NBA Sunday: Spurs Championship Favorites
San Antonio the Favorites to Win It All?
There’s an old episode of “The Office” where Michael Scott can’t decide how to open a wedding toast, so he just rattles off several attention-getters, one after another, to start his speech. The story of this year’s San Antonio Spurs kind of makes me feel the same way.
I could start by saying that San Antonio’s 24-0 run yesterday, which held the L.A. Clippers scoreless for 8:13, was one of the most impressive things any of us have seen all playoffs, but it’s not necessarily even unique for San Antonio this postseason; according to Elias, they’ve held opponents scoreless for stretches of six minutes or longer three times in their seven 2012 playoff games. Saturday’s Clippers drought was the longest postseason scoring dearth in over ten years.
Or, I could say that if the Spurs won the championship this year, it would happen thirteen years after the first time Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich won their first championship together. That would shatter the record of nine years currently held by Bill Russell and Red Auerbach, and in today’s NBA it’s hard to imagine that one ever getting beaten. Not many coaches keep their jobs for thirteen years, even ones that win titles, and it’s even rarer to think that there’d be a player still with the same team that much later able to play at a championship level.
Or, I could say that, at 7-0, the Spurs have swept their conference so far, and if they continued that and swept their way to a Larry O’Brien Trophy, they’d be the first team in history to go 16-0 in the playoffs. The 2001 L.A. Lakers came closest going 11-0 through the first three rounds and finishing 15-1
were the last team to finish the postseason undefeated, but that was back when the first round was only five games. Only three teams swept games on their way to the Finals since 1958, and while it’s not likely the Oklahoma City Thunder would roll over in the next round, it’s too cool a stat not to mention here.
All that said, it’s easy to get ahead of ourselves with this team because they’ve played so well thus far in the playoffs, but there’s little doubt at this point that they are the best overall team still left in the postseason picture.
For starters, their point differential is far and away the best of any other team in the playoffs, as they’ve won their seven games by an average of 16 points. They’re one of the few teams left in this playoffs that can get out in transition and run an effective half-court offense. Add that to the fact that they’ve got this perfect mix of veteran leadership and a hungry yet capable young bench, and you can start to see why they’ve had so much success.
Tony Parker has taken his game to the next level this year, clearly, as it’s not every year he gets more MVP votes than teammate Tim Duncan, and Duncan himself is lucky enough to have the sort of game that doesn’t have to suffer too much as he grows older and loses some of his former athleticism.
We’ve been talking all playoffs about which team had the tools to beat the HEAT, but perhaps we should’ve been talking about which team had the tools to beat the San Antonio Spurs, the team that finished with the best regular season record in the NBA. Whatever our perspective, the Spurs look like the favorites for the title right now, and it would take (heaven forbid) a serious collapse to change that.
Do The HEAT Have Any Fight Left?
Later this afternoon, the Miami HEAT and Indiana Pacers will play out Game 4 in Indianapolis, and there is no shortage of “What if?” situations in play for what could prove to be the pivotal game of the series.
For example, what if the HEAT lose? When Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first game of the playoffs, that was supposed to pave a wide open road for Miami to make a return to the NBA Finals this year. To lose in the Conference Semis to a talented but relatively inexperienced team like the Pacers would be a huge regression, and would make an already-warm spotlight on this team burn even hotter.
That Indy has won two games in this series at all is a surprise to some in itself, but they’ve been a young, physical, deep team all year long, and by contrast Miami is thinner than ever, particularly with Chris Bosh out nursing that abdominal strain. We knew that Miami would come out of this series a little banged up, but we all still assumed that’d come out of the series alive.
But what if that isn’t the case? What does that mean for how the higher-ups approach roster moves this offseason? Does bowing out this early in the playoffs mean the team finally has to start considering a move involving Chris Bosh? They certainly can’t (and shouldn’t) trade the recently-named MVP in LeBron James, and moving Dwyane Wade is equally impossible for what should be equally obvious reasons. Who else holds any appeal to other teams but Bosh?
Even if the HEAT opened themselves up to making that move, however, is it even possible to get equal value for Bosh? And would James or Wade be particularly happy about losing one of their best friends? The whole reason those three signed together in Miami in the first place was because they thought it would be fun to win championships together. Two disappointing years might not be enough of an opportunity to let this team do that.
