We've just gone through an NBA Season Without Reason, with a West hierarchy that has changed so much, and yet, just like last year, the Western Conference playoffs depends on the San Antonio Spurs. More specifically, the bracket once again depends on whether an all-time great has enough left in the tank to push his team over the top like he has done so many times in the past.
Perhaps it's unfair to pin the entire Spurs' success on Tim Duncan. After all, despite the commonalities cited above, there is a lot that is different about this year's Spurs squad as compared to last year. They are surging into the playoffs instead of backing their way in. Manu Ginobili is healthy instead of playing through a late-season injury. Tony Parker is playing at a higher level than any other time in his career. The team is deeper and even more 2007 Suns-like in their style.
But at the end of the day, the reality remains the same. Unless Duncan raises his game a tad, the Spurs are ripe for an upset.
The Spurs know this all too well, so for the second straight year, they tried to limit Duncan's workload during the regular season. One year after seeing his minutes cut to 28.4 a game, Duncan played in just 28.2 minutes per game and sat eight contests to rest. Last year, I often wondered whether the Spurs were doing so to hide Duncan's declining effectiveness. As it turned out, Duncan's decline seemed evident against the Grizzlies, as he was overwhelmed by their size in the Spurs' six-game playoff upset. He still rebounded decently, but he scored just 12.7 points per game and allowed both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to star against him.
In response, Duncan trained hard this summer. When he showed up to training camp, coach Gregg Popovich said he was in "incredible" shape. And he has been noticeably quicker, especially down the stretch as the Spurs' defense has risen from league-average to above-average. He's also snared back a larger share of the Spurs' offense, using nearly 26 percent of the team's possessions this year after posting a career-low 22.9 mark last season. In short: it looks more like the Spurs are resting Duncan rather than hiding him.
At the same time, we all know the playoffs are different. While Duncan's decline wasn't the only reason the Grizzlies upset the Spurs last year, it was still painful to see him struggle in the face of Memphis' defensive pressure. Had Duncan been able to handle it better, the Spurs would have won that series. Now, the Spurs need Duncan to provide more post scoring, better defensive rebounding and better ball pressure covering screen and rolls. Without that, they lose all semblance of balance.
There are other keys for the Spurs to advance deep into the playoffs, of course. Ginobili has to be healthy. San Antonio has to figure out a way to get Matt Bonner onto the floor without compromising its interior defense. Either Kawhi Leonard or Stephen Jackson must provide consistent production at small forward. But none of them matter if Duncan is once again a shell of his previous self.
The Spurs don't need 2003 Tim Duncan to win the West, but they probably need 75 percent of him, especially with tough matchups against the Utah Jazz and either the Los Angeles Clippers or those same Grizzlies on the horizon.
FIVE OTHER STORYLINES
1. Is Oklahoma City as powerful if James Harden is still suffering from the effects of his concussion?
Harden hasn't played since the vicious elbow he took from Metta World Peace, and in his absence, the Thunder's old crunch-time woes have started to resurface. David Stern believes Harden will return to the lineup, but what if his injury caused him to get out of rhythm?
That would hurt the Thunder, especially late in games. While Harden is often a non-entity late in games because Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook take all the shots, his presence on the weakside often helps clear driving lanes and clarifies the hierarchy. Harden's the glue to Oklahoma City's offense without really doing that much actively. If he's hampered a little bit, it could magnify the flaws of Durant, Westbrook and coach Scott Brooks in key moments.
2. Will rest help the Lakers, or did they push too much in the regular season?
Thanks in part to their top-heavy roster, as well as coach Mike Brown's disinclination for managing minutes, the Lakers' stars logged a lot of time during this shortened season. A 33-year-old Kobe Bryant was fourth in the NBA in minutes per game despite starting the year with a bad wrist injury, while Pau Gasol was second to Kevin Durant in total minutes played this season. Neither guy is young by NBA standards, and both have a ton of miles on them from previous playoff runs. Can they hold up in the playoffs?
The good news for the Lakers is that the playoff schedule won't be as unforgiving as the regular season's. Days off between games should provide plenty of time to rest their stars and shorten their shallow rotation. At the same time, Bryant is coming into the playoffs a bit out of rhythm after his late-season injury, and the Metta World Peace suspension cuts into the Lakers' depth even further. Brown and his staff must find time for their top players to rest because they will need to carry an awful supporting cast on their backs if the Lakers are to make a deep run in the playoffs.
