They're Baaack: "Old, Boring" Spurs Win Seventh Straight GameFor most of this season, talk about the Western Conference has focused on Chris Paul and the surprising New Orleans Hornets, Houston's 22 game winning streak, the reemergence of the Lakers as a contender and the arrival of Shaquille O'Neal in Phoenix--but look who owns the league's best current winning streak (seven games) and has moved into a virtual tie with the Hornets for first place in the Western Conference: none other than the "old, boring" defending champion San Antonio Spurs, who blew out the Rockets 109-88 on Sunday. The Spurs' defense is in playoff mode after a brief midseason siesta; they held the Rockets to .402 field goal shooting, including a 5-22 effort from Tracy McGrady, who finished with just 13 points.
You know that the playoffs are nearing when the Spurs' veteran role players start coming out of hibernation: Michael Finley, who is shooting a career low .405 from the field this season but has been on a tear recently, scored 22 points on 9-13 shooting and Kurt Thomas contributed 10 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes. Presumably, Robert Horry will be making an appearance soon. This is why it is a mistake to evaluate the talent on a team's roster based purely on stats. Finley, Thomas and Horry have put up numbers this year that are nothing to write home about but I'd trust any of them in a seventh game of a playoff series much more than I would trust players who have similar roles (in terms of regular season minutes played) on other contending teams. The Spurs under Coach Gregg Popovich are absolute masters at managing a season segment by segment so that they are in peak form come playoff time; they don't get too high after wins or too low after losses. Popovich carefully monitors the minutes of his star players and he has a perfect sense of when his team needs a pat on the rear and when his team needs a kick in the rear.
The Spurs will be contenders as long as Tim Duncan is healthy and productive. He is the team's anchor on both offense on defense. He had a quiet game versus Houston (13 points, six rebounds in 29 minutes) but his ability to consistently score in the low post opens up opportunities not only for the team's role players but also for fellow stars Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The full extent of his defensive impact is not understood by average fans. Obviously, Duncan is one of the league's best rebounders and shot blockers but his mobility and length enable him to effectively cover a lot of ground. During last year's NBA Finals, Bruce Bowen conceded the outside jumper to LeBron James but whenever James tried to drive Bowen angled him directly toward Duncan, who served as a giant moat in front of the hoop, denying access. If the NBA kept a stat for "intimidated shots" then Duncan probably would rank first; many times each game opposing players drive to the hoop but are forced to pass the ball back out due to Duncan's presence. That means that the perimeter defenders can aggressively contest shots without worrying about being beaten.
So far, the Spurs have not reached the point where their advanced collective age is a handicap; their veteran wiles more than compensate for the mileage on their bodies. The charge that they are boring is an odd one to say the least. Isn't it exciting to annually contend for championships? Look at the flip side: how exciting is it to be a fan of the Knicks, the Heat, the Sonics or the Grizzlies? Duncan may have a calm demeanor but he scores, rebounds, blocks shots and passes. Ginobili and Parker are two of the quickest and most exciting guards in the NBA. Anyone who has been sleeping on the Spurs will receive a rude awakening once the playoffs begin.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:43 AM