A well-known watch manufacturer used to use the phrase “They take a licking, but they keep on ticking” to emphasize its product’s durability; that description could be aptly applied to the San Antonio Spurs who once again are leading the Western Conference with a record of 42-16 after destroying the Los Angeles Lakers Friday night at the AT&T Center 121-97. According to many observers of the Association, the Spurs window of opportunity should have been nailed closed by now, however for the second straight regular season the only thing that has been shut is the mouths of their detractors.
San Antonio still is powered by the three stars who led them to their last NBA Title back in 2007 when they swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Although five years is an eternity in the Association, Tim Duncan who knocked down 21 points Friday night, Tony Parker who racked up a double-double with 20 points and 10 assists and Manu Ginobili who came off the bench and scored 20 points against the Lakers, are still getting it done.
The team keeps changing the complimentary pieces that surround their trio; this year getting strong performances from center Tiago Splitter and guards Daniel Green and Gary Neal. Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair give the team some good depth in their front-court along with the recent addition of former Charlotte Bobcats veteran forward Boris Diaw. They also picked up a nice young player with a lot of upside in last June’s NBA Draft, as they picked up forward Kawhi Leonard in a trade with the Indiana Pacers.
The Spurs also may have undergone addition by subtraction as they traded forward Richard Jefferson; who never really meshed with the club to the Golden State Warriors just before the trade deadline. That move also got them one of Duncan’s favorite players in the NBA back to San Antonio, as Stephen Jackson, who was a headache with the Milwaukee Bucks is beloved in the city he played for earlier in his career.
This is not the team that went to the Finals back in 2007, however they are a different team than the squad that lost their first round series last spring to the number eight seed Memphis Grizzlies. That club peaked early and barely hung onto what was once a dominant lead in the Western Conference to remain the number one seed heading into the Post Season. The victory over Los Angeles was the Spurs sixth straight win and they have battled the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Conference lead for the last few weeks.
This team has been tested by adversity all season long and they are stronger for having gone through it. Ginobili was sidelined by injuries for a good part of the campaign, however Neal and Green stepped it up and the club was able to keep on track. Splitter also missed some games with injuries, but once again the club persevered. Once again San Antonio bench boss Gregg Popovich has shown why he is one of the best coaches in the NBA as he is a very strong candidate to be selected as NBA Coach Of The Year.
The Spurs were reeling heading into the Playoffs last season, while their opponents the Grizzlies were white-hot and once they grabbed the series lead gained the confidence they needed to complete the upset. This year the scenario will not be the same as the Spurs have the momentum and if they hold onto first place; they are most likely looking at either Phoenix, Houston or Utah in the first round. Unless San Antonio loses a key player to injury, they should be able to defeat any of those squads. If they fall to second, they would face either Denver or Dallas; both tougher opponents, but I would give the advantage to the Spurs.
Christmas night; after writing all my opening game recaps, I had an online conversation with a buddy about the NBA Western Conference. We both agreed that evening (perhaps early morning) that it would most likely come down to the Thunder and the Spurs in the West, as they were the two most fundamentally sound teams in the Conference. At this time that conversation looks like it could turn into reality.