LOS ANGELES -- After the San Antonio Spurs took a 3-0 series lead over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, there was tongue-in-cheek speculation about whether Gregg Popovich would rest Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in Game 4 on the second night of a back-to-back, something he has done so many times during the regular season.
The running joke was preposterous, of course, but the Spurs have been so dominant in the postseason that the idea seemed oddly plausible when you thought about it for a second. Could anyone really put it past Popovich to fly his stars back to San Antonio to await the Spurs' next game, be it a Game 5 close-out vs. the Clippers, or Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against, most likely, the Oklahoma City Thunder?
As it turned out, San Antonio needed its full stable of players in Game 4 to hold off the Clippers 102-99 for a series sweep. The Clippers made a strong stand against a team that had overwhelmed them over the first three games of the series.
"It was a close one tonight," Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. "They are a good, competitive team. It felt good to make key stops and win a game like this. We are proud, but really we don't care. It's on to the next series."
The Spurs have now won 18 consecutive games, a spurt that began on April 12, more than five weeks ago.
Ginobili captured the Spurs' collective sentiment about the winning streak: The players and coaching staff won't even acknowledge it. For a team that has four banners hanging in its building and with fresh memories of their abrupt exit from last spring's playoffs, reveling even for an instant in something so frivolous would be unseemly.
"We haven't done a thing yet," Duncan said. "We've won two rounds. Luckily we move on to the championship round in the West, but if we go in there and lose out, then we haven't done anything. So you can't quality or classify our team as anything other than, 'We've gotten this far.'"
The Spurs have gotten this far by playing such a proficient brand of basketball that they seem almost unbeatable when you poke around the rest of the bracket. Clippers point guard Chris Paul declared his admiration for the Spurs prior to the series. After four games at the mercy of San Antonio's masterful offense, all Paul could do was reaffirm his awe of the Spurs' exquisite play.
"Look how many back doors [the Spurs] got," Paul said. "When it was a close game, they come down and run this little play where they hit Timmy [Duncan] and then just drop it to Tony [Parker] for a layup. It's tough. They know how to play. They come out after timeouts and they execute."
It's difficult to praise the Spurs without touching on the particulars of their game between the lines. There are few pyrotechnics because they're not the quickest or most athletic group. The Spurs big men are nailed to the floor, but play virtually mistake-free ball. On the rare occasions the Spurs do err, you'll know it from venom spewing forth from Popovich off the bench. But overall, this is a team that's hyper-aware of spacing, rarely out of defensive position, and consistently willing to give up a decent look for a squeaky clean one.
"This is kind of the model team as far as how to run an organization year in and year out and how to win games and championships," Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. "The way [Duncan] plays is so methodical, but at the same time he doesn't overthink the game. That's something I want to get to."
On Sunday night, Duncan brandished that unique combination of method and instinct Griffin alluded to. In the first half, Duncan made his keep at the rim, finishing a pick-and-roll with a flush, and banking in an easy layup off a baseline cut.
After halftime, just as the Clippers tied the game, Duncan morphed into a jump-shooting fiend. He lifted to the perimeter, where he drained four of his five field goals in the period.
Overall, Duncan finished with 21 points on 9-for-14 shooting from the field, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocked shots -- a couple, miraculously, without leaving his feet.
One of those blocks came with the Spurs clinging to a one-point lead inside of two minutes remaining in regulation. As Paul attacked right off a Griffin pick, Duncan moved with Paul, walling off the paint and ultimately blocking the layup attempt.
Duncan has entered the phase of his storied career where single-game accolades almost sound superfluous. Popovich routinely calls Duncan his anchor. Parker and Ginobili deflect all compliments in deference to their leader.
In turn, Duncan defers all success to San Antonio's motion-heavy scheme, one in which castaways (Danny Green and Boris Diaw), vagabonds (Gary Neal), rookies (Kawhi Leonard), specialists (Matt Bonner) and difficult customers (Stephen Jackson) can all prosper immediately.
"It's our system," Duncan said. "We understand our system and have a bunch of guys who understand what we're capable of, and we just kind of plug things in."
Duncan then ribbed Jackson, who was standing in the vicinity, remarking that any system that could accommodate Jackson ("even though he sucks") must be ingenious.
All jokes aside, the Spurs maintain a cautious humility, even as they've become the NBA's darling halfway through the march to the title.
"I can tell you that, with any championship, we've never gone into the playoffs thinking, 'This is our year,'" Popovich said. "We've never felt like that. We go with what we call 'appropriate fear.'"
Whatever fear the Spurs might harbor about expectations, it's likely nothing compared to what the rest of the league must be feeling.