The Spurs literally and figuratively limped into the playoffs. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are both coming off significant injuries, and the team lost seven of its last 10 games, including a 108-95 loss to lowly Minnesota in the season finale.
San Antonio is still the No. 2 seed, but the Spurs appear to be headed one direction and the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers appear to be heading another.
It’s rather tough to ignore that the Lakers will not have Kobe Bryant in the playoffs, but they do still have Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, and they did beat the Spurs without Bryant just four days ago in Los Angeles, and they did beat another playoff team (eighth-seeded Houston) without Bryant on Wednesday.
With Bryant, the previously underachieving Lakers were finally starting to look like contenders. Without him, they could still give the Spurs problems, but as long as Parker and Ginobili are playing (as it appears they will), the Spurs should advance.
The Spurs’ health is going to be the defining narrative of their postseason. With a full, healthy lineup, they should have no problem advancing to the Western Conference finals.
Why they’ll win the championship
1. Gregg Popovich
He’s the best coach in the NBA, which is a pretty great place to start. Popovich knows his team, especially his Big Three – Tim Duncan, Ginobili and Parker – so well that he can adjust to an off night or exploit an opponent’s weakness better than anybody.
2. Tim Duncan
Take a step back and appreciate this: Duncan, who turns 37 next week, is basically averaging 18 and 10 with three blocks this season. His shooting percentage (50.2) is the highest it’s been in three years, his free-throw percentage (81.7) is a career high and he’s playing more minutes than he has since 2010.
3. The role players
Man, the Spurs have role players. The Spurs’ role players are so good that some nights Popovich will sit his stars and the team won’t miss a beat. Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter, in particular, are capable of sustaining the Spurs for long stretches, and yet it seems like none of them ever try to do too much.
Why they won’t
1. They’re old and hurt
Granted, the whole team isn’t old. The Spurs win a lot of games with a lot of young players taking on key roles during nights when Duncan or Ginobili are resting those old knees. But the Spurs’ best players are old. Duncan, Ginobili and Parker average 33.6 years of age. Ginobili and Parker are both coming off injuries. This is not good. 2. They can’t beat Miami
They tried twice, once while resting their stars, and once while Miami was resting its stars. The Spurs lost both times. There was some obvious gamesmanship going on in both those instances, and, true, we have not seen what it looks like when the real Spurs and the real Heat play each other this season. But this was not a good omen.
3. Duncan doesn’t necessarily have to be double-teamed anymore
It qualified as something of a revelation when Houston’s Omer Asik proved this to be true late this season, but the Rockets did beat the Spurs once, and they did it by not double-teaming Duncan and therefore not having to rotate around to catch up to San Antonio’s spectacular ball movement. Not every team has a guy who can handle Duncan this way, but probably every team is going to at least try it for a few possessions and see how it looks.