The NBA playoffs get underway this afternoon with three games. For the first time in league history, the postseason will not include the Celtics, Lakers and Knicks. For the 17th consecutive year, however, it will include Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs.
No doubt, the honchos in the NBA offices would rather have three of the league’s most storied franchises in the tournament than the ubiquitous Spurs. It’s become old hat at this time of year, hearing people complain about San Antonio and how deadly they are for the TV ratings.
I’m used to it by now. A recent playoff preview referred to “the excruciatingly efficient and boring San Antonio Spurs.” They play in a small market. They don’t move jerseys. Duncan is an ancient, robotic superstar, running around with that perpetually startled expression on his face.
Skeptics figured they were done after last year’s horrifying loss to LeBron James and the Heat in the Finals. The Spurs were up, three games to two. They had a five-point lead with 28 seconds left in Game Six. They blew the lead, lost in overtime, and the Heat won in seven.
But they refused to go away. Somehow, with their big three of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker a year older, San Antonio got better. They won 62 games, finishing with the league’s best record. They won 19 games in a row at one point and became just the 13th team in history to win 30 road games.
Gregg Popovich did a marvelous coaching job this season. Popovich used 29 different starting lineups, 17 different starters. The Spurs were the only team in the NBA that didn’t have a player average more than 30 minutes a game. No one on the team averaged more than 17 points.
It’s not often a team wins 60 games and has no one under consideration for MVP. There’s a good chance no Spur will be in the top 10 in the voting. San Antonio’s bench averages an NBA-leading 45.4 points a game. The Spurs are the ultimate team. Popovich should be a lock for Coach of the Year.
I would consider Duncan for MVP, though he averages only 29 minutes and 15 points a game. He turns 38 next week. But he’s in better shape than he was three years ago and is still a dominant player when he’s on the floor.
Of course, I’m biased. Duncan is my favorite basketball player since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. He’s a fundamental wonder, a great passer and defender and winner. The Spurs have won at least 50 games every year since drafting him in 1998 – aside from the shortened 1998-99 season, when they went 37-13.
Duncan might not be flashy, but he’s the best power forward ever to play. Please, Karl Malone can’t touch him. The Spurs have won 68 percent of their games since drafting Duncan and making Popovich the head coach.
They’re basketball’s version of the Patriots, a team that wins big every year but hasn’t won a title in some time. The Spurs won four NBA titles in Duncan’s first four seasons, but haven’t won it all since 2008.
For a hoop purist, Duncan and the Spurs are a pleasure to watch. They’re the best passing team I’ve ever seen. How can a team be boring when it leads the league in assists, three-point shooting and field-goal percentage, and is sixth overall in scoring? What, they don’t dunk enough?
Don’t get me wrong. I love the young talent and star quality in today’s NBA, which is why this year’s playoffs should be so compelling. The problem is, too many of the best teams and rising young players are in the Western Conference.
Oklahoma City, which went 4-0 against the Spurs this season, has the likely MVP in Kevin Durant. The Clippers, a real wild card, have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. The Rockets have James Harden and Dwight Howard. The Blazers have Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
The Spurs won 62 games; their reward was a first-round matchup with the Mavs, who went 49-33. The Thunder finished second in the West and will play a Memphis team that knocked them out of the playoffs a year ago. The Grizzlies, a live No. 7 seed, went 50-32, but 40-19 with center Marc Gasol healthy.
The eight Western playoff teams went 175-65 against Eastern foes. The eight Eastern playoff teams were 119-121 against the West. It’ll be an exhausting run to the Finals. It’s hard to imagine any Western team coasting through with a 12-2 record, as the Spurs did a year ago.
The road won’t be nearly as tough in the East, where Miami is looking to win its third straight NBA title and make the Finals for the fourth year in a row. No team has won three consecutive championships since the Lakers from 2000 to 2002. The last team to reach four straight Finals was the Celtics from 1984 to 1987. I’m pretty sure Paul Pierce was not on those teams.
The Heat are more vulnerable than a year ago, when they won 66 games. Dwyane Wade’s health will be vital. Wade sat out 28 games to preserve his body for the playoffs. He missed nine games in a row late in the year with a sore left hamstring. The Heat went 13-14 in the last third of the season.
If Wade isn’t close to full strength, the Heat could go down, perhaps in the second round against the winner of the Nets-Raptors series. But you should never underestimate LeBron James, who remains the best player in the sport and is capable of willing the Heat through a playoff series.
James is the NBA’s top attraction. As long as he’s alive in the playoffs, the ratings will be high. The TV folks would love to see James and Durant in the Finals, or James against the Clippers and Griffin, one of the most recognizable figures in the sport today.
The Spurs? Three of the lowest-rated Finals ever involved San Antonio, in 2003, ’05, and ’07. Last year’s series against the Heat did OK, but it still attracted fewer viewers than a typical title series.
It doesn’t matter to me. I want the Spurs to get another shot at the Heat. I’m biased. I want to see Duncan get that fifth ring. There’s no telling how much longer he can play. Basketball geniuses don’t come along very often. You enjoy them while you can.