The San Antonio Spurs limped into their contest against the Portland Trailblazers last Monday in the middle of their longest losing streak of the season, which was at a remarkably low three games at the time. With starters Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, and Antonio McDyess watching from courtside in sports coats, the skid continued to four games with the Boston Celtics on the horizon and the sky seemingly falling. At 57-17 however, the Spurs remained perched atop the NBA standings with home court advantage and the impending playoffs within grasp.
“It was a great game,” Coach Gregg Popovich told assembled reporters after the loss. “I thought our players were fantastic, super competitive, communicated well. We just didn’t shoot the ball very well from three or from the line. If we could have added a little bit of that to the competitiveness and the heart they showed, we would have been in great shape. I’m really proud of them. They were super.”
For Coach Popovich and his silver and black squads, success in the regular season has become commonplace, with extended playoff runs expected every year. The Tim Duncan era has been stacked with teams that dominated the grueling NBA schedule, with varying results in the post-season. It’s been four years since San Antonio has hosted the NBA Finals, but the Spurs’ surprising record, despite their recent struggles, has many thinking that this could be another special year.
Currently awaiting San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs are the upstart Memphis Grizzlies, who the Spurs split their regular season series with at two games a piece. The Spurs dropped two games in Memphis in March, suggesting that a series with the young Grizzlies could prove more competitive than anticipated. Another possible opponent in the post-season opener resides in New Orleans, where the hobbled Hornets appear to be an easier out after the loss of All-Star forward David West.
The Conference Semifinals should prove no less daunting with athletic teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets hungry to knock out a former champ. The Western Conference Finals would most likely bring a match-up with the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, who have posted the best record in the league since the All-Star break. Despite post-season success against the Lakers back in 2003, Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant, and Derek Fisher have haunted the Spurs in recent memory and additions like Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum have only widened the gap between the two contending teams.
The front line of Bynum, Gasol, and Lakers x-factor Lamar Odom has been particularly difficult for the rest of the league to deal with, resulting in three straight NBA Finals appearances for the Lake Show. Although young Spurs big men like DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter have shown significant promise this season, and veteran Antonio McDyess has remained consistently reliable, questions still remain. Will the Spurs be able to slow down Los Angeles with Matt Bonner and an aging Tim Duncan? Duncan may be the rock of the Spurs championship foundation, but how much pounding can one rock take?
Prior to the loss against Portland, Coach Popovich referred to the approaching gauntlet of contests as “money time.” Perhaps more than anyone on the team, Pop would benefit most from eliminating the ghosts of Lakers past. With home court advantage throughout the playoffs on the line and the post-season looming, expect the Spurs to step up and embrace their puncher’s chance of dethroning Los Angeles. Besides, aside from the Celtics in Boston, who else is going to stop LeBron James and the Miami Heat?
Manuel Solis and Rudy Gayby cover the Spurs for the Current in this bi-weekly column and throughout the week at blogs.sacurrent.com. Contact them at email@example.com.