During a lockout-shortened NBA season 13 years ago, the San Antonio Spurs found themselves in the right place at the right time. They zoomed to the top seed in the Western Conference with 12 wins in their final 13 games and a point differential of +11.1. When they entered the playoffs, they steamrolled the competition like few others have in NBA history, dropping a total of two games on the way to the NBA title.
Don't look now, but the same exact script is playing out.
After completing a four-game sweep of the Utah Jazz on Monday, the Spurs have now won 14 games in a row, 25 of their last 27 -- and 28 of their last 32. During this 14-game winning streak, they have beaten teams by an average of 17.1 points per game. They took a Jazz team that many figured would give them problems due to their hot finish and deep frontcourt, and they danced circles around them like they were the Washington Wizards in mid-March. It's impossible to deny it anymore: for the second straight lockout-shortened season, there are the Spurs, and then there's everyone else.
The two pillars remain the same as in 1999. Center Tim Duncan is no longer the best player in the league, but he's a far cry from the floor-bound, aging star he appeared to be last season. The Spurs' defense made Jazz big man Al Jefferson look more timid than he had at any point this season, and Duncan was a huge reason why. Coach Gregg Popovich is as snarly as ever, resting his veterans, preaching team ball and running the squad with the precision of a military general.
Beyond those two, the organization has masterfully adjusted. Not nearly enough is made of the Spurs' transformation from a plodding, half-court unit to the speediest style in the league. How many teams try to become someone else, only to revert to their true selves when adversity strikes? The Portland Trail Blazers tried duplicating the Spurs' style 180, and they instead saw their window to contend get taken out like a hurricane. If anything, the Spurs' switch is downplayed because of concerns that the Spurs are too small. You'd think the thorough domination of the Jazz would dent that argument.
What's striking about the Spurs is that they come at you in waves. In Monday's Game 4, they were victimized by a Jazz run to get them to within five points late in the third quarter. Popovich and the Spurs responded by playing a lineup of Manu Ginobili, Gary Neal, Stephen Jackson, Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter. All five players are reserves, mind you. The result? An immediate response to push the lead to 10 by the end of the quarter, then a 13-2 run to begin the fourth. Game. Set. Match.
With their depth, the Spurs put you in a Catch-22. Play their pick and roll straight up, and risk seeing Tony Parker zip by you as he lofts in another soft floater. Trap Parker, and Duncan's among the league's best decision makers as a pop or roll man. Cheat a help defender into the middle to plug penetration, and the Spurs kick it out to one of their many three-point shooters, all of whom combine for the league's best three-point shooting percentage. Your only hope is that Parker is missing or that Popovich randomly calls more conventional post-ups and baseline screens, for some reason. Neither happens often.
It'll get harder for the Spurs going forward, but how much harder will it really be? Their second-round matchup will likely be the Clippers, a team of stars whose relative inefficiency will be exposed by the Spurs' ruthless continuity.
The Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Lakers await as possible Western Conference Finalists opponents, but the Spurs crushed the Lakers by 35 in their last matchup and have won eight of their last 10 regular-season game against the Thunder dating back to 2009.
A Finals matchup against the Miami Heat would be difficult, but what other team in the field is better equipped to deal with Miami's aggressive pick and roll defense?
As long as they have Popovich, Duncan and the ruthless efficiency in their style, the Spurs have proven they are the team to beat. While everyone else grabs the headlines, San Antonio just keeps mowing teams down. The Jazz's strong finish and good vibes now seem like a distant memory, all because the league's most overlooked team just so happens to also be far and away its best.