Last week I wrote that these playoffs could not have gotten off to a better start for the Spurs, and that was before they finished off a sweep of the Lakers and prior to learning that Oklahoma City's All-Star guard Russell Westbrook would miss the rest of the postseason with a knee injury.
It's hard to fairly evaluate the Spurs in that first round series against L.A., because of the Lakers unbelievably bad injury luck. Already playing without Kobe Bryant, and with a clearly limited Steve Nash at the start of the series, the Lakers ended the sweep without their top FIVE perimeter players.
Even considering they were up against a limited Laker team, I thought the Spurs were able to answer most of the questions that had mounted as the team went just 10-10 over its last 20 games of the regular season.
The Spurs title chances rest on the health and effectiveness of Tony Parker. He struggled through the first game and a half of the Laker series, but came on strong after that. His 24 point second half effort in game two was especially impressive. With TP it wasn't so much about the numbers he put up against the Lakers, but about how he looked and the way he moved. He showed some of that explosiveness we saw most of the regular season. It was the closest he's looked to the old Parker since before he originally hurt his ankle on March 1st.
The second big take away from round one was Manu Ginobili's performance. He is still the best playmaker on the team outside of Parker, and absolutely vital to the second unit being effective in the playoffs. Not only did Manu look healthy against the Lakers, but he dominated at points, especially in the first two games. With Ginobili's shaky health you can never be certain how long he'll be healthy, but so far, so good in these playoffs.
San Antonio's defense, which had been shaky down the stretch of the regular season, also came up big against L.A. Even if you only count the first two games of the series, before the Lakers injury situation went from bad to Darius Morris time, the Spurs defense was stout. Was that a return of the defensive effort we saw for much of the regular season, or just a reflection of how limited the Lakers offense was? We will probably find the answer to that question in the next round.
And speaking of the next round that now looks easier to me now than it did a week ago. For the final two months of the regular season you could have made an argument that no team in the west was playing better than the Nuggets. It looked to me like Denver would pose a real threat to the Spurs if they met in the postseason. Now, the Nuggets trail sixth seeded Golden State three games to two, and will be lucky to even make it to San Antonio. Whichever team survives that track meet of a series will be a heavy underdog to the well-rested Spurs.
If San Antonio can take care of business in the next series it could face an Oklahoma City team with no Russell Westbrook, or a Clippers team with a hobbled Blake Griffin, but more likely is a date with a hardnosed Grizzlies team with a limited offense, but a smothering D.
That will be no easy series, and there's no guarantee the Spurs even get that far, but the road to an NBA Finals showdown with LeBron James and Miami looks a lot smoother than it did when the playoffs began.
The first week of the NBA Playoffs could not have gone any better for the San Antonio Spurs.
The Silver and Black struggled down the stretch of the regular season, going just 10-10 in their last 20 games, but were able to flip the switch under the bright lights of the postseason. In taking a 2-0 series lead over the Lakers, the team has put together two very solid performances back to back (particularly on defense) for the first time in weeks. With the Lakers suffering more injuries to their guards seemingly by the hour, this series has sweep written all over it.
The Spurs defense has held L.A to 79 and 91 points in the first two games and looks to have regained some of the form that propelled them to third in defensive efficiency during the regular season. That strong D dissipated over the final weeks of the regular season, but appears to be back so far in the playoffs. The three point defense was especially bad down the stretch, but San Antonio has held the Lakers (who admittedly aren’t the best distance shooting team in the league) to 30% from beyond the line.
The return of the defense is a welcome sign, but the most important development so far in this series for the Spurs championship hopes has been the resurgence of Tony Parker. The Frenchman had a so-so night in game one, with 18 points and eight assists on 8-21 shooting. Parker started game two just 1-6 for four points in the first half, but exploded in the second with 24, to help put L.A. away. Parker was aggressive, and explosive at points in that second half. It was the most he looked like his old self since that March 1 ankle injury.
