Last season, before confetti littered the AT&T Center floor celebrating the Spurs’ fifth championship, before that feat was essentially a formality based on the strength of lights out shooting, before Kawhi Leonard would become the youngest Finals MVP since Magic Johnson, the Spurs were mired in a scratch and claw seven-game first-round series with the Dallas Mavericks.
Before any of that, Rick Carlisle, the Mavericks’ head coach, seated at a podium in the bowels of the AT&T Center with a microphone a foot in front of his face spewed an unassailable summation of the postseason.
“When you win, you feel like you’ll never lose, and when you lose, you feel like you’ll never win.”
Maybe this advice was directed at the media and fans as much as it was directed at the teams and the NBA as a whole.
To win a championship in the National Basketball Association, a team must win 16 games. They say a season is a marathon not a sprint, and clichéd as it is, it’s true. The playoffs are a part of that marathon. This is the reason playoff experience is instrumental to postseason success. There’s no supplement for experience. For a team to truly realize the mettle needed to finish off the marathon, they must first experience its unforgiving twists.
No team knows this fact better than the San Antonio Spurs. They played 23 basketball games before hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy on Father’s Day 2014. The year before, the Spurs lasted 21 before having the Trophy snatched from their grasp. 23 games to win a championship, 23, just a few games more than a quarter of the entire season.
The reason all of the above is valuable material this time of year is to reiterate the absolute truth of the playoffs. It’s important to remember Carlisle’s words, because one game does not a champion make. The playoffs are reminiscent of the casino game roulette, where each roll is independent of the last. We tend to rationalize a playoff series as a linear storyline, where one game’s successes beget the next game’s successes, but this is rarely true. Sure, there are some series in which one team thoroughly dominates and the end is apparent even at the beginning. The majority of the time, though, we must reason with our vast overarching conclusions after one victory, as lopsided as it might be.
The defending NBA champion Spurs fell in their first playoff game since winning the title last June, 107-92, to the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday. They looked old and slow, and shot just north of 35 percent for most of the game. If the Spurs shoot 30 percent from three and 58 percent from the FT line throughout the rest of this series, then their fate has already been sealed. The other statistical anomaly from Game 1 was not so much why such a great three-point shooting team like the Spurs shot so poorly, but rather how a team that shot 37 percent from three all season in the Clippers, hit 10-of-18 from deep.
So many aspects of the game favored the Clippers that it’s easy to overlook the most important, which is the four best players on the floor all were wearing Clippers uniforms. But the biggest reason to expect a different outcome on Wednesday night, aside from the poor shooting percentages, was how incapable the Spurs were in overcoming consistent double teams of their two best players, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard.
Tim Duncan said yesterday after the team’s practice: “That’s the whole point of basketball; you’re trying to get double teams, you’re trying to get mismatches, you’re trying to get angles. When you can get a player like that [Kawhi Leonard] and make them rotate and adjust it gets other people open shots and that’s what we’re looking for.”
The Spurs were reluctant to take those open shots on Sunday. A Gregg Popovich coached team will certainly adapt to that in Game 2.
The Spurs, more so than any other team in the NBA, understand that if you succumb to the adversity of one playoff game, then you’ll succumb to the opposition entirely. Remember the Rick Carlisle lesson. We cannot let our biases of one dominant victory transcend the absolute playoff truth. The Clippers looked as good Sunday evening as the Spurs looked bad. It’s just one win though, and to look too deep into it from either side is to completely disregard the valuable lesson we learn each and every postseason.