You can get a sense of how long the Tim Duncan era lasted by going through the list of playoff opponents he faced. There were the Stockton-Malone Jazz of the late 90s; the Kobe-Shaq Lakers of the early 2000s; the Supersonics of Seattle and the Thunder of Oklahoma City; Steve Nash’s Suns; Chris Paul’s Hornets; Chris Paul’s Clippers; and, speckled throughout, various testy meetings with the Dallas Mavericks.
In fact, over 19 seasons of playoff appearances, Duncan’s Spurs faced all but one of their 14 Western Conference counterparts: the Houston Rockets.
In the 90s, of course, the Spurs and Rockets made for one of the better rivalries in basketball. David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon were two of the league’s most talented centers, and their clashes were must-see TV for the better part of the decade (even if Hakeem often found himself on the winning side).
Fast forward to March 2017, and we could be seeing a new chapter etched in both teams’ histories, as the two Texas teams have emerged as the most likely challengers to Golden State in the West.
The Spurs continue their perfunctory march to another 60-win season, showing no signs of slowing down in year one after Duncan. Kawhi Leonard is taking on a larger role of the offense and has been one of the five or six best players in a league brimming with stars.
The Rockets, meanwhile, have an MVP frontrunner in James Harden and are riding one of the most explosive offenses the NBA’s ever seen. At 43-19, they’re chasing the Spurs while sitting comfortably in the third seed.
Even with Kevin Durant suffering a knee injury that will have him out at least a month, the smart money would have San Antonio and Houston finishing second and third in the West, with a second-round matchup potentially in the cards. It would be the first playoff meeting between these two teams since 1995.
If the times they’ve met this season are any indicator, a seven-game series between Houston and San Antonio should be as compelling as any we’ll see during the entire playoffs. Over three games, the margin of victory has been just over three points on average, with the Spurs winning two of them in the closing seconds.
Furthermore, the teams couldn’t be more different – San Antonio has the league’s best defense and an attack predicated on balance and ball movement, while Houston’s system revolves around Harden’s singular talents. Leonard and Harden themselves represent distinct types of superstars, with Harden being more of an offense-first player prone to celebratory gestures and Leonard something of a defensive-minded monk.
Both teams could be good for a while, too: Leonard and Harden are just 25 and 27, respectively, and the organizations have two of the savvier coaches and front offices in the league.
That bodes well for an I-10 rivalry that has laid dormant for over two decades, with one team swinging back into contention while the other remains, steadfastly, on the hunt for another championship.