Monday night’s loss to the Rockets dropped San Antonio to 1-11 against the other top teams in the league (Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, Portland, L.A. Clippers, Miami, and Houston). The loss to Chicago two nights later marked the 4th defeat in their last 5 games. Against Houston, Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones both scored at least 20 points as the Rockets took the lead in the 2nd half on their way to the victory. The Spurs’ loss came with Houston’s leading scorer, James Harden, out with injury, and raises further questions about whether the defending Western Conference champs can mount another postseason run given their struggles against top competition.
Of course the Spurs have had their fair share of injuries as well. Starting wings Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard have both been gone down in January, surprisingly both with metacarpal fractures. They were both projected to miss about a month from the time of their respective injuries, so San Antonio can expect to get the sharp-shooting Green back first. Both should be available long before the playoffs.
Starting center Tiago Splitter also went down at the beginning of January, missing time with a shoulder injury. Although he was marginalized in the Finals series against the Heat, Splitter has become an important part of returning the Spurs to their defensive roots, and he has done so without hurting the offense. He too should return soon, but the absence of three starters would hurt any team. Add to that the loss of Manu Ginobili to a hamstring injury on Monday and this squad could really use some relief.
They’re not exactly in trouble, even with the injuries. Against Houston they played very well for most of the game. Tim Duncan was especially impressive in handling Howard. Duncan badly outplayed Howard in the 1st quarter as the Spurs jumped out to a lead while the Houston offense sputtered around a string of failed Howard post-ups. Time after time down the court the Rockets would enter the ball to Dwight on the block only to have him repelled by Duncan, either by poking the ball away or by refusing to give ground and forcing Howard into a bad shot that he would inevitably miss. Houston may have never gained an advantage had Duncan not gotten into foul trouble in the 3rd quarter. After that Howard made the Spurs pay for their hacking just enough for the Rockets to pull ahead.
Duncan is having yet another stellar season at age 37, averaging just shy of a double-double in under 30 minutes per night. Add to that two blocks per game and generally great defense and it’s safe to say that he has returned to his recent standards after a slow start. Eventually time will slow Duncan down, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Meanwhile the main cog in the offense is still France’s greatest balling export, Tony Parker. Parker has been rolling at his usual levels all season and with his steady hand at the wheel the offense hasn’t missed a beat. His quickness and craftiness still keep defenses off balance, and he has even managed to hit over 40% of his threes this season, albeit on limited attempts. The combination of herky-jerky hesitation and silky counters and spins makes it very difficult to slow him down, with opposing defenses forced to choose between Parker putting up a close-range shot or a kicking the ball out to a wide open shooter. Even if the defense avoids these two outcomes the classic Spurs movement will allow for hockey assists, backdoor cuts, and other quality looks.
Between these two stalwarts, the Popovich system, and a decent reclamation of veterans like Marco Belinelli and Boris Diaw, the Spurs have managed to put a powerful team on the floor all season. Even in the absence of the key injured players, San Antonio is able to send out quality role players. For instance, it seems like every guard on the roster is shooting over 40% on threes (the exceptions being Ginobili and Cory Joseph, both lingering around the league average). Thanks to all of this the team has the 3rd best point differential in the NBA, outscoring opponents on average by 7.1 points per game. They also rank 4th in offensive efficiency and 5th in defensive efficiency.
Only one other team can boast a top-5 ranking in both of these categories – the Oklahoma City Thunder. When asking whether the Spurs can beat top teams, and by extension whether they can make the kind of playoff run that took them to within a win of a title, we need to first look to the Thunder. Last season they were the prohibitive favorites to get out of the West for a rematch with the Miami Heat in the Finals. The previous season saw them take down a dominant San Antonio team, and until Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus that outcome seemed likely again.
Instead San Antonio played an overmatched Grizzlies team in the West Finals. Every team relies on luck in the form of good matchups, limited injuries, and hot-shooting streaks for playoff success.
This season, even without Westbrook in the lineup, the Thunder still look unstoppable. Even if the Spurs were .500 against the top teams in the league, OKC would be the favorite in a playoff series between the two. Things like that don’t concern San Antonio, because they have built the most successful long-term team in the league out of the idea that the regular season doesn’t really matter, and that anything can happen once the postseason starts. Surely Popovich would love to beat the best teams now, but he certainly isn’t going to break a sweat trying to do it. San Antonio isn’t getting blown out in these games, even without the help of three starters and their prized bench player.
They don’t worry about these things because they don’t have to. It’s more important to them to find out whether or not Nando de Colo or Joseph can be trusted as a secondary ball handler, whether Jeff Ayres is a usable big man, or if smallball lineups can hold up against certain kinds of teams.
Could they make it back to the Finals? Absolutely. Do they have a better shot than any of the other teams among the top 7? Probably. Over the other teams in the top 4? No.
It’s as simple as that. The Spurs learned a long time ago that the regular season doesn’t matter if you know you will make the playoffs, and their record against top teams reflects that. Instead of scrapping for another win or two they are looking to fill gaps and develop players. Another reliable ball handler on the wing would be useful, as would a solid big off the bench, but for the most part the team is what it is now – a flexible, reliable contender. A contender that will need to catch a few breaks to win a title. A contender just like all the others.