You may not know, but the San Antonio Spurs are really good.
What a difference one week makes. Just eight days ago, the San Antonio Spurs were fighting for their playoff lives in Game 7 against the Dallas Mavericks. Monday night in Portland, the Spurs were one game away from sweeping the Trail Blazers and advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the third straight season.
In Game 4, the Spurs were outplayed in every aspect of the game by a prideful Portland team, who wouldn’t roll over to the defending conference champions and forced Game 5 in San Antonio. Although Game 4 wasn’t San Antonio’s best effort, the four games prior to Game 4 (Game 7 vs. Dallas, and Games 1, 2, 3 vs. Portland) are proof the Spurs have “flipped the switch” and look like the favorite to win the Western Conference.
In the first six games of the first-round series against Dallas, the Spurs didn’t really show up. San Antonio went through the motions for four games. It seemed like they weren’t really interested in competing. Dallas controlled the series from the start, but blew a lead late in Game 1. The Mavericks went on to win the next two games and had a 2-1 lead in the series. The Spurs rebounded to win Games 4 and 5, but the Spurs failed to dominate those games, as well, and the result was very much up in the air until the Spurs held on the last few minutes. Dallas won Game 6 and forced Game 7 against their rival.
Then, between Game 6 and Game 7, something changed with San Antonio. We’ll never find out what exactly happened, whether it was a change in attitude or a “wake up call.” The Spurs came out in Game 7 with a sense of urgency, lock-down defense and an unstoppable offense that led to a 119-96 win, a score that doesn’t reflect how much of a beat down San Antonio put on Dallas.
Based on how much they struggled in the first-round, most people, myself included, assumed Portland had a decent chance in the series. There’s obvious similarities between the Mavericks and the Trail Blazers, and it seemed plausible that the Trail Blazers could hang with the Spurs.
Well, we were all wrong (for like the millionth time) about the Spurs. Minus a minor slip in Game 4, the Spurs have been a well-oiled machine lately. In the Game 7 against Dallas and the first three games against Portland, the Spurs averaged 116.75 points per game and only allowed 97 points per game, a winning margin of almost 20 points per game. Some of the games weren’t even that close. No one in the entire league can compete with the Spurs when they play like that. Not Miami. Not Oklahoma City. Nobody.
A huge reason for that success has come from Tony Parker. Portland has had no answer for Parker, who scored averaged 27 points in the first three games of the series. Finally, in Game 4, Nic Batum was able to slow down his fellow Frenchman, but Parker wasn’t as aggressive as he’d been in the first three games, which could be attributed to fatigue or the matchup problem created by Batum matching up with Parker.
Parker has been so good getting into the paint in this series that Portland’s help defense is leaving wide-open shooters. In the first three games, the Spurs made the Blazers pay from beyond the arc, making almost 50 percent of their 3-point attempts. If Parker gets into the lane consistently, the Spurs will win almost every time. That’s just how it is.
San Antonio’s success in the series has less to do with Portland and more about a championship level team hitting their stride at the right time of the season. Portland is playing San Antonio as best they can, but like I said earlier, no one in the NBA was going to beat San Antonio the first three games of this series. Portland walked into a buzz-saw in the second-round, which is unfortunate because the Blazers have had such a great season. The Blazers are the fifth-best team left in the postseason, and they’re going to get bounced before the conference finals. That’s probably an easier pill to swallow than the team who loses the Clippers-Thunder series.
Regardless of which team advances between the Clippers and Thunder, they will definitely have their hands full with San Antonio. The Spurs are the most balanced team in the league and get production up and down the entire roster. The keys for the Spurs moving forward will be Parker, Kawhi Leonard, and team defense.
Parker has the ability to take over a game like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul, although he might not get the same notoriety for that ability. Parker is the key to the Spurs offense because of the pick-and-roll and how he can manipulate the defense. If the pick-and-roll is working for the Spurs, Coach Gregg Popovich will ride Parker for the entire game, and Parker nearly always makes the right play. Obviously the Spurs need all of their shooters to make the shots Parker creates for them, but without Parker, open shots would be much more difficult to generate for San Antonio.
Like San Antonio’s offense runs through Parker, San Antonio’s defense and hustle depends on through Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs play great team defense. All five guys on the court move in unison, cutting off penetration and recovering to shooters with relative ease. The guy who holds that all together is Kawhi Leonard. Physically, there’s only a handful of players in the league who cause Leonard problems on defense. Leonard can guard any position, and he almost always matches up with the other team’s best player. Also, offensively, Leonard’s midrange game has been outstanding against Portland. It’s scary how good Leonard will be in his career. Not to be cliché, but the sky is really the limit.
The secret to San Antonio’s success is their rotation and their bench, especially on defense. All season long, Coach Pop has been shuffling the lineup, sitting guys out, and limiting minutes. Doing so has forced each and every player on the team to play in the last few minutes of games, take (and make) big shots, and allowed enough time to gel together and form a cohesive unit. Each player adds something to the game no one else can add. It’s a work of art getting all the pieces of the puzzle to fit together perfectly, but that’s exactly what the Spurs have mastered.
Right now, San Antonio is one game away from reaching the conference finals for the third straight season. Who they’ll play is a toss up. And yet, with the way the Spurs are peaking at the right time of the season, it might not even matter.