Spurring debate: a new competitor in the West?

The Spurs are thinking championship for the first time since 2007.

The San Antonio Spurs are arguably the most dominating team of the last decade or so. What’s not arguable, however, is that they’ve been the most reliable. The Lakers won three straight championships to start the 21st century and added another one last year, but after Shaq left, they missed the playoffs and sported a mediocre 34-48 record. The Spurs, however, have made the playoffs every year since 1997-1998, including four championships during that span — establishing such consistency among the elite that their first-round exit last year was seen as an immense disappointment.

Despite the team’s early shutdown for the season, it was not willing to accept that Tim Duncan’s reign was behind him. Hoping to rebound, general manager RC Buford went out and acquired Richard Jefferson from the Bucks in a move that many suggested would make San Antonio the squad to beat from the Western Conference.

Alas, in the first half of the season, that was certainly not the case. Jefferson drastically underperformed prior to the all-star break, putting up averages of 12.2 points per game and a measly 3.6 rebounds per game. Last year? 19.6 and 4.6. They dealt with periodic short absences for point guard Tony Parker and one injury stint for Manu Ginobili. Surprisingly, Duncan — the team member whose deteriorating health has most frequently been brought into question — has missed only three games all year. But losses piled up, and many figured this was the end of the Spurs’ dreaded consistency.

Of late, though, the Spurs have bounced back. Incredibly, they have done so with Parker sidelined since March 6 with a broken hand. Yes, they reside in seventh place. They are, however, only two-and-a-half games back of fifth place and, incidentally, second place (with a four-team logjam five games back of the Lakers). Furthermore, they show no signs of slowing up (although George Hill’s departure from Sunday’s victory over the Lakers is a bit troubling).

In their last ten games, they are 7-3. More importantly, during that stretch they defeated the Cavaliers, the Celtics, the Magic, and the Lakers. So what if they lost to the Nets? That was a fluke. The teams they beat will be the ones they play in May and June when it matters. How are they doing this? After all, Tim Duncan’s numbers were way down in March at 14.2 points and 8 boards.

For starters, Ginobili’s on fire. After averaging 22.1 points per contest in March — five-and-a-half above his season average — he has scored even more effectively so far in April, putting up 75 points combined in two games against two of the NBA’s finest defensive teams, Orlando and L.A.

Moreover, Hill had filled in for Parker more than adequately, posting 16.5 points per game in March on 50 percent shooting and an astounding 49 percent from long range. And there’s been a greater commitment to defense on the part of the entire team. While the Spurs have averaged 96 points allowed per game over the course of the entire season, they have only allowed a fraction over 93 since the beginning of March. Combine Manu’s standout offensive play when Duncan is lagging and improved team defense and that’s a solution for winning — a solution that the Spurs have relied on for the last decade.

Factor in Parker’s return with, perhaps, two games to play in the regular season, and this is a team like the ones in 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007: one that I wouldn’t want to face.

So while the Lakers are struggling to stay on track, the Spurs are surging, and they have a real chance to secure first-round home-court advantage for the playoffs. While many have resigned themselves to the fact that Ginobili will leave in free agency come July 1, fans still have this season to hold on to. And what a season it could be if the Spurs apply March’s fantastic formula to their rapidly approaching playoff series.

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