For a short moment a couple of months ago, the San Antonio Spurs did seem like a team that was going to have a tougher than usual fight for a place in the playoffs. Turns out it was all worry for nothing, and a 103-91 win over the Orlando Magic clinched them a spot in the postseason for the 18th consecutive time.
This is a franchise that has missed the playoffs just four times since crossing over from the ABA. It took them more than 20 years to get to their first NBA finals and win a title, but since then no teams has been a better model of consistency and of coming to terms with the changes in the NBA, as the Duncan-Popovich duo claimed five NBA titles since teaming up for the first time in 1997.
And once again, despite finishing with their lowest seed since 2011 (they’ll be #6, #5 or #4, depending on how things with the Clippers and Blazers play out), no one will say they don’t look like up and coming champions, defending the title this time, hoping to make a successful defense for the first time in franchise history.
The game itself is less interesting than the bigger picture right now. This was a day for the bench players, as the Duncan-Leonard-Parker-Splitter-Green lineup combined to score just 34 points. Aron Baynes led the team with 18 points, followed by Manu Ginobili with 13, Marco Belinelli with 12 and Boris Diaw with 11 points.
So what about that bigger picture? The Golden State Warriors, having the best season in franchise history, are the number one team in the league. It’s not just their record, but their overall dominance home & away against good and bad teams, their efficiency and per possession numbers on both offense and defense. They have a superstar, but they aren’t last year’s Miami Heat or the Houston Rockets from this season. It’s a team with one guy who stands out.
And this presents a different challenge to the Spurs compared to how they manhandled the Heat in the 2014 finals. The Spurs themselves are a different team. Kawhi Leonard, despite interruptions along the way, has carried on his improvement and evolution into something that is close to being a superstar on a team that has no need for one.
A series between the two teams is possible. Maybe in the conference semifinals, but if the seeding remain as they are right now (Spurs at sixth), it’s only a matchup that’s possible in the conference finals. The Spurs were too much for the Warriors in 2013, but things are very different now. If there’s one potential series to look forward to in these NBA playoffs (and there are quite a few contenders for the one), this is it.