The Fundamentals: Here come the Spurs
While NBA fans admire the exploits of some other contender or rubberneck toward the mishaps of some cratering team, the Spurs have reeled off 10 consecutive victories in relative quiet. This, in both seeming invisibility and sheer predictability, is one of the season's least surprising developments. San Antonio has put together a double-digit winning streak in each of the past three seasons, now multiple times at this point in the year. Don't mind the Spurs, ladies and gentlemen; they're healthy for the first time in months and rounding into form as they always do.
What's new, though, is the subtext. So much of San Antonio's operation remains unchanged, as one would expect of a team built around the proven pillars of Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich. But the Spurs are the only participant from last year's NBA Finals who can claim to be tangibly better than they were last June, augmented by internal tweaking. That development puts them in a select class of contender -- a team not just with hopes of winning it all, but a pretty good shot.
That's a stark change from even a few months ago, when worry over San Antonio's record against top teams had reached its apex. Even now, the Spurs are only a combined 3-9 against the Heat, Thunder, Pacers, Rockets and Clippers, but most every loss can be fit with some kind of asterisk. A few were products of San Antonio's uncharacteristic bumbling early in the season. Many were complicated by scheduling or injury. The Spurs would have surely preferred to have won the lot, but those losses don't pose too much concern. They're glimpses into the play of a different team, one either out of rhythm or without full use of its resources.
Once given the chance to stabilize, San Antonio settled into a familiar authority. In the last 10 games, the Spurs have outscored every team in the league on a per-possession basis and out-defended all but two. They've won by an average of 15.3 points while defeating Miami, Chicago and Portland, among others. The defense has clamped down. The cadence of the offense has returned fully, to the point that Tony Parker hasn't been needed for any more than 26.6 minutes a game. These are the Spurs you may remember: the deep, flexible team tuned to precision on both ends of the floor, equipped and prepared to game-plan against any opponent.
Those strengths make San Antonio something more than just a tough out -- it may well be the Western Conference's skeleton key. Pan across the playoff pool and you'll find no distinctly poor matchups for a Spurs team that can run big, small, fast or slow while remaining on balance. Some opponents will naturally put up more of a fight than others, but all are manageable in the context of a seven-game series. The roster is malleable to Popovich's needs. Lineups can be adjusted when the situation merits (as when Boris Diaw replaces Tiago Splitter in the starting five), matchups can be controlled and exploited (as when Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard slides over to defend a point guard) and the Spurs have a unique wealth of shooters and defenders to adapt to most any metagame.
One can find film for days on these Spurs and identify their pet plays with relative ease. But on a day-to-day basis they're a moving target, able to create shots through different means or adjust their defensive basics to fit most any circumstance. They've evolved beyond the point where opponents can key in on Parker and get away with it, as Leonard, Diaw, Marco Belinelli and a renewed Manu Ginobili all can turn a momentary advantage into a productive opportunity. Those four don't need to be dominant isolation scorers, but rather decisive in those moments when the defense tilts in a different direction.
That capacity for supplementary offense isn't necessarily new, but it is more robust than ever. Leonard is clearly more confident in his off-the-dribble game and continues to wade into ball handling when possible. Diaw has upped his shooting percentages while becoming a far more willing scorer -- a shift that runs contrary to his creative programming. Belinelli has emerged a sharper shooter than Gary Neal, whom he functionally replaced, without the same ball-stopping tendencies. Patty Mills offers much more offensive value than Cory Joseph, and on his better nights gives San Antonio yet another improvisational option. And above all: Ginobili, 36, is much sharper than he was last season, playing as a deployable threat in carefully controlled minutes.
These subtle advancements to a roster that was already title-worthy in its previous form give Popovich tactical riches upon tactical riches. He still has a few quirks left to sort out, such as the team's woeful scoring when Duncan and Splitter have shared the floor; lineups with that duo have been seven points worse per 100 possessions than they were last season, per NBA.com. A solid month of regular-season basketball remains, though. The long game rolls on, and no team can be trusted more to be in fine form for the playoffs.
It's on those grounds that the Spurs' position in the horse race for the NBA title hasn't yet mattered -- not now and not at any point this season. We train an eye to the Thunder to see where the hash of injury, chemistry and youth leaves one of the best teams in the West. We focus on the week-to-week performance of the Clippers and Rockets because we're still learning their ways and their limits. Each of those three unfurls itself with every passing week, whether through accomplishments or failures. San Antonio is interested in the same measures of daily maintenance, as evidenced by Popovich's unwavering insistence on perfection regardless of the opponent. There's just less to glean in the result for a team that has been so impeccably prepared and so resiliently balanced for so long. That doesn't mean the Spurs are boring, or even under-covered. They're simply inevitable.