Nine months ago, the San Antonio Spurs watched confetti fall from the rafters at the American Airlines Arena after the Miami Heat held off their best efforts to secure their second championship in a row. Two nights before that, 19.4 seconds and one rebound was all that separated them from winning their fifth title in the Tim Duncan era; what would have been the perfect retirement gift for one of the greatest players to ever step foot on the NBA’s oak floors.
The Spurs went through another 50-win season – their 14th straight – and experienced yet another deep playoff run, which takes a hell of a toll on the old legs of their Big Three. With that, they entered another grueling, shortened off-season, faced with the same old question: Was this the last hurrah?
Surely after so many years of dominating the NBA, the writing was soon to be on the wall. Just this season we’ve seen similar scribbles with the L.A. Lakers and the Boston Celtics – two of the NBA’s most storied franchises. With Tim Duncan reaching a tender age of 37 and Manu Ginobili tiptoeing the line of relevancy, the 2013-2014 campaign seemed to be the start of their long-awaited demise. Tony Parker asserted his position as one of the league’s elite point guards, but his creativity wouldn’t suffice moving forward unless the front office surrounded him with fresh legs or a rejuvenated all-star. However, with the playoffs just around the corner and 68 games under their belt, they find themselves in very familiar territory: atop of the Western Conference standings with the best record in the Association.
How they’ve done it remains a surprise to many. In the month of March especially, the Spurs have been scorching hot. Not only are they a perfect 11-0, they’ve been lighting up the scoreboard to the tune of 112.4 points per contest and outscoring opponents by an average margin of 16.1. While those numbers aren’t sustainably, Tony Parker is healthy, Tim Duncan is quietly chugging along and Manu Ginobili has found himself back in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation in wake of a horrific display in the finals. To add to that, after a somewhat lackluster start to the season, Kawhi Leonard is finally finding his feet. In the 13 games he’s appeared in since returning from a broken hand, he’s averaging 14.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.5 blocks per contest – all way up from his season numbers. They also continue to get great contributions from the likes of Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli, who have helped the Spurs lead the way in bench scoring. Perhaps the most telling stat on the season is that only Tony Parker is playing more than 30 minutes per contest. 12 players are getting 10 or more minutes of game time, which may make them the deepest team in the NBA. It also helps cut down the mileage for Parker, Duncan and Ginobili, which will be of huge importance in the post-season.
If there’s any question mark about this current squad, it’s their success (or lack thereof) against the NBA’s elite teams this season. Despite trampling all over sub-.500 teams, they’re 24-14 against squads that have won more than 50 percent of their games. To make matters more concerning, the Spurs are 3-9 against the L.A. Clippers, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat – teams many consider as legitimate championship contenders. To win another title, odds say that they’ll have to go through at least two of those teams, so their losing record is a little disheartening. However, many of those losses can be attributed to having a depleted team due mid-season injuries, resting players to ensure they’re healthy come playoff time or simply because they weren’t playing their best basketball. To add to that, they whooped the Heat at the AT&T Center by a final score of 111-87 on March 6th, and went to Golden State and beat the Warriors without Duncan and Ginobili a little over two weeks later, so maybe those early-season worries can be put to bed.
What’s remarkable is that the Spurs are even in this place to begin with. Since December 10th, 1996, when Gregg Popovich became the head coach of the team, they have won 68.6 percent of their games – the best winning percentage in the NBA over that time period, per NBA TV. Despite their success, they’ve been able to muster up enough inspiration to give it another go, even after losing in the NBA Finals. After all, making it to seven games, only to fall at the last hurdle, is nothing short of heartbreaking. Bouncing back so quickly – renewed, rejuvenated, even better than before – is only a testament to their resilience. They’re scoring at a higher rate and are only marginally less efficient on the defensive end.
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Tim Duncan’s ship may soon set sail, but the Spurs seem well prepared for the future when that day comes. While they were crawling their way up the Western Conference standings, younger, less experienced players got the opportunity to step up in their teammates’ absence. Over the years, they’ve used their D-League affiliate, the Austin Toros, as a means of developing young talent, and now, they’re getting a chance to strut their stuff on the big stage. Cory Joseph has proven to be a solid backup point guard; Danny Green has become one of the NBA’s best outside shooters and even etched his name into the record books in the finals by knocking down 27 threes; Patty Mills is having a career year and has transformed from towel-waver into a main cog off the bench; and Kawhi Leonard continues to expand his game while waiting patiently for his time to come.
If there’s a time for the Spurs to hit their stride, it’s now. Their current 13-game winning streak is their longest in seven years, and with 13 games remaining on the schedule and a two game lead on the Oklahoma City Thunder (who are currently occupying the second seed), winning a few extra games in this final stretch could be the difference between them getting the pesky Memphis Grizzlies in the first round or the Dallas Mavericks – a team that is non-existent on the defensive end. But no matter what happens, we’ve seen what they are capable of plenty of times before, and at this rate, we could still be watching them come June.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com/stats.