But what if this is as good as the HEAT can be with so much money invested in those three players? What if Erik Spoelstra isn’t the right coach for this team? What if LeBron James, despite being the most physically gifted player in the history of the game, really doesn’t possess the alpha dog mentality to take the reins of this team away from Wade, whose own athletic dominance is clearly fading?
Perhaps the biggest “What if?” of this entire series is this one: what if we’re all overreacting about the 2-1 hole the HEAT current find themselves in? What if they come back angry and dominant against the Pacers in Game 4 and blow those boys out of the water? Would anybody really be all that surprised if Miami won the next three games of this series?
It’s that second batch of questions that makes Game 4 so interesting. Everyone knows what an awful hole 3-1 is, particularly when the three have been consecutive victories, but a 2-2 series is wide open. With two of the three remaining games at home, Miami would have an excellent chance at redemption, especially if they can get Bosh back before the end of the series.
The HEAT are easy to lambaste for a lot of reasons, but we can’t call this series over until it’s over. We’ll get a good sense of how over it is later this afternoon, and depending on how things turn out, the questions could only get tougher for Miami moving forward.
Who Do the Lakers Blame For 3-1 Deficit?
For the second time in three games, the L.A. Lakers threw away a win in the fourth quarter, which means despite the fact that they’re currently in a 3-1 hole to the Oklahoma City Thunder, it could just as easily be the other way around.
It’s not, though, and now a frustrated Lakers team will head back to OKC for Game 5 in a series where the ball just hasn’t bounced their way. As they face elimination, a fair question to ask is whose fault it is the Lakers are currently in this mess.
We could start by saying that it’s not anybody’s fault, that the Lakers are losing this series because Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have simply been too good. Durant, arguably the best player in the entire postseason so far, is averaging 27.3 ppg and 8 rpg, while Russell Westbrook is chipping in 25 ppg, 5.3 rpg, and 6.8 apg. There’s only so much you can do when two guys are combining for over 52 points a night.
But there is some internal blame, as well. Kobe Bryant, for example, pointed his finger squarely at Pau Gasol after the Game 4 loss at home.
“Pau’s got to be more assertive,” Bryant said in the post-game press conference. “He’s the guy they’re leaving. When he’s catching the ball, he’s looking to pass. He’s got to be aggressive. He’s got to shoot the ball or drive the ball to the basket.”
That lack of aggression has been a season-long problem for Gasol, who really never has quite found his way in Mike Brown’s offensive system. On Saturday he scored just 10 points and hauled in only 4 rebounds—definitely not the sort of numbers we’re accustomed to seeing from Gasol over the years, particularly in the playoffs. He didn’t even shoot the ball in the fourth quarter, and when he threw that ball away in the final minute of the game, Laker Nation issued a collective groan of frustration, especially when the result of that turnover was a Durant three-pointer that tied the game with only 33 seconds left.
But Bryant himself deserves a certain level of blame for yesterday, as well, despite his 38 points. Kobe has spent the entire year trying to do more offensively than he probably should’ve had to do, and yesterday’s game was a perfect example of how that can go wrong.
In the first half, L.A. got the ball inside to Andrew Bynum and got a good flow going on offense, but when Kobe got hot in the third quarter—and how fun was that to watch?—it got the Lakers moving away from what worked so well in the first half. By the fourth quarter, when Bryant was shooting duds (he was only 2-for-10 from the field), it was too late to try and reestablish something else. Bryant saved the day in a lot of ways, as he always does, but he also didn’t have the juice to close this game out.
Blame Gasol’s disappearing act, blame Brown’s coaching, or blame Kobe’s inability to keep his hot streak going in the fourth, but at the end of the day we have to consider whether or not the expectations were simply too high for this team in the first place. It’s not a perfect roster, and it’s no mystery that the Thunder are a really, really good team.
Despite all that, it’s frustrating to know that L.A. could (and perhaps should) be up 3-1 in this series, but you can’t win a series by giving away individual games like that. If or when L.A. loses this series, the blame won’t fall on one guy; it’ll fall on the collective, and honestly, that’s where it belongs.