In the very first game of the 2012 playoffs, the Chicago Bulls, tied for the best record in the league, trounced 8th seeded Philadelphia. The game was never really in doubt, as the Bulls used a balanced attack to dismiss heavy underdogs. But in the last couple minutes, with no apparent need for former MVP Derrick Rose to still be playing, disaster struck as Rose went down with an ankle injury after falling awkwardly on a shot. The news came later that day, Rose was out for the playoffs.
Immediately sports analysts everywhere started talking about how terrible the loss was, how the Bulls hopes were dashed etc. While the Bulls certainly proved in the regular season they could be successful without Rose, they were not going to contend without their star. Many analysts started calling 2012 a “footnote title”, including Bill Simmons of Grantland, who claimed the 2012 title would be the 9th biggest footnote title in history. And then Chris Bosh went down early in the second round and hurt Miami’s title hopes and added more fuel to the footnote fire. While at the time I agreed with many of these writers and television personalities that we would have to preclude any discussion of the 2012 champs with “If Rose/Bosh had been healthy…”, I’m no longer of that belief. The reason?
The San Antonio Spurs are really, REALLY good.
The Spurs are eliminating the footnotes. They don’t apply. I’ve watched the Bulls a decent amount this year, with and without Rose. They are a great team, extremely deep, extremely well coached, and dominant defensively. They would be a very tough out for any team. But they would not beat the Spurs with the way the Spurs have been playing. The Bulls got beat handily by the Heat last year with Wade submitting one of his worst shooting series ever. The Bulls would fight hard, but even if they made it by Miami they would not beat these Spurs.
I’m not trying to dismiss any of the 3 other remaining teams. The Heat still have arguably the 2 best players alive. The Thunder are still the most talented team in the league and can compete with anybody when their shots are falling. I’m not trying to dismiss these teams, who could end up as being the best 2nd and 3rd place (there is no 3rd place but just go with it) teams in over 10 years. They are that good. The Spurs are better.
Let’s look at the Spurs since they acquired Stephen Jackson for Richard Jefferson at the trade deadline and then signed Boris Diaw. This was a clear winning trade for the Spurs, Jackson is the better player and has a good history with Duncan and Popovich. Diaw had proven in Phoenix that he worked well in systems that utilize lots of ball movement. This looked like a match made in heaven.
In the 31 (22 regular season and 9 playoff) games since acquiring both players, the Spurs are 29-2. That is absurd. They won their first 10, lost 2 in a row, and are currently on a 19 win streak. As ridiculous as that is, they are better than that shows. Their 1st loss there was against the Utah Jazz. Here is a link to the box score http://www.basketball-reference.com/boxscores/201204090UTA.html . There’s no Duncan, no Parker, and no Manu. Popovich didn’t care about the win streak, he figured his guys could use some rest so he didn’t play his 3 best players. They lost by 7. Then they lost to the Lakers when Bynum had a 30 rebound game and Artest scored 26 on great shooting (though there was no Kobe). But they lost that one convincingly so I won’t make excuses. It is totally conceivable that if Pop didn’t rest his guys they could have won 31 of their last 32 (they won one before acquiring Diaw). That run has only ever been matched by the 72 Lakers who won 33 straight. Except that team wasn’t doing it in the playoffs.
But the Spurs haven’t been just winning games, they have been murdering teams. They’ve scored 106.8 points per game since the pickups and given up only 94. That point differential of 12.8 is… wait for it. The best of all time. Well not really, since the record (12.3) was set by 2 teams (the aforementioned 72 Lakers and the 72 win 1996 Bulls), and of course the record is for full seasons. But since acquiring their 2 new players, the Spurs have been playing at the level of all time great teams. Wrap your head around that number of 12.8. The 3 other remaining teams, OKC, Miami, and Boston, had point differentials this season of 6.2, 6.0, and 2.5. No team this season approached the level the Spurs are currently playing at.
The Spurs can stop any team. They threw back Utah’s balanced attack and held them to 13.4 points below their season average. They played the Clippers and held superstar (and best point guard alive) Chris Paul to 13 points (on 37% shooting) and 9 assists while forcing him to commit an uncharacteristic 4.5 turnovers per game. The result? The Clippers scored 6.2 less points per game than in the season while playing at a faster pace. On Sunday they severely limited Harden and Westbrook, and Durant was having a hard time until some calls started going his way in the fourth. The Thunder will bounce back, but you could tell they were not prepared for the Spurs.
These numbers tell a lot, but it’s not the most impressive part about the Spurs. It’s how you feel while watching them. They get layups. And layups. And more layups. They throw in some wide open threes and some easy post scores by Duncan. They score on the break but they are always in control. They are one step ahead of the other team at all times.
In the semifinals the Clippers had an incredible start and opened up a 24 point lead. Did the Spurs look scared? Not at all. Then they went on a 24-0 run. It was still surprising, I mean it was 24 straight points, but not nearly as surprising as it would be from other teams.
When the Thunder built up an 8 or 9 point lead on Sunday going into the 4th, it still felt like the Spurs were in the drivers seat, because they can always get good shots that other teams can’t. And then it happened. Parker made a layup. Gary Neal hit a couple threes. And Manu took over, slicing up the Thunder D, finding people for open shots, and hitting layups. The Spurs scored 39 points in the 4th, and nearly all of them looked easy. The Spurs beat a great Thunder team with bad shooting by Duncan and Parker. And it seemed like a foregone conclusion at times.
These Spurs, win or lose, are probably the best Spurs team of the Duncan-Popovich era. They’ve won 4 times, but they have never been able to score and defend like they do now. They used to prevail because Duncan was better than whoever the other team had. Now they prevail because they are just better than the other team. Duncan has been reduced to what some call a very good role player, and yet he is putting up the same per 36 numbers he has put up for his entire career. He has lost some endurance sure, but in the playoffs he has a 25 PER in 32 minutes per game. Manu is as good as ever, Parker is having arguably his best season, and their teamwork has never been better. Popovich won his 2nd Coach of the Year award and it was probably his best performance ever. No coach has ever been so good at getting the most out of every single player. He’s the most effective coach in the league, and arguably of all time (an argument I would make). Every single player on the Spurs knows their role and plays it perfectly, it’s both beautiful and scary to watch.
The Spurs might not win. Sometimes things don’t go your way. Fouls could go against them, Durant/Westbrook could have a fantastic shooting series, Lebron and Wade could have the series of their lives in the finals. It could all happen. But throw out the footnotes. If the Spurs win it’s because they were the best team, and if any team beats them, then they sure earned the title. The one exception is if Miami manages to give the Spurs a close series even without Bosh, then you could make the argument. But as of now, the only injury that should create a “footnote title” is a Spurs injury, because they really are unfathomably good.