- Skip Bayless, First Take host
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The Thunder keep beating them with the crazed-kid fury of Oklahoma beating Texas in the Red River Rivalry. James Harden keeps making fourth-quarter shots against them as if he's a one-man army coming over the walls of the Alamo. Heck, Damian Lillard's new signature adidas shoes should be called the San Antonio Stompers.
The Spurs had only one nonstarting All-Star -- Tony Parker, who made it more on reputation than performance. Their one cinch Hall of Famer, Tim Duncan, is almost 38. Heck, their coach, Gregg Popovich, is now best known for being a terse jerk during in-game TV interviews.
Yet ... the San Antonio Spurs are about to ruin what shape up as all-time great, superstar-studded Western Conference playoffs by winning them, then wreaking revenge on the Miami Heat by beating them in six games in the NBA Finals in Miami, as they should have last June. The Spurs have waited for these playoffs since that nightmarish night of June 18, when they were up five, 28 seconds away from their fifth NBA championship, and blew it. Heat in seven.
Now: Spurs in six.
Yes, the same Spurs who finished the regular season a combined 0-8 against the teams they'll probably have to deal with in Rounds 2 and 3 -- Harden's Houston, then Oklahoma City. As one of the few Spurs supporters in the national media -- if not the lone wolf -- I admit to some concern about the athleticism of the Rockets or Thunder eclipsing the beautiful basketball clinics conducted nightly by the one-for-all Spurs, the NBA's worst nightmare, the un-"SportsCenter" team that wins with emotionless will and subtle skill.
Yet ... despite Spurs starters missing a combined 75 games ... despite having to use 30 different lineups featuring 17 different starters ... despite being the first team since the ABA-NBA merger not to have a single player average even 30 minutes a game ... despite all that, the San Antonio Spurs finished with the NBA's best record BY THREE GAMES. Even playing in the much tougher West, the Spurs finished six games better than East top seed Indiana and eight better than Miami. Even more incredible, the Spurs finished with the NBA's best road record BY FIVE GAMES at 30-11, coming within three of the 1995-96 Bulls' road-wins record.
Yes, the old, slow, boring, unathletic, injury-prone San Antonio Spurs -- the Chuck Taylor All-Stars -- just pretty much toyed with the NBA's regular season. No MVP candidate. No sixth man or rookie of the year nominee. No GameFly or Kia commercials. How is this possible?
Because they're a little better than they were last year and they're much better than two years ago, when they started the playoffs 10-0, including two home wins over OKC -- only to lose four straight to the came-of-age Thunder.
Yet ... the biggest Spurs killer in that series was not Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook. In the turning-point Game 5 in San Antonio, the biggest fourth-quarter daggers were 3s shot by Harden, including the last one that gave OKC exactly what the Spurs would have in Miami -- a five-point lead with 28 seconds left. OKC did not blow it.
But Thunder management did by trading Harden. I'd sooner have believed the OU Sooners would give up football. Durant/Westbrook/Harden would be too much for the Spurs. Now, these Spurs are fully capable of outthinking and out-executing a hot-handed Harden coupled with a low-savvy Dwight Howard -- of posing an unsolvable N.Y. Times crossword, even if it takes a Game 7 in San Antonio.
Then, either the Spurs will decipher the Thunder or the Thunder will beat themselves. Two superstars with cracks in their psyches will find a way to lose a Game 7 in San Antonio.
Durant, the runaway MVP, still battles an identity crisis: He says he's trying to prove nice guys can finish first, yet he finished third in the NBA in technical fouls with 15. Without Westbrook last year, Durant flamed out late in four straight playoff losses to Memphis. He has much to prove in these playoffs, maybe too much.
Westbrook, who often plays with unguardable rage, still has one rock rattling around in his head and remains highly capable of the kind of eight-turnover, 4-for-23 night that drives Durant to technicals. And, of course, to paraphrase Hamlet, the knee or not the knee, that is the question. Westbrook had three surgeries in nine months on the knee injured in the first round of last year's playoffs and the Thunder have continued resting him in the first or second games of back-to-backs. Will the knee hold up through seven-game battles against, say, the L.A. Clippers and Spurs?
Advantage, San Antonio?
Remember, in five of the eight losses to Houston/OKC, the Spurs were not at full strength and six of the losses came in November/December/January, when the Spurs clearly were saving themselves for a February/March/April playoff push. Since the All-Star break, the Spurs are an NBA-best 24-5.
The Spurs led the NBA in assists and 3-point shooting and finished sixth in offensive efficiency and fourth in defensive efficiency -- a 62-win combination. But here's the stellar stat: The Spurs don't have a single star in the top 20 of player efficiency rating (led of course by Durant). Yet the Spurs have five in the top 50 (in order, Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Patty Mills). That's three more than the Clippers and two more than the Heat.
Duncan is still very much Duncan. Ginobili is playing five years younger than he looked in last year's playoffs, when he became such an overmatched liability in Games 6 and 7 in Miami that his career seemed over. Leonard has quietly grown into the Spurs' most valuable all-around player as a defender, rebounder, shooter and (shhh!) spectacular dunker. Parker drained himself by leading France to the EuroBasket championship too soon after a seven-game NBA Finals, but the offense actually has become harder to defend without Parker going dribble-dribble solo quite so often.
Which brings us to the two new X factors ...
If the NBA gave a Seventh Man of the Year award, Patty Mills would win it. Through injury-riddled stretches, he was the team MVP, especially in fourth quarters. From "Fatty" Mills last season, he morphed into a sleek, fearless Aussie shot-maker who surely has earned a key spot in Popovich's postseason rotation. Patty came flying off the bench with 32 at Charlotte, 29 at Portland, 25 at the Clippers, 21 at OKC ...
And Marco Belinelli, who won the NBA's 3-point contest, brings from Chicago the clutch sniping he demonstrated in last year's playoffs against Brooklyn and Miami.
These Spurs have the game-changing depth, the new/old blend and the out-of-character mission. Longtime "Pop" observers were stunned during training camp when he publicly acknowledged he thinks about the Game 6 loss in Miami every day, freeing the team to do the same. In the past, Popovich has forgotten about losses sometime during his second glass of postgame wine.
Now, Game 6 is finally in sight, just over the hills that must be climbed against Dallas (Spurs in six), then maybe the Rockets and Thunder. Here they go again: Against the Spurs, Houston and OKC keep making shots with a vengeful arrogance that says, "Go home, old men."
Says ESPN analyst Bruce Bowen, who won three rings with Duncan's Spurs: "It concerns you because the youth on these teams used to have the mindset, 'We don't know if we can beat the Spurs.' Now, they know.
"But it's not about the regular season [for the Spurs]. Against these teams in these playoffs, I think you'll see the Spurs play almost perfect basketball games. Now the only thing that concerns me is the athleticism [of potentially the Rockets and Thunder]."
Now, what concerns me more is what my "First Take" debate partner Stephen A. Smith often warns me about: Picking a team with such public conviction that I set off a Durant or Harden, both of whom have been known to watch our show. But I do believe in these fresh, healthy Spurs and their mission.
Before the season, when I picked them to win the West, everyone chuckled. Now: Spurs in six over Heat. I apologize in advance, America.
3dEthan Sherwood Strauss
4dMatt Walks, ESPN.com