Almost no one had predicted in the offseason that the Spurs would be the top team in the league, with most pundits citing the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat as the "team to beat."
Given that the Spurs were the seventh seed in the Western Conference last year, who despite beating the second-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round were swept by the Phoenix Suns in the conference semifinals, it's not surprising that the Spurs didn't top anyone's power rankings.
The Spurs, however, have surprised just about everyone this season, achieving a stunning 49-10 record going into last night's game with a six-game lead over the second-place Mavericks.
However, with the recent calf injury to Spurs star point guard Tony Parker, which is expected to keep him on the sidelines for up to four weeks, San Antonio is now in danger of losing its first-place momentum with just over 20 games left to play in the season.
The importance of Parker to the Spurs team could not be more evident in last night's game against the Memphis Grizzlies, who are just the current eighth seed in the West with a hardly intimidating 34-28 record.
Despite having beaten them just two nights before when Parker was still in the lineup until he went down with his injury in the second quarter, the Spurs were blown out by 16 points by the Grizzlies in last night's humiliating 109-93 loss.
Given that the red-hot Dallas Mavericks, who have won seven games in a row, are now just five games behind the Spurs for the Western Conference lead after winning their own game last night against the Sixers, the Spurs are in danger of losing their No. 1 seeding before Parker returns to the lineup.
Faced with a difficult schedule in the next four weeks that Parker is expected to be out, the Spurs must play the Heat twice, the Lakers, the Mavericks, the Nuggets, the Trail Blazers twice, the Grizzlies again and the Celtics.
Without Parker, the Spurs are likely to lose many, if not most, of these games.
At the same time, the Mavericks face a relatively much easier schedule, with the most difficult games being against the Lakers twice, the Knicks and the Spurs, with a load of "gimmes" against the Sixers, the Pacers, the Grizzlies, the Timberwolves twice, the Warriors twice, the Jazz, the Suns and the Clippers.
The difference is the Spurs are without one of their best players and their last Finals MVP who runs their offense, while the Mavericks are at pretty much full strength.
If the Mavericks overtake the Spurs for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, that changes the playoffs landscape dramatically.
If the Spurs had remained healthy and kept the No. 1 seed, it would have meant that they would face the now more powerful Oklahoma City Thunder, with the recent acquisition of former Celtics starting center, Kendrick Perkins, in the second round of the playoffs.
That was a dream matchup for the Lakers because the Spurs and the Thunder are the two most difficult teams that the Lakers would have to face in the West.
Having them meet in the second round means that the Lakers would only need to play one of these teams, and only after they had beaten each other up in the previous round.
Now with the Mavericks likely taking over the No. 1 seed in the West, it means that the Spurs would face the Lakers in the second round, being the likely second and third seeds respectively.
That is a difficult matchup for Los Angeles and one that the Lakers had wanted to postpone until the Western Conference Finals, when the Spurs would have been weakened by their expected long and hard series against the Thunder.
The other second-round Western Conference series would be the Mavericks vs. the Thunder. Given that the Mavericks traditionally choke in the playoffs, combined with the Thunder's reloaded strength, Oklahoma City would likely be the victor in that matchup.
That means that should the Lakers prevail over the Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals, they still have the Thunder waiting for them in the Western Conference Finals.
Again, this is a difficult matchup for the Lakers given that even without Perkins, the Thunder had taken Los Angeles to six games in last year's playoffs.
With Perkins providing the big man interior defense that they so desperately need while also being an offensive and defensive rebounding force, the Thunder, with All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, match up well with the Lakers while surpassing them in youthful energy and endurance, which is critical if the series becomes long and drawn out.
While there is no doubt that the Lakers can still survive this revised road to the NBA Finals, having to face both the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder makes it much more difficult and challenging.
When freshness of legs and the avoidance of key injuries are critical to NBA Finals success, meeting the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat in the big dance after just surviving the Spurs and the Thunder is not the ideal situation for the Lakers.
Nevertheless, a true champion takes all comers and defeats them. Therefore, should this playoffs path materialize, the Lakers should take this as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle, toward their immortality and greatness in achieving their second Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson three-peat and 17th NBA championship.
In the Eastern Conference, here's "Why Chauncey Billups, Not Carmelo Anthony, Is the New King of New York."
Looking toward the near future, here are the "Top 5 Obstacles in the Lakers' Path to More Championships."
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