The NBA team hasn't lost a game since April 11th. Are the Finals already over?
In early May, I debated the legitimacy of this year's eventual NBA champion in a roundtable discussion with Hampton Stevens and Patrick Hruby. To open our discussion, Patrick opined that the lockout-shortened season and rash of injuries to star players could lead to a paper tiger winning the title in June:
All of this has me worried. Worried that the league is on the verge of crowning a bogus champion, akin to the 1999 San Antonio Spurs.
That was three weeks ago. Thanks to Tim Duncan and the 2012 San Antonio Spurs, this year's champion might just be the most legitimate in NBA history.
The Spurs last lost a game on April 11, when Lakers center Andrew Bynum embarrassed the San Antonio big men with a 30-rebound performance in a 98-84 Los Angeles win. Since then, the Spurs have steamrolled their opposition, winning their games by an average 14.9 points. All but five of the 20 consecutive victories—tied for third-most in NBA history—have been by double digits.
With a healthy Manu Ginobili back in the lineup at last, the Spurs bulldozed their way to the No. 1 overall seed in the postseason. But most fans and predictors (and Vegas) favored the Miami Heat or Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs. Then San Antonio won six of their first seven games of the playoffs by at least 10 points. First came a sweep of the Utah Jazz that looked like an extremely large predator trapping and savaging a helpless, lame member of a herd. Amazingly, the Spurs were even better against the Chris Paul-led Clippers, despite a strong offensive series from Blake Griffin. The coup de grace was Game 3, when the Spurs fell behind by 24 in the first half, outscored the Clippers 80-46 the rest of the way, and cruised to an "easy" win.
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San Antonio struggled in Game 4 against the Clippers and Game 1 against the Thunder, but found a way to win both games. The Thunder win was championship-caliber. The Spurs outscored Oklahoma City 39-27 in the fourth after coach Gregg Popovich spurred his team to action with the instantly famous rallying cry: "I want some NASTY!" Ginobili scored 11 points in the quarter, the Spurs won, and hundreds of Spurs fans showed up for Game 2 with homemade "I Want Some Nasty" T-shirts.
San Antonio certainly was nasty in Game 2, on offense. The Spurs played one of the most complete offensive performances in recent memory, scoring 120 points on 55.1 percent shooting. They had 27 assists on 43 made field goals, 12 by Ginobili and Tony Parker, who may soon become known for something other than cheating on Eva Longoria and bogusly winning the 2007 NBA Finals MVP over Duncan. Ginobili is a complete offensive player "just like Larry Bird was for the Celtics in the 80s", a day-drinking businessman emphatically told me Tuesday—and he's not far off. The two veteran playmakers often alternate stints on the court, so that either Parker or Ginobili is running the offense at all times. It's a scary prospect for opposing defenses.
Inside, the game belonged to Duncan, as it has for the past 15 years. There is a legitimate debate for which NBA legend is the best at his position: Kareem vs. Wilt vs. Russell at center, Magic vs. Oscar at point guard, etc. At power forward, it's Duncan by a mile, unless you think Karl Malone's failure to win a championship should be overlooked. At 36, Duncan should be in the dusk of his career by now, especially after a compressed 66-game schedule that felled the likes of Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard. But there he was, rising out of the past to throw down a thunderous tomahawk dunk over Thunder shot-blocker Serge Ibaka and sending the San Antonio crowd into a frenzy.
Despite 88 points from Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, the Thunder could not match the Spurs' firepower. And when Oklahoma City cut the Spurs' lead to single digits in the fourth quarter, Popovich was there again with another cutting, motivational remark. "This is a big boy game!" he snarled during a timeout.
Basketball is indeed a big boy game. Right now, the Spurs are the grade school bully on the playground who was held back two years, beating up on anyone in his path. Only two teams in NBA history have won more consecutive games to start the playoffs than the 2012 Spurs: the 1989 and 2001 Lakers, both of which won their first 11.
The Larry O'Brien Trophy is hardly a foregone conclusion—it's worth noting that the '89 Lakers lost the NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons. But it's hard to imagine anyone stopping San Antonio right now. And if the Spurs should finish the playoffs 16-0 or 16-1, they would be the greatest NBA playoff team of all time and one of the best championship squads in NBA history.