3. Are the Clippers good enough defensively to advance?
The Clippers are 14-5 in their last 19 games, including two wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder, so they're surging at the right time. As long as they have Chris Paul, you can never count them out, because nobody manages crunch time better. But if they really want to be a threat to advance far in the playoffs, they have to be better defensively than they were this season.
The Clippers ranked 17th in defensive efficiency this year, and while that's not awful, only two other playoff teams (Denver and Utah) were worse. The problems are obvious: poor wing defense, inexperienced interior defenders and shaky schemes. Most figured those factors would derail their defense before the season, and often times, they have.
However, things have improved during this late-season run. The Clippers defended poorly in their final two games of the year against Atlanta and New York, but in the 17 games prior to that, they were holding teams to just 100.4 points per 100 possessions. If maintained over a full season, that would put the Clippers near the top 10, just behind Indiana -- and ahead of the Spurs and Lakers.
Can the Clippers continue to defend at that level against top opposition? If so, they are a legitimate threat to advance out of the West. If not, their postseason stay could end quickly against the Memphis Grizzlies. Speaking of the Grizzlies...
4. Is Memphis a threat, or just the team nobody really wants to play?
The Grizzlies are everyone's sleeper to advance in the playoffs, and there's a lot to like about them. They did it last year and are just as formidable this year, thanks to Marc Gasol's emergence, Rudy Gay's return to the lineup, Mike Conley's improvement and the play of scrap-heap guys like Marreese Speights and Gilbert Arenas. They've also played extremely well down the stretch, finding themselves at the right time just like last year.
But they are also not without faults. Despite technically being healthy, Zach Randolph, the key to their deep run last season, is far from himself. That hurts the Grizzlies' offense and causes it to go through a lot of extended ruts. On the year, the Grizzlies are 20th in offensive efficiency and 25th in effective field goal percentage. There isn't one shot distance category (via HoopData) in which they rank in the top half of the league. With Randolph limited, their best offense when things break down is Gay taking contested mid-range jumpers. Can they really score enough to win one playoff series in a deep Western Conference, much less four?
Sure, the Grizzlies absolutely could make a run, but I'm surprised so many are glossing over their faults. This makes me wonder if the Grizzlies are held in high regard in part because they are uncomfortable to play against. Their ball pressure is second to none, and they're really, really physical. No top seed wants to see the Grizzlies because no top seed wants to have to play seven games against their style. But is that the same thing as saying they can advance deep in the playoffs?
Time will tell.
5. Is there any hope for a 1995 Rockets-type run from the Mavericks?
Seventeen years ago, the Houston Rockets entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed after an uneven regular season. Several key players from their 1994 title team were either traded (Otis Thorpe) or exiled in some other capacity (Vernon Maxwell). Few gave them a chance to get out of a deep Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets made a shocking run to the title, upsetting four 57-plus win teams along the way.
On the surface, this looks a lot like the 2011-12 Mavericks. Before the season, several rotation players, including the incredibly-important Tyson Chandler, departed in free agency. Lamar Odom, who was expected to be a key contributor, instead was exiled after a horrible season. The Mavericks were not bad, but they were uneven and finished with a disappointing record. The Western Conference this year is deep, but all of the top contenders have flaws the Mavericks could exploit. Just like the 1995 Rockets, the Mavericks' first-round opponent, Oklahoma City, is the same team they defeated in five games in the Western Conference Finals.
The parallels are obvious, but will history repeat itself?
While you can't ever count the Mavericks out, I'd caution against a repeat scenario. The 1995 Rockets were a poor rebounding team, but they were pretty balanced otherwise, with no horrible weaknesses that teams could exploit. All it took was some hot three-point shooting, and the run they made was understandable.
The Mavericks, on the other hand, have struggled offensively all year, though they have picked it up a bit down the stretch. Their perimeter threats (Jason Kidd, Jason Terry) haven't been great this year, and the instability at center has hurt their screen-setting. As long as they have Dirk Nowitzki and the impeccable play-calling of Rick Carlisle, they have a chance, but it will require some turn-back-the-clock performances from key guys that probably don't have it in them.
Spurs Vs. Jazz
- The Jazz should feel good because ... : The Jazz are peaking at the right time and offer the kind of deep frontcourt that can give the Spurs problems. Al Jefferson has had a superb season, improving his perimeter game and passing out of double teams, Paul Millsap is really solid, and Derrick Favors has come on as of late. The Jazz's new wrinkle is playing all three together for stretches, which improves their defense and keeps their best talent on the court. Unless the Spurs go small, that lineup could punish San Antonio inside.
