It may be too early to proclaim, or too late if you're a Spurs fan, but if you have been watching the San Antonio Spurs dismantle the Oklahoma City Thunder, as well as every other opponent throughout this twenty game winning streak, then you should understand that you are watching the title favorite for 2012.
The Spurs etched past the dominant 2001 Los Angeles Lakers for the longest winning streak in NBA history that carried over from the regular season and into the playoffs. Do you remember those Lakers? Coming off of their first title, Shaq and Kobe dominated the competition with averages of 28.7 ppg and 28.5 ppg throughout the regular season. The Lakers reeled off eight straight wins heading into the playoffs, with the average point differential throughout those games at +11.75 per game. Then they rolled though the Blazers in three games, the Kings in four games, and the Spurs in four games. The Lakers average point differential in those playoff games stood at +15.45 per game, and it put the winning streak at nineteen games. Impressive.
However, Allen Iverson went bonkers and screwed up the whole operation. AI dropped 48 all over Derek Fisher, Tyron Lue, and even Kobe, to lead the Sixers to a game one upset in LA as Philly won 107-101 in overtime. The Lakers slept on the heavy underdog 76ers, and AI produced the only Philadelphia victory of the series. The Lakers responded by torching the Sixers with four straight wins and an average point differential of +10 per game. The Lakers finished the season 23-1. Shaq averaged 30.43 ppg in the playoffs, while Kobe flanked him with 29.43 ppg. Simply put, they were unstoppable. Including the loss to the Sixers, the Lakers finished those 24 games with an average point differential of +12.42 per game.
The 2001 Lakers were very impressive, and they highlighted the most prolific one-two punch in the NBA. The 2012 Spurs are assembled much, much differently. The Spurs are a complete team. The Lakers employed serviceable role players who came up big in certain spots, but the Spurs ask their role players to contribute all game long, all year long. The top three players for the Spurs, Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili, only averaged 18.3, 15.4, and 12.9 points per game throughout the regular season. Not exactly dominant. However, the Spurs next nine players averaged anywhere between six to ten points per game. Patrick Mills topped out at 10.3 ppg, and Matt Bonner bottomed out at 6.6 ppg. This gave the Spurs a full roster of capable players, twelve deep. Utilizing a deep, balanced roster, the Spurs finished with the top seed in the West, going 50-16 while saving the legs of the older big three.
The Spurs have not lost since Andrew Bynum went into beast mode and pulled down 30 rebounds. That was 49 days ago on April 11, 2012. The Spurs came right back and destroyed the Lakers twice within the next week and a half. The Spurs finished the regular season on a ten game winning streak, with the average point differential at +17.6 per game. Then they destroyed the Jazz in four games, dismantled the Clippers in four games, and are currently slowing down the explosive Thunder with a 2-0 lead to start the Western Conference Finals. That makes ten straight wins in the playoffs, with the average point differential at +11.9 per game. The reduced point differential can be attributed to the tougher competition. However, defeating playoff teams by a double digit average is still impressive.
Overall, the streak now sits at twenty straight wins, with the average point differential at +14.75 per game. Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili have upped their numbers to 20.5, 16.8, and 13.6 points per game in the playoffs. They have capitalized on their increased minutes. Their collective minutes have increased by twelve minutes when compared to the regular season. Parker has gone up by 3.7 mpg to play 35.8 mpg. Duncan has gone up by 4.5 mpg to play 32.7 mpg. Ginobili has gotten healthy and increased his time by 3.7 mpg to play 27 mpg. Popovich has shortened the rotation a bit in the playoffs, but he still has a regular seven flanking the big three. These role players have continued to perform well. The seven guys are averaging between three to nine points per game. Danny Green tops out at 9.3 ppg, and Matt Bonner bottoms out at 3.1 ppg. The seven players combine for 49.8 ppg in the postseason. Out of the top ten players, only Tiago Splitter has missed a game.
With such a balanced roster bringing it every night, the Spurs look poised to take down anyone. Their brand of basketball epitomizes team play. Excellent team play is difficult to defend. It shakes defensive principles. It forces a defense to make tougher decisions. Instead of keying in on one or two guys with strategies such as denying, fronting, shadowing, hedging, and over rotating, the collective defense is forced to reduce giving up so many options. Each strategy has a counter. When a defense concentrates on less variables, it excels. When a defense must concentrate on more variables, it loses some of that collective, concentrated power. In doing so, it weakens in order to spread out and defend further options. If you played the odds, you would want the role players to score instead of Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili. However, the Spurs employ a version of "moneyball." Popovich puts players in scenarios in which they can succeed. These role players serve as stars in their limited scope. If you double any of the big three, the ball will eventually end up in the hands of a role player for a good look.