The excellent play of Manu Ginobili is yet another reason for optimism. After returning from his hamstring injury to make a cameo in the regular season finale last week, Manu has been terrific in both games against the Lakers. He was the difference maker in game one, with his eight points at the end of the third quarter putting the Spurs in control. He has scored 31 total points in the two games in just 38 minutes. Manu has done that shooting 50% from the floor and 67% from three. He’s also dished out ten assists and grabbed seven rebounds. You really can’t expect him to play any better. At this point, Spurs fans can just cross their fingers and hope his hamstring holds up through the postseason.
Experience has taught us that things can change very quickly in the postseason, but through two games the Spurs could not have scripted a better start to the 2013 playoffs. Now they just need to finish off the hobbled Lakers in L.A. this weekend and give Parker, Ginobili, and company extra rest to prepare for the stiffer challenges that await.
Does momentum matter at all in the NBA playoffs? The Spurs first round series against the Lakers may prove as an interesting case study.
Consider that San Antonio enters the postseason having lost three in a row (for the first time in two seasons) and 8 of its last 13. L.A. on the other hand is one of the hottest teams in the league, winners of five straight and 9 of 11.
It needs to be noted that the Lakers were in desperation mode in the closing month of the season just to get into the playoffs, while the Spurs long ago secured their postseason ticket, and were more concerned with rest than seeding in the season’s final weeks. Certainly rest and juries to key players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were key factors in the Spurs rough finish. But was there more to it? That’s a question we can’t really know the answer to until we see how the team performs in the playoffs.
Getting Manu back for the regular season finale was a good sign that he will be healthy, at least to START the playoffs. Weather he can make it through the grind without tweaking his hammy again, or suffering some other malady, is another question.
It was also encouraging to see Tony Parker rebound from a slow start Wednesday night to put up 11 points during a very strong second quarter run. He still doesn’t look to me like he has the same explosiveness that he did before the ankle injury on March 1st, but even at 80% TP9 is extremely dangerous.
Over the first roughly three quarters of the season the Spurs record was 48-14. That was the best mark in the Western Conference through 62 games. Tony Parker was playing at an MVP level, Tim Duncan had turned back the clock, and role players like Danny Green and Tiago Splitter were enjoying career seasons. The team was rolling.
In the last quarter of the season San Antonio was as average as its 10-10 record would suggest. In fact it may have been worse. The team suffered injuries to Parker, Ginobili, and Boris Diaw, role players like Green and Splitter showed inconsistency, the bench, long a strength of the team, faltered, and the three point defense went from great to awful. The only consistent was the continued excellent play of the ageless Duncan.
So with the prospect of a potentially tough series against the arch enemy Lakers looming, can the Spurs now flip the switch and become the team they were through the first four months of the season? As I said earlier that is impossible to know for sure. My best guess on the answer to that question: Kinda.
I know that is hardly definitive, but having watched this team all season, I don’t know how you could give anything but a non-committal answer.
My best guess is that this veteran team will be refocused by the real season starting. With Ginobili back in the fold and everyone re-energized by the playoffs, I think they have enough to beat the Kobe-less Lakers. L.A. has improved over the course of the season and Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have both stepped up their games of late, but the lack of perimeter quickness will doom the Lakers defense against the Spurs penetration and ball movement. I say Spurs win it in six. After that…..I think it depends a lot on Parker’s health.
If TP returns to the MVP form he showed earlier in the year, then they can beat the Nuggets in the second round and give Oklahoma City a great series in the Western Conference Finals. If he cannot get that form back, I think they go out to Denver.
I think the Spurs aren’t nearly as bad as their record over the final few weeks of the season would suggest, but I also think their high level of play through February was impossible to maintain. When the schedule got harder down the stretch they were destined to regress to the mean.
That brings me full circle to what I thought about this team way back In November: They’re very good, but not good enough to beat OKC and win the west.
Some observations and opinions after the Spurs 100-88 loss to Oklahoma City:
*About that no. 1 seed: With the loss to the Thunder, the Spurs chances of getting the number one seed and home court advantage in the Western Conference Playoffs took a huge hit. The Spurs still lead OKC by a half game in the standings, but the teams are tied in the loss column. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head matchups and that is now tied at two wins apiece. Next up is conference record. OKC is 35-13 against the west, while the Spurs are 32-15, so the Thunder has that one just about wrapped up.
