For the San Antonio Spurs, it’s hard to be troubled by anyone or anything other than the Golden State Warriors right now.
The Spurs have just dispatched the Oklahoma City Thunder and, more recently, the Los Angeles Clippers. More precisely, they’ve dominated the fourth quarter in each home game over the past five days. They won the fourth quarter, 27-17, against OKC, and they won a 37-17 fourth against the Clippers. Yes, the Clips didn’t have Blake Griffin (more on that in a bit), but the Spurs didn’t get anything close to Tony Parker’s best game: 2 points, 2 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 turnovers in 24 minutes. Patty Mills was the point guard who made the Spurs fly: 15, 5 and 6 assists with no turnovers in 23 minutes.
The Spurs’ depth and resourcefulness easily trumps what the Clippers can do with their bench. That’s the difference between the two teams right now, and it’s going to make a difference if these teams happen to play in May (though that’s probably not likely). The larger point is that San Antonio should feel it has what it takes to beat every team in the league… except Golden State.
However, the Warriors arrive Saturday in the Alamo City, and they — like the Clippers — are missing an important player.
Here at Crossover Chronicles, columnist John Cannon explored how the Iguodala injury could hurt — and yet also help — the Warriors as they try for 73 wins while maintaining the formula that’s expected to carry them through the playoffs. It’s true that as much as Golden State might suffer in immediate and incremental ways, playing without Iguodala’s defense and the structure he provides could focus the Warriors in ways that will help them down the road. San Antonio might grab a win over the Dubs on Saturday, but without Iguodala, the win will be harder to assess in terms of its ultimate value, if it indeed occurs. Similarly, Golden State’s blowout victory in Oakland on Jan. 25 took place with Tim Duncan resting an ailing knee.
These injuries — Griffin, Iggy, Duncan — all cast something of a shadow over the West playoffs. It’s not necessarily a dark or long shadow, but it is a cloak of mystery, something which makes it harder to see the full landscape.
Within that landscape, can the Spurs trust that they’re going to be better than their foremost opponents — and not just the Warriors?
Consider: San Antonio has risen to the best 67-game mark in franchise history (57-10) because it has so relentlessly beaten bad or mediocre opponents. The Spurs have lost to the Clippers, Cavs, Warriors, Raptors, and Thunder. They lost to the Washington Wizards early in the season, when the Wiz had a healthy Bradley Beal. They lost to the Rockets, a team which — as we’ve seen — can be great at times. They’ve lost to the Indiana Pacers, a team which has blown stacks of late-game leads and is still in line for a playoff spot in the East.
Houston is its own separate enigma, but you could certainly include the Christmas loss to the Rockets as a bad loss, a giveaway. Other than that defeat, the only other really low-grade loss the Spurs absorbed this season was a road loss in New Orleans, a place where the team often struggles. They simply haven’t lost very much to the lower three-fifths of the league.
That the Spurs have also owned fourth quarters in recent days against the likes of OKC and the Clippers is certainly not a bad thing to contemplate for the Spurs. Would teams instead choose to fail in the final 12 minutes of a game heading into the playoffs? That’s what the Thunder are doing.
Yeah — not exactly the place a team wants to be.
Nevertheless, all this is still prelude. The long five-and-a-half-month, 82-game grind leading up to the playoffs — all the cross-country flights, the late hotel arrivals, the odd hours — gives way to a far more settled and structured existence in the postseason. Teams arrive in cities with ample time to prepare (except for the odd occasion when a Friday Game 6 is followed by Game 1 of the next series the following Sunday afternoon, or when a Saturday Game 7 gives way to a Monday Game 1). They get to stay in cities for a few days. It’s a different routine.
Teams cross paths in the regular season under all sorts of different circumstances, but one of the great things about the playoffs is that it’s a leveler of sorts — it does away with most if not all of those inconveniences. Coaches can fully prepare for opponents. The regular season really doesn’t mean as much anymore.
(Do you REALLY think, for instance, that the Bulls would beat the Raptors in a best-of-seven series? Doug McDermott couldn’t — wouldn’t — sneak up on Toronto in that circumstance.)
Therefore — we said we’d talk more about Blake Griffin, so here we are — what if a fresh Blake Griffin takes the court for the Clips? What if Oklahoma City and Billy Donovan are able to adjust to everything that’s gone wrong for them in fourth quarters?
The Spurs — on the right side of margins against mediocre teams and in fourth quarters against good teams — might find that they’re not as far ahead of the non-Golden State portion of the NBA as they thought.
The Clippers, conversely, could enter a situation in which Griffin — his legs extremely rested, his body not subjected to a lot of wear and tear — could explode in May and give Los Angeles so much more margin for error.
Oh, to be sure, it’s good to be the San Antonio Spurs right now. Just realize that this position of power — at 57-10 — could still give way to something different, much as the Clippers, outclassed so cleanly and clearly on Tuesday night, could still stage a revival.
You wouldn’t want to bet on it, no… but you wouldn’t want to discount it, either.
Ah, the playoffs are going to be so. Much. Fun.