on the defensive end of the court.
Much was made of Antonio McDyess' move to San Antonio from here in Detroit. He was missed because, aside from being a very nice guy (hence the nickname "McNice"), it was clear the move was inspired by his desire to win a championship ring.
He came to Detroit for that very reason, and came close in 2005, when they lost to... the Spurs. How poetic would it be then, that he wins that elusive first ring with... the Spurs? I call that poetic justice.
McDyess is not alone, though. Richard Jefferson is out to show that last year was an aberration for all who have watched him since Arizona. He was tentative, unsure of his role and was even benched at times by Pop. Surely, having the security of knowing the San Antonio way and that nice four year deal he just signed, we should see more of the RJ who was an All-Star in New Jersey, 20 ppg scorer in Milwaukee than the one from last season.
And speaking of New Jersey, on their second trip to the Finals in 2003, the Nets were beaten by... the Spurs. This is getting eerie.
George Hill, Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, and James Anderson have the capability to do for San Antonio what Andrew Bynum, Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujajic do for LA: change the game with their youth.
Their ability to get up and down the floor, make the hustle plays and contribute when the stars are not producing at their best can be the difference in many games.
There will be at least one game when these guys will totally affect a playoff game or two. We saw what happens when young players do that. Think back to last year's playoffs when Phoenix's bench won a game from LA, or Boston's Glen Davis and Nate Robinson decided a game, and even in Game six of the Finals when Jordan Farmar made those big plays against the Celtics.
These young colts are itching to be a change of pace when in the game together or keep the flow going when they check in individually for a starter. They are ready.
The hat that the Spurs have worn since 1997 (the year Pop took over the coaching duties) was that of a top flight defensive team. Things have not changed in the 13 years since then. The Spurs still are a team whose stellar defense is to be a constant.
Last year, they showed their defensive abilities when they totally dismantled the Dallas Mavericks in Round One. They caught a buzzsaw in the Phoenix Suns in Round Two (who then proceeded to push the Lakers to the limit).
Think that they lost to the Suns is not sticking in the collective craws of Pop, Duncan, Manu and the team? Think that their defensive rotations won't be improved? Think that last year's tapes won't be reviewed to see where improvements have to be made? Think this team won't be ready to put themselves in a defensive position to win through next year's plaoffs?
Watch them on the defensive end. Even if they have subpar offensive showings, they will wilt teams down by their defense.
1999, 2003, 2005, 2007. These are years the Spurs won their NBA championships. Four times in the last eleven seasons, the Spurs have been holding up the O'Brien trophy. They have been in the playoffs every year since 1997, and have only lost in the first round two times during that span.
This means they are used to playing later than most teams. They surely are prepared for every situation a team will face. This contributes to their seemingly malaise through the first few months of the season. The annual rodeo roadtrip is a great bonding time for the team, as that tends to signal the alarm to turn up the urgency.
Besides that, the heart and soul of the team has either won championships (Duncan, Parker, Manu, Pop) or have been at that level (McDyess, Jefferson). There is a familiarity that will not allow them to panic and fuel their drive to the top of the NBA world. Again.
Pick and Rolls, motion and backaction, swinging passes (and the defense) from side-to-side, post-ups, isos, etc. If there is an offensive scheme that leads to winning basketball, the Spurs utilize it.
Whether one wants to see McDyess hitting his jumpers, Manu beating the shot clock, Parker penetrating for teardrops or Duncan banking in post shots, the Spurs have as diversified offense as there is in the league. Few teams can exhaust a defense in such a myriad of ways like San Antonio.
When it gets down to winning time, no other coach is as adept at getting a good shot off like Pop. Maybe only his mentor, Larry Brown, is in the smae breath when it comes down to getting his players the shots he wants or needs them to take.
Pop will literally use the regular season as an extended scrimmage at times, allowing different players ot be put in situations that allow them to be a variable in his extensive strategizing options. Remember when the Spurs beat the Suns in Phoenix on Christmas when seemingly the fifth option, Roger Mason hit the game-winning three pointer out of the break? Luck? No, the design of the premier offensive play caller.
The rumor mill is working overtime in anticipation of the 2011 free agency period already. Tony Parker is on his way to New York, or other destinations that may benefit both he and his actress spouse. Let's say that is true.
No team in the NBA does a better job of shutting out distractions than the Spurs. Being the only team in town means you get all of the headlines and back pages, which can no doubt fray at the team's collective fabric.
In this situation, if this year is the last year that the 3 Amigos ride together, surely Pop and Duncan will call in the guys to make sure that they are ALL focused on the big picture of winning the title for the last time as a group.
I do not want to see TP leave, however, if his mind is set on it, there is nothing anyone can do about it (ask Cleveland ot Toronto about that). The difference is that those teams do not have the leadership from up top that the Spurs do, and can keep the big picture in the sight of all involved.
If it is the last ride, what better way to go out than on top?
I have presented three teams in both the Eastern Conference that can beat the Heat and three from the Western Conference that can beat the Lakers. The difference is that I am confident a team will beat the Heat (2012, maybe), but I would like to see a team beat the Lakers.
With that in mind, I believe that the Spurs are the best candidate for that. They have the experience, athleticism, coach and scheme to give the Lakers their toughest challenge. The Spurs should have no worst than the third seed in the West, which would most likely mean the matchup would not take place until the Conference Finals. As last year showed, seeds mean next to nothing at that stage.
I make no bones about the fact that I love upsets. They are good for sports, they have not yet hurt the NFL. Should these two teams meet, it wil be a cataclysmic clash next spring. After six or seven games, I would like to see the Spurs on top. It can happen. Stranger things have happened, and they can make it happen.
Next week for all of those diehard Miami fans (i think that bandwagon has just collapsed), I will do a projected matchup for them with the Lakers. See you then. After that, you will see my work in the section for America's game... the NFL.