Spurs Finally Back at Full Strength
If the San Antonio Spurs are going to repeat as NBA champions this season, their road to the NBA Finals will look completely different than it did a season ago.
By this time last season, the Spurs were well on their way to clinching the top seed in the Western Conference and were just coming off of a perfect 16-0 March, with a few games remaining in the regular season before eventually making their run to another championship.
Flip the calendar over to 2015 and the Spurs are just now punching their ticket to return to the postseason. Wednesday’s 103-91 win over the Orlando Magic ensured that the Spurs would make their 18th consecutive trip to the postseason and gives them a chance to repeat as NBA champions.
“It’s awesome, man,” Spurs guard Danny Green said after clinching a playoff berth. “It’s exciting. We’ve had some ups and downs this year. Usually [our goal] is trying to get a top-seed, now we were just trying to make it, especially about the midway point. After we got healthy, we figured we can get a higher seed but we still wanted to make it. Now we’ve made it, we just got to stay healthy.”
Injuries have kept the Spurs rather inconsistent this season and have been a big part of their up-and-down campaign. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills and Aron Baynes have all missed time due to various injuries. They began the season 12-4 after the first month, but then followed that up with an 8-10 record in December, a 10-4 record in January and a 6-5 record in February before finally getting back to full strength in March by posting a 12-3 record. Through April 1 of this year, the Spurs are in sixth place in the West at 49-26. A year ago, they were sitting in first place at 58-16.
“It makes it easy for us to be successful [when healthy],” Green said. “It’s easy for us to play basketball when everybody is healthy, knowing their role and knowing their rotations. It makes us a deeper team. We’ve had some injuries so it’s harder, but now we have everybody healthy, [we have] more threats. Multiple guys come off of the bench that can make things happen.”
The inconsistent play this season has been ammunition for critics to question whether the Spurs have reached the end of the line. Seemingly every season, the team is written off at some point because they rely on aging veterans in Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. That was especially true this season when the team began struggling in December.
Leonard went down with a hand injury in December that sidelined him for 17 games. The team would end up going just 8-10 during the month and, at 20-14, fell down to seventh place in the West. By January 6, they were just a half-game ahead of the Phoenix Suns in eighth place.
But the team stayed together through the adversity and rallied to stay alive in the playoff race until they could return to 100 percent again. Head coach Gregg Popovich is known for resting his players at various points throughout the season to ensure they’re rested for the playoffs. While that might lead to inconsistencies on the court, it means they’ll be ready for when games matter most.
“We’re not the type of team to have players playing 35-40 minutes so we do rest,” Ginobili said. “[Popovich] is very careful about that and if he thinks that we’re playing too much for a week, he’ll sit you a game. The main concern right now is just playing well. During the season, we had a lot of up and downs and it looks like in the last couple of weeks – except the New York game – we’ve been pretty steady and that’s a good sign.”
Now, the Spurs have become one of the hottest teams in league and it’s because they’re finally at full strength. The timing for the Spurs to hit their stride is perfect, as there are just seven games remaining before the playoffs. They share the league’s second-longest winning streak at five games with the Brooklyn Nets (the Golden State Warriors have the longest streak at 10 games in a row) and it’s clear they’re playing their best basketball heading into the playoffs.
As the standings currently sit, the Spurs would be matched up with the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, but that could change as teams two through six in the standings are separated by just two games. The Spurs will have their chance to make up ground on the Rockets as the two are set to play each other in back-to-back games next Wednesday and Friday.
“This is crunch time,” Green said. “We want to continue to win games, build rhythm, get better and try to get home-court advantage some way.”
Perhaps the biggest asset for the team heading into the playoffs is their bench. The team is able to remain so successful due to the second unit being able to come into the game and pick up where the starters left off. The Spurs are third in the league in bench scoring at 40.6 points per game and are second in total bench points scored. The team showed exactly why their bench should be feared just as much as their starting lineup Wednesday night in that win over the Magic. Baynes had a career-high 18 points, Belinelli chipped in 12 points and Boris Diaw contributed 11 points. The Spurs’ bench outscored the Magic’s reserves, 69-12.
“They’ve been great for us all year, even with the injuries,” Green said of the bench play. “Those that we’ve had come off of the bench, they’ve always come in and given us great energy.
“They do what they’ve always done and we’re going to need to continue to do that for us in the playoffs.”
It’s never a smart idea to count out the Spurs, especially when they’re entering the postseason with some momentum.
Nets Stay Hot to Move Back into Playoff Picture
The Brooklyn Nets continued their recent hot stretch on Wednesday after pulling out a 100-98 win over the New York Knicks. The win gave the Nets their fifth win in a row and placed them with the same record as the seventh-placed Miami HEAT in the tight playoff race in the Eastern Conference.
After Wednesday’s slate of games, five teams are separated by just three and a half games with just over a handful of games remaining. The Nets’ remaining games appear to be the most difficult among those five teams vying for the last two remaining playoff spots as seven out of their final eight games are against teams headed for the playoffs.
“It’s going to be tough,” Joe Johnson said of the team’s upcoming games. “But I think it’s a challenge we are all prepared for. To be honest with you, the playoffs have kind of started for us already. So we’ve just got to keep working, just take one game at a time, and prepare for it like it’s our last, and just try to stay in the winning column.”
The Nets are playing their best basketball of the season. In addition to winning their last five games in a row, the team has won nine out of their last 11 games with the season winding down.
Newly-acquired Thaddeus Young has been a big part of the Nets’ recent success since coming over from the Minnesota Timberwolves in the deal that involved Kevin Garnett. Young is averaging 13.3 points and 5.4 rebounds in 20 games for the Nets and is shooting nearly 44 percent from three-point range.
“I don’t think our confidence has ever been down,” Young said. “We have solid guys on this team. We have guys that we know can play and we rely on each and every person each and every night. So we believe in ourselves and we go out there highly confident each and every night ready to win games.”
The Nets will have their work cut out for them during their remaining games, but if they manage to make the playoffs they’ll be one of the hottest teams and could give one of the top seeds a serious challenge.
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