Can Anyone Beat the San Antonio Spurs?
We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty entering the final few weeks of the NBA regular season with potential first round playoff matchups beginning to take shape. Teams continue to jockey for position but the Spurs look primed to hold on to the one seed to face either the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers or Utah Jazz.
In the brutal Western Conference, it’s clear that there aren’t going to be any easy outs in the first round of the playoffs. The eight-seed, first-seed matchup looks to be no walk in the park either, although history (just three eight-seeds have knocked out a conference leader in a seven-game series ) says that’s not happening.
The most likely scenario for the Spurs are the potential pitfalls that await San Antonio after dispatching the potential eighth seed. However, in one of the most stacked conferences from top-to-bottom in recent memory, it wouldn’t be wise for San Antonio to sleep on their potential first round matchup.
Let’s take a look at the chances San Antonio steamrolls a potential first round opponent against the field’s chances at facilitating a monumental upset in a few weeks:
The Case for San Antonio:
Year in and year out the Spurs continue to be a dominant force throughout the regular season. San Antonio has finished with the best record in the West in each of the past two seasons and are in the driver’s seat to secure the top-seed once again in 2013. The veteran trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili continue to play at a high level and, if healthy, this is a team no one wants to face come playoff time.
Outside of the timeless trio in San Antonio, the Spurs have been able to keep key players fresh all season because of the emergence of one of the best reserve cores in basketball. Gary Neal, Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw, DeJuan Blair and Ginobili lead a bench that has perpetuated the starters’ strong play all year long.
It’s clear that Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t take kindly to letdowns from his second team.
San Antonio has been flat-out dominant so far, compiling the third-best point differential in the NBA this season – beating the opposition by an average of 7.6 points per contest. Of the three contenders for eighth, only the Lakers have a positive point differential (+0.8) heading into April.
Most importantly, the Spurs will be difficult to beat in any 7-game series early on in the 2013 postseason because of how difficult it will be to take a game in San Antonio. Featuring the fourth-best home record in basketball at 32-5 and the second-best road record (23-13) means any first round opponent can likely expect a quick exit.
The Case for Utah:
The Jazz come into action today riding a four-game winning streak and hold the tiebreaker over both the Lakers and Mavericks as the current eighth seed. After a dismal 3-9 stretch to begin the month of March, the Jazz have played much better as of late – outscoring opponents by an average of 12.5 points per during the streak.
Working in Utah’s favor in terms of a potential matchup with San Antonio is the impending free agent interior duo of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Utah’s frontcourt combination has the potential to give the Spurs fits while Derrick Favors talent, energy and effort off the bench will help deter San Antonio’s reserve effort.
The backcourt has also played well as of late, with Randy Foye and Mo Williams playing some of their best basketball of the season. Williams is shooting over 48 percent over his last five, while the sharpshooter Foye is shooting 61.5 percent from 3-point range and 62.5 percent overall. If Utah can get some consistency going with their starting guard combination, this is a vastly more dangerous team heading in the postseason.
Five of the Jazz final eight games to close the season are at home and, with a shiny 27-9 record at EnergySolutions Arena, the safe bet is that Utah holds firm at eighth in the West. Sufficiently challenging San Antonio will be another story altogether but at least the Jazz will have a puncher’s chance.
The Case for the LA Lakers:
A tumultuous season so far in 2012-13 has seen the Lakers go from early-season title favorites to a team struggling to secure the eighth-seed coming down the stretch. Featuring the fifth-worst scoring defense in basketball, allowing 101.5 per game this season, the Lakers are a team intent on outscoring their opposition. This is something this Lakers’ roster, featuring the likes of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard among other top scorers, should be able to accomplish on any given night.
If LA can make it into the playoffs, the star-power on this squad – along with Bryant’s ability to drop 50 on any given night – gives this team a better shot than any other potential eight-seed. The problem for LA this season has been the total failure to produce any kind of consistency or cohesion among these players. However, if this team can peak at the right time and start to execute efficiently offensively, San Antonio could have its hands full with these Lakers.
The Lakers face a tough stretch ahead to even make the postseason, beginning with a key contest in LA tomorrow night against the Dallas Mavericks. Following that key eighth-seed matchup, LA will take on five current playoff teams over their last seven games in a brutal stretch that will decide the playoffs.
Making it into the postseason is going to be difficult for Los Angeles but, if they can finally get it together as a team, the Lakers may have the best shot of this bunch to take down the Spurs.
The Case for Dallas:
The third-hottest team in basketball over the last month and a half of the season, Dallas has gone from eight games under .500 in early Feb to just a-game-and-a-half out of eighth heading into April. A resurgent Dirk Nowitzki has led the way, averaging 20 points (54.8 percent shooting) and 7.6 boards during the team’s 11-5 record in the month of March.
Most recently, during the Mavs 4-1 stretch over the past week, Nowitzki is averaging 25.6 points and 7.2 rebounds while making over 59 percent of his attempts from the field. The return of an MVP-level Nowitzki gives Dallas as good of a shot as any to at least get into the postseason and challenge San Antonio.
It also shouldn’t be understated the effect the bitter rivalry between the two teams has on a potential matchup. While the first two contests between an injury-riddled Mavs squad saw San Antonio dominate both wins by a combined 63 points, the last two have been much different. With a (relatively) healthy Nowitzki in the fold, the Spurs went to 4-0 against Dallas this season but by a slim margin of just seven total points.
The moral of this story is that Dallas, with Nowitzki resembling his old self, has the potential to keep games close over the course of a 7-game series against San Antonio. Does that mean the Mavs have a chance to give the Spurs a run for their money? Absolutely not, but challenging the West’s best team in some tight contests would represent the vast improvement this team has undergone since the beginning of the year.
Pulling off a miraculous upset seems like a long shot for either of these three squads. San Antonio’s combination of superstar, battle-tested players, depth and coaching expertise makes them a tough out.
With home court advantage a virtual certainty throughout the postseason, the Spurs are positioned to make another deep run. It’s highly unlikely that an eighth seed hovering around .500 is going to challenge that.
Give me the Spurs in a hard-fought but short series against either of these three squads.