The stage was set for an intriguing matchup on Thursday night when the Cavaliers, winners of four-of-their-last-five, marched into San Antonio looking to end the Spurs’ four-game winning streak. It was the first time since last June (when the Spurs dispersed of the Heat in five games by a record setting Finals margin) that LeBron James played in the AT&T center.
The contest was as superb as advertised, but the home team fell short in an overtime thriller 128-125. This was an important test for the defending champs as they looked to continue their progressive improvement despite inconsistent play for much of the season. But in the end, the Spurs ultimately battled the demons from Game 6 of the 2013 finals at the free-throw line.
In that series, Kawhi Leonard went to the line with a chance to clinch that series and give the Spurs their fifth championship in franchise history. With about 20 seconds left, he went 1-of-2 and the rest was history. Fast-forward two years later, he stepped up to the line with his team up by three and was short on both attempts. Kyrie Irving tied the game at the buzzer with a three on the other end and eventually led his team to a victory in the extra period.
For those saying, “It’s just a regular season game, it doesn’t matter,” look back at the emotions from Tim Duncan when Danny Green hit a three-pointer that many thought would seal the game late in the fourth. And everyone knows that James wanted this badly. He probably has nightmares about being swept by these same Spurs in the 2007 Finals and bounced in five games a season ago. He also is fully aware that barring a miraculous series of events that went in favor of his Heat, he would be starring at a 1-4 Finals record, with three of the losses coming to this same team (If you believe in the fallacy of predetermined outcomes).
But all isn’t lost; the Spurs still sit as the seventh seed in the Western Conference and are just four games back in the lost column of Memphis for the second seed. And even if their route to the Finals consisted of three road series, no one is at all concerned. This veteran group ripe with talent and experience, led by their head coach who’s a proven winner, has everything it takes to win series on the road.
This team is playing excellent basketball right now, so what changed?
Back on February 25, the Spurs suffered a 16-point loss to the Portland Blazers, in which they were outscored 60-45 in the second half. Tony Parker, the motor of this team, scored just two points on 1-of-8 from the field and had a plus-minus of -7. I remember watching that game and thought, “Who is this guy? I don’t recognize him.”
That loss to the Blazers brought their Rodeo Road Trip record to 2-5. They went on to win the next two s, bringing their record to 4-5, but it would be the first time in team history that they would finish sub-.500 on that trip.
Sometimes you need to hit rock bottom and it seems like that had transpired for the defending champs, but they eventually turned it around. On March 18, an undermanned Bulls team came into town and Parker went off for 32 points, four rebounds and two assists – easily his best game of the season. Then I remember thinking, “I know who this guy is now.” That win over the Bulls pushed their current win-streak to five games.
The eye-test reveals that Parker is playing much more confidently and looks like he’s getting his legs under him again. The quick movement and explosiveness is back for the 13-year veteran and it has translated into positive things for his team. In the month of March, he’s averaging the most he’s had in any other month in points (25.8), rebounds (3.0), steals (1.6) and his 5.4 assists per game is the second-highest of any other month. He’s averaging the least amount of turnovers of any other month (1.6). And lastly, his 10.4 plus-minus is not only the highest of any other month on the season, but it’s positive for the first time since November (all of these stats according to NBA.com).
Being healthy goes a long way, eh?
Losing that game to Cleveland was heartbreaking, given the narrative behind it and how they lost, but San Antonio has still won six of their last seven games and are playing great basketball.
Raul Dominguez, who covers the Spurs, points out that the Ginobli-Parker-Duncan trio have 718 careers wins – 11 shy of tying Boston’s Kevin McHale-Larry Bird- Robert Parish for most all-time. The Spurs are also in position to win 50-plus games for the 16th straight year, which is mind-blowing.
The motivation emanating from this team may be different from what it was a year ago, but if Tony Parker can stay healthy and continue to play at this level, look out… The “old, boring, and unathletic” Spurs are still a threat to win it.