Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Spurs of the Moment

By Robert Campbell

As of February 25th, the San Antonio Spurs have posted an overall record of 45-13 — three games better than both the Oklahoma City Thunder and the defending champion Miami Heat. If the playoffs were to start today, the Spurs would be the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the third consecutive year and would have earned homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Still, it seems as if nobody is giving them a legitimate shot to win it all, and quite frankly, I can't blame them.

A common misconception is that the Spurs are boring. Sure, Tim Duncan is about as exciting as laundry day and Gregg Popovich looks like he's been forced to sit through a Scrubs marathon, but the Spurs are far from lackluster. Anyone who truly understands the art of basketball can appreciate the pass-happy, high-movement motion offense that Popovich has implemented, which seemingly always ends up with an open three or an uncontested layup. In an increasingly isolation-driven league, the Spurs have stuck to their roots, allowing them to average the fourth most points per game this season despite their patient offensive sets. The best part is, they are doing it without a legitimate superstar.

Maybe that's just it, though. Now before you throw your laptops at me, I am not denying the fact that Tony Parker is an elite point guard who is possibly playing the best basketball of his career and should at least be considered in the MVP discussion. However, he is no way a superstar in the same class as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony, and Kobe Bryant. With the evolution of the game accompanied by the heightened intensity and pressure of the playoffs, sometimes it's nice to be able to toss your best guy the ball and say, "Hey, umm ... can you go win the game for us?" Besides, the Finals MVP hasn't averaged less than 27 points per game in the playoffs since Paul Pierce in 2008. Do you really think Parker can put up similar numbers for an entire playoff run?

Perhaps it's their age. Tim Duncan is 36, and while still performing at a reasonably high level, he is not getting any younger. Manu Ginobili is 35 and coming off of a tedious Olympic run this past summer while having to fight numerous injuries to his quad, hamstring, back, and thigh this season. Stephen Jackson is 34 and even Tony Parker has hit the 30 mark with injuries starting to compile. At some point, a veteran team just becomes, well ... old. And while I commend Coach Popovich on metaphorically telling Commissioner David Stern to "shove it" by resting Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Danny Green on a nationally televised game against Miami in November, he may as well have found the nearest megaphone and proclaimed, "Is this thing on? Yeah, we're all pretty tired, so I think we are just going to sit this one out. Now, does anybody have any Advil?"

The Spurs are one of the best run organizations in the league, have arguably the best power forward in league history in their lineup, and a coach who deserves to be on the Mount Rushmore of NBA coaches. They have captured four NBA titles under Popovich, the last being in 2007, and their impressive regular season up to this point is no accident. Nonetheless, the playoffs are a different animal, and one which this team may be too old to wrestle with.

I'm just saying, if the Lakers were 45-13, we would already be penciling them in the Finals. But it's the Spurs, so were just not convinced.

I guess it's their recent playoff failures. In 2011, the Spurs lost in the first round to the eight seed Memphis Grizzlies in six games after a 60-win regular season. Last year, up 2-0 in the Conference Finals, they lost four straight to the Oklahoma City Thunder and looked noticeably worn out and unable to keep up with the youth of OKC.

I know what you are thinking, 2007 wasn't that long ago. Still, for a team who is built around the same three core players as in '07 and are now all over 30, those six years since their last championship seems like an eternity.

Let's flashback to 2007, why don't we. In their championship run, the Spurs swept the unbelievably talented, but unproven LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. LeBron was only in his fourth NBA season and was surrounded by a group who gave the term supporting cast a new meaning. Drew Gooden? Larry Hughes? Zydrunas Ilgauskas? Yeah, LeBron's supporting cast was about as helpful as Aquaman on land. They avoided the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, who was playing some of the best individual basketball of his career, but was too accompanied by a roster that would have made even Sylvester Stallone cry for him (and subsequently mumble an anecdote that could only be understood with subtitles). Oh yeah, and they were yet to be introduced to a man named Kevin Durant.

Fast-forward to the present day. LeBron James has cemented himself as the best player in the league alongside two additional all-stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and a group that is hungry for their second consecutive title together. Durant is the purest shooter in the NBA who took over last year's Western Conference Finals, and if the Lakers are able to squeeze in the playoffs, they could potentially be looking at a first-round matchup with the Spurs. This year, though, Kwame Brown isn't their starting center.

Maybe I'll be wrong. Tony Parker will continue his miraculous season through the playoffs. Tim Duncan will find the fountain of youth for one last run. Manu Ginobili will bounce back from his up-and-down season and return to prime form. Still, no matter how hard I try, I just can't envision the Spurs hoisting the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy this June.

The San Antonio Spurs have had their run. It only seems right for them to walk to the finish line.

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