- The Spurs should feel good because ... : The Jazz are the worst defensive team in the playoffs and are especially poor at guarding the pick and roll. Things have improved for Utah with Favors playing more, but it's still a major weakness. If the Spurs can get away with playing Matt Bonner at power forward, the Jazz are way too slow and undisciplined to stop the Spurs from getting dribble penetration and open three-pointers.
- Key to the series: Lineup juggling will be critical. You can bet that Ty Corbin will play Millsap, Favors and Jefferson together, given the lineup's success. How do the Spurs respond? Do they match that with size? (If it were me, no.) Do they go small and try to beat Utah with speed? (They should.) Can they do that and prevent Millsap from punishing them inside? (Yes because Utah's spacing will be off.) If Popovich has a weakness, he sometimes lets the other coach dictate matchups in a playoff series (This is why Dallas historically has played the Spurs well in the playoffs). He has to stick with his strengths and not let Corbin try to throw the Spurs off their game.
- Prediction: Spurs in six. There will be many comparing the Jazz to the 2010 Grizzlies, but they don't defend as well, even with Favors playing more, so I think the Spurs will survive.
Thunder vs. Mavericks
- The Mavericks should feel good because ... : They've been here before. This is the same Thunder team that played right into the Mavericks' hands defensively last year by brazenly attacking their wall of help defenders instead of moving the ball to patiently find an opening. Tyson Chandler is gone, but the Mavericks remain an elite defensive unit.
- The Thunder should feel good because ... : This is a different Kevin Durant than last year. While Durant is still prone to bouts of trigger-happy perimeter shooting, he has also dramatically improved his strength and post-up game. If Durant can show off those new skills in the playoffs, the Mavericks will not be able to put Jason Kidd on him again. That'll force more responsibility onto Shawn Marion and prevent Dallas from taking Marion out of the game in crunch time to open up more offensive spacing.
- Key to the series: What happens if Dirk Nowitzki doesn't go off like he did last year? There's no reason to think Nowitzki will struggle, but he did have a 48-point game and a 40-point game in last year's series. Without Nowitzki going from superstar to out-of-this-world good, the Mavericks probably don't win that series. What happens if Nowitzki is merely himself instead of a mutant version?
- Prediction: Thunder in five. I could see the Mavericks rediscovering themselves, but the more likely scenario is that Oklahoma City has figured them out.
Lakers vs. Nuggets
- The Nuggets should feel good because ... : They have a major athleticism advantage and have played the Lakers tough in the past. Ty Lawson has been much more aggressive lately, and if that continues, he should have little trouble penetrating the Lakers' defense. Danilo Gallinari also has to feel good knowing he won't have to deal with Metta World Peace's physical defense for six games.
- The Lakers should feel good because ... : What they lose in athleticism, they more than make up for in size. It's a good bet that Kenneth Faried will put Pau Gasol in a poster at some point in this series, but Gasol should dominate Faried on the block.
- Key to the series: Crunch time should be interesting. The Nuggets too often look disorganized offensively late in games, a problem that has manifested itself every year under George Karl. The Lakers, meanwhile, rely on the Kobe Bryant Hero Ball strategy that they've gone to for years. Crunch time could get ugly, and the team that plays less ugly ball down the stretch will probably win the series.
- Prediction: Lakers in 6. In a battle of size vs. speed, size will win out.
Clippers vs. Grizzlies
- The Grizzlies should feel good because ... : They are playing well at the right time. They won 11 of their last 13 games and seem to be finding their legs. Zach Randolph gets healthier every day, and that's huge for their offense. Also, the Clippers have two non-shooting big men that start, which will allow Marc Gasol to roam and cut off driving lanes like he does best.
- The Clippers should feel good because ... : They have Chris Paul. That's pretty obvious, but it's an especially big help against a Grizzlies team that forces so many turnovers. Paul is the most sure-handed ball-handler in the league, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better point guard to deal with Memphis' ball pressure.
- Key to the series: Can the Grizzlies rattle Paul? It sounds improbable, but it can be done. Three years ago, the Denver Nuggets neutralized Paul's Hornets in a first-round series with hard traps and physical play. The Nuggets were athletic and quick enough to bother Paul, and that completely cut off New Orleans' offense. If Memphis is to win this series, they might want to dig up some old tape on that series.
- Prediction: Clippers in six in what should be an outstanding series. I'm just not convinced the Grizzlies can rattle Paul enough to win this one, even with home-court advantage.
Finals prediction: Spurs over Thunder in six.