San Antonio has six games left; Three at home against the Hawks, Kings, and T-Wolves, and three on the road against the Nuggets, Lakers, and Warriors. Oklahoma City plays seven games; The Knicks, Kings, and Bucks at home, while road games include the Pacers, Jazz, Warriors, and Trailblazers. That means both teams have four opponents left who are currently in playoff position.
OKC’s schedule is certainly not easy, starting with a game in Indiana tonight, but neither is the Spurs. I think it’s most likely both teams lose two of their remaining games. That would mean they end the season tied, and that means OKC gets the top seed.
*Spurs health issues: Another reason I think it’s unlikely that the silver and black beat out the Thunder is the team’s health issues. Tony Parker left last night’s game after 25 very ineffective minutes with what Coach Gregg Popovich said was likely a shin injury. We already knew Parker was still suffering with a sore ankle, and he was clearly not moving well against the Thunder. I would be willing to bet he doesn’t play Saturday night against the Hawks, and maybe even sits out a few more games down the stretch.
Add in the injury to Manu Ginobili that could keep him out for the rest of the regular season, and the Spurs could be without their two best playmakers for most of the final six games. Factor in players with nagging injuries like Stephen Jackson’s sore ankle and Kawhi Leonard’s troublesome knee, and you could see Pop resting a lot of players down the stretch. Also, I would imagine Tim Duncan will likely see another day off before the playoffs start as well.
Getting the number one seed would be nice, especially if the Spurs have to face the Thunder again in the Western Conference Finals, but without a healthy team, San Antonio won’t even make it that far.
*Kawhi emerging: Despite their loss to the Thunder and injury issues, one source of playoff optimism for the Spurs has to be the continued development of Leonard. He was fantastic in OKC, with 24 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists, all while playing 42 minutes and having to guard Kevin Durant on the other end of the floor.
Assuming the team is healthy; I think you basically know what you can expect in the playoffs from most of the guys on the roster. The exception to that is Kawhi. He has the ability to raise his game and break out as a star in the postseason. That may be the one way the Spurs can top the Thunder when it really counts.
With only a few weeks left before the playoffs start things are starting to get very interesting for the Spurs and the rest of the teams around the league. Here are some random thoughts as we approach season's end:
*Parker returns: I wrote last week that the Spurs would likely return to form, especially on defense, when Tony Parker returned from his ankle injury, and so far that looks to be happening. The defense has been mostly solid in the three games since Parker’s return. Even in the loss to Houston, the D held the Rockets to around ten points below their season average. The Spurs haven’t exactly been dominate since TP9’s return, going 2-1 against some pretty good competition with all three games coming down to the final minute, but they have looked better than they did over the time Parker was out. As their All-Star point guard continues to fell more confidence and get back in rhythm the Spurs should be fine.
*Denver is Legit: Some people have questioned if the Nuggets are a real contender to win the west, but after winning 15 straight and playing the Spurs so tough at the AT&T Center this week, there should be no doubt Denver can beat anybody in the west. It is also worth noting that the Nuggets best player, Ty Lawson, was limited to two points in 20 minutes in his first game back from a heel injury, and that the Nuggets shot 0-10 from three against the Spurs. With a healthy Lawson, and a little bit better shooting luck, Denver will be a bear come playoff time.
*Backup point guard: This position still seems up for grabs as the postseason approaches. Early in the year the job belonged to Garry Neal, who played pretty well before linger lower leg injuries started limiting his effectiveness. Lately Neal hasn’t even been seeing the floor as he rests in the hopes the time off will help him heal. In the meantime the backup duties are being handled by Nando De Colo and Cory Joseph. The latter started all eight games that Parker missed, but the first two games after TP returned Nando was getting most of the backup minutes, and playing well in that role. Then last game, Joseph subed in for Parker and Nando didn’t play at all. If Neal can get healthy before the playoffs he could still be the guy, but if not we may continue to see a Nando/Joseph split all the way through the postseason.