Although the Spurs employ their own "Big Three," it plays out much differently compared to other dynamic trios. The Spurs excel at moving the ball and hitting the open man. The Spurs have six role players shooting well from deep in the postseason. Five of them are shooting over 40% from downtown, and three of those five are topping 50%. The sixth guy, Danny Green, is shooting a respectable 38.3% on his 47 attempts. Popovich has successfully instilled confidence in each player, and in doing so, each member on the team supports another member's decision. This isn't the blind support that Kevin Durant gives to Russell Westbrook. This is real support. Almost every decision made by a Spurs' player is correct by design. You can't fault a guy for shooting a wide open 3 following excellent ball movement. You just can't. Especially when that guy is a good to great shooter.
Kevin Durant won't fault Russell Westbrook for going 10-24, 3-7 from deep, for 27 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists. But maybe he should. Westbrook routinely pulled up and forced jumpers when he didn't have the advantage. Westbrook wanted to negate Tony Parker's beat-down on him. Parker finished 16-21, 1-2 from deep, for 34 points, 3 rebounds, 8 assists, and 2 turnovers. Westbrook got caught in a matchup battle. Parker scored off of good looks within the system of the team. Westbrook forced shots in order to match Parker's numbers. Westbrook failed to capitalize on the counterattack. Instead, he forced the issue. Durant finished the game 10-17, 3-4 from deep, for 31 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks, and 3 turnovers. I'm sure Durant desires more shot attempts, especially on a night when his jumper is flowing. Unfortunately for Durant, those attempts were jacked up by Westbrook. Westbrook's overall line is impressive, especially his 8 assists compared to 0 turnovers. However, Westbrook failed to ride the coattails of Durant. Instead of following Durant's lead, Westbrook played hero. Westbrook failed and he cost his team a chance to split the series. Now OKC has to win four of the next five games. The Spurs have only lost twice in a row four times this season. They haven't lost three times in a row all season.
Trust in the team concept alleviates the pressure upon the star players of the Spurs. They don't have to work as hard in order to produce quality numbers. They can let the game flow to them. Depending upon the defense, Parker can run the pick and roll and execute up to five great options. He can attack for a layup, pull up for the jumper, hit the roll, hit the pop, or drive and kick out. Each option is deadly due to the overall composition of the team. Kick outs lead to 3's, pull ups lead to good looking mid range 2's, layups are simple, rolls are attacking the basket, and pops are open jumpers. These big three have no problem with executing every option.
Other dynamic trios rarely play out like this. Boston is similar, but more so due to declining abilities. Other trios usually depend wholly upon the trio. The Heat depend on LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh for almost everything. The Thunder depend on Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. The Lakers depend on Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol. Having three stars of this magnitude works well, but it also requires that the stars must bring it every night. The stars must carry the load. If one of them has a bad game, that means that the other two will have to take on an even bigger role. Even worse, sometimes the star who is struggling will keep forcing the issue in order to turn his performance around. Sometimes this works, often times it ends up like Westbrook's 10-24.
Most trios command huge salaries which lead to a huge hit against the salary cap. With a limited budget, the rest of the team must be comprised of guys who fit within the salary cap. Players in the NBA rarely accept less than their market value. This makes attaining talent much more difficult. Some guys will chase a ring and sign for less money, but these guys are rarely still in their prime. The Spurs have done a remarkable job of fielding a mixed roster of youthful energy coupled with veteran poise. If any of their big three suffer, they have another capable option to go to. This option won't be asked to make a difficult play. This option will be asked to make the correct play. Credit general manager R.C. Buford for his excellent scouting, and credit Gregg Popovich for his excellent development and coaching.
The Lakers went 16-1 in the postseason in '01. Can the Spurs go a perfect 16-0? If, or when, the Spurs finally do lose, I won't count them out. They may lose the opportunity to pass some of the longest, most impressive winning streaks in NBA history, but when the confetti rains down during the last game of the year, I bet it will be silver and black. Forget about LeBron and Wade, the Spurs are offering the most impressive run for an NBA championship since the 2001 Lakers. Enjoy the show.
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