The Spurs are amid yet another silent domination of the regular season. It seems like just yesterday when they were one secured rebound away from winning their 5th championship. Last night, the San Antonio Spurs had their [insanely impressive] 19-game win streak snapped by the Oklahoma City Thunder, falling to 59-17. Last year, on their 76th game of the season, the San Antonio Spurs played the Oklahoma City Thunder as well, suffering a 12-point loss. After that game, the Spurs fell to 56-20. Technically speaking, the Spurs are already in better standing this year than they were last year 76 games in. However, this season's San Antonio Spurs are not the same Spurs of last season. Has their time come?
While Duncan will always be regarded as the centerpiece of this successful franchise, over the last few years, their most important player has been Tony Parker. Last season, Parker was the lifeline of the Western Conference champions. He helped lead the San Antonio Spurs to a 58-24 record, good for second in the West and third in the league. In fact, Parker was even in serious consideration for the MVP award. Did he have a serious shot of winning the award? Of course not, but his phenomenal season was respectfully acknowledged through the consideration. Many even considered Parker the best point-guard in the game. In many ways, Parker had a breakout season.
However, this season, Parker's points, steals, assists, rebounds, FT%, and FG% are all down (he's also playing approximately 2 minutes less). The only number that has gone up is his 3PT%. The biggest disparities are in the points and assists departments, where he went from 20.3 PPG to 17.1 PPG and 7.6 APG to just 6.0 APG. Now, the numbers may not jump out at you, and you may not even consider them significant, but it's nevertheless a drop. Tim Duncan has gotten older. Ginobili battled a hamstring injury earlier in the season. However, when the playoffs come, Duncan will be Duncan and Tony Parker will continue to lead this team to victory. However, Manu Ginobili could be an issue.
Injuries aside, when the playoffs come around, the San Antonio Spurs need Ginobili to actually produce. Manu had an absolutely horrific NBA Finals last season, and for a run that came up short by such a small fraction, their failure was largely in part due to Ginobili's underperformance. Ginobili struggled to score all series long and turned the ball over with ease; he finished their pivotal Game 6 loss with 8 (!!!!) turnovers. If the Spurs want any chance of succeeding this year, they need their glorified sixth man to show up and produce what is expected of him.
While the loss of Tracy McGrady won't leave much of a mark on their bench, they did lose Gary Neal -- an undersized combo guard who lit Miami up in the Finals from three. The Spurs replaced him by acquiring Marco Belinelli, a much bigger perimeter player currently shooting 44% from long-range. Gary Neal absolutely overachieved in the Finals; will Belinelli be able to match his productivity? In fact, Danny Green overachieved as well -- at one point being given Finals' MVP consideration by some. When evaluating this Spurs team compared to last year's, whether they weakened or remained equally as good is not the problem. The problem is the environment.
Believe it or not, the Western Conference has gotten even stronger. Yes, the powerhouse that was the Western Conference last year has put on a few more pounds of muscle. Sitting right below the Spurs is the 3x scoring champion, Kevin Durant, and the Oklahoma City Thunder. This Kevin Durant guy is pretty good. In fact, he's gotten better. The guy is torching the league on a game-to-game basis. There is nobody in the world who can stop the guy, but there are a few guys who can slow him down. The guy who probably has the best chance of slowing him down does not play for the San Antonio Spurs; the guy who is most capable of slowing down Durant is LeBron James.
While Kawhi Leonard may give Durant a tougher night than the average defender, Durant will still get his points. Parker isn't known for his defense, despite his quick hands when it comes to getting steals -- there's a difference between having quick hands and being a lockdown defender -- so Westbrook will get his. Ibaka's physicality will bother Duncan a bit. Ultimately, the Oklahoma City Thunder's size, quickness, and athleticism could prove to be too much for the Spurs. In order for the Spurs to beat the Thunder, they will have to play flawless basketball in the playoffs. Then again, are the Spurs known for anything less? OKC is a nightmare matchup for the Spurs, with San Antonio having lost all 4 games to them during the regular season. But again, how valuable is the regular season to this decorated Spurs team? Well, OKC is not the only team that has had their number this season.
Similarly, the Houston Rockets have also walked away with a win every time they have met the Spurs. Houston leads the season series, 3-0, with their last matchup coming up on Apr. 14. Like the Thunder, the Rockets also have a guy that will give the Spurs serious trouble: James Harden. The Rockets also have a lot of size, quickness, and athleticism that could bother San Antonio, but it won't be enough. Ultimately, the Spurs will slow the tempo down, as always happens in the playoffs, and the Rockets' high-speed offense will come to a staggering stop. While Houston doesn't seem like a legit threat to the Spurs, they have ousted them on three occasions already.
Another team that could potentially threaten San Antonio's title run is the Los Angeles Clippers. Like the Rockets and Thunder, they possess length, quickness, and athleticism that could bother the Spurs. Blake Griffin has played phenomenal basketball this season, and if it continues through the playoffs, the Clippers have a very bright future. Chris Paul will match Tony Parker's productivity, or worse: outperform him. The key here is the bench. The Clippers are arguably the deepest team in the league, while the Spurs' bench is rather mediocre. Patty Mills has risen to the occasion for the Spurs and has been vital in their success this year. However, apart from Mills, Belinelli, and the seemingly inconsistent Ginobili, the Spurs bench serves no match to the Clippers'. Ultimately, it's hard to envision the Clippers getting the best out of the Spurs.
A road back to the NBA Finals seems very difficult for the Spurs. Once there, they probably have a good shot of beating Miami, probably even a great shot if that opposing team is Indiana. However, their road there will be an extremely difficult obstacle course to overcome. The Clippers are a much improved team with a much improved Blake Griffin. The Rockets have given them issues due to their quickness and athleticism. In fact, even the Warriors could give them a good scare. However, none of those threats seem capable of an upset. Ultimately, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder will be too much for the Spurs to handle. Durant is on the verge of winning his first MVP award and his 4th scoring title, all while leading his team back to the NBA Finals for another shot to hoist up the Larry O'Brien trophy.
However, I would like to apologize in advance, on behalf of myself and fans everywhere who agree with me, to Gregg Popovich for claiming that his Spurs will come up short. It is very likely -- in fact, probable, considering the undervalued greatness of Popovich and the Spurs -- that Tim Duncan will get one more shot to walk away with his 5th NBA championship come the end of June. Regardless of the outcome, the 2014 free agency will be a very interesting one, with Duncan on the verge of retirement. The 37-year old, soon to be 38, is currently playing out the last year of his contract, with the 2014-2015 option in his contract being a player option. If he wins, he could very likely be satisfied and throw in the towel. Or, if the Spurs come up short, he could view this run at as his last real chance of winning a 5th championship and retire. Whichever way the cards are dealt, let's hope we get to see one more year out of [arguably] the best power forward of all-time. By the look of things, the Spurs are really good, but are they good enough?