Most of us watched the opening game of the Spurs-Lakers playoff series to understand just what Los Angeles did or did not amount to as a postseason team.
On Sunday, in a 91-79 win, San Antonio announced that the real meaning of the game had nothing to do with the Lakers and everything to do with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and their perennially underappreciated team.
Forget the season-long underachieving Lakers, a team now without Kobe Bryant and therefore with a version of Dwight Howard gleefully the man of the moment for the purple and gold. The real story, the real lesson, was this: When healthy the San Antonio Spurs are a Western Conference team fully capable of making a run to the Finals and perhaps the most intriguing opponent for the Eastern Conference’s big-time favorite, the Miami Heat.
While Howard and Pau Gasol combined for 36 points and 31 rebounds Sunday, it was the Spurs’ starting lineup and now-healthy sixth man that made the biggest statement.
Duncan, Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green started only 31 of the Spurs’ 82 regular-season games this season, according to NBA.com, a telltale reminder this team has suffered its own injuries and uncertainties. Ginobili, the team’s star sixth man, played in just 60 games.
Yet on Sunday, healthy and together for a playoff effort they hope will end in a fifth San Antonio title in 15 years, that team dominated the Lakers. Ginobili came off the bench for 18 points in 19 minutes, Parker had 18 points and eight assists, and Duncan added 17 points and 10 rebounds. They looked every bit like a powerhouse; the Lakers, in turn, looked fine but in no way great.
All year, as the Lakers’ much-hyped starting lineup acted like a black hole for writers’ column inches and players’ angst and drama, the Spurs quietly went about their business. They won 58 games despite the injuries, always grinding out wins and win streaks and a contender’s record without pulling anything more than the typical amount of attention.
This is a team that has always been branded as boring along with excellent, a group that induces praise often mixed with suppressed eye-rolling. Mix in their age and the fact they’ve hit postseason road bumps that undercut the last two promising regular seasons and it has been easy to dismiss them.
Yet now, healthy, they pose the most interesting possible challenge to the Heat’s aim at continued dominance. It is one game, yes. The Lakers still have a very long series remaining to change the narrative, yes. And, yes, last season the Spurs were unbeatable until they suddenly couldn’t buy a win against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Don’t let any of that distract you. The Spurs are now healthy and in rhythm, making them as much a threat to make the Finals as anyone in the West. Beyond that? Against, most likely, Miami? Who knows?
Many teams have been measured by the Heat’s remarkable 2012-13 regular season and come up short, but not San Antonio. In November, head coach Gregg Popovich sat his three stars and Green in a move that earned a $250,000 rebuke from NBA commissioner David Stern. It also deprived us of the pleasure of seeing this Miami juggernaut, the most talented team in a decade, against the most fundamentally sound team of that same time span.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra returned the favor in April in San Antonio, sitting LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers.
So how exactly these teams would fare against one another in a seven-game series is anyone’s guess.
The Spurs would certainly be a fascinating squad to assess against the Heat. Parker is a premier point guard when healthy, Ginobili is a sixth man few teams can match, and Duncan is arguably a top-10 all-time player who plays the paint with poise and skill – all advantages that can be exploited against Miami. Throw in the fact Leonard has grown into an important and dangerous piece of a still-alive dynasty, and Popovich’s superlative coaching skill, and this would be a great series.
As for the Lakers: They are a soap opera, with all the accompanying depth that comes with one. Kobe is live-tweeting games with his wisdom but not there to create some much-needed offense, Howard can rack up the stats and Sparta speeches but not yet the wins, and the Lakers remain a team glowing under the lights of Hollywood but without any of the signs of superiority that have been expected and missing all season long.
Yes, the Lakers are the sexy, interesting, what-will-or-won’t-happen story of this series. But the Spurs might just be the story that has lasting and significant value. So watch the Lakers for the drama, but watch the Spurs to see what a real contender looks like.