by Zvon Knezovic
After being swept in the second round of last year’s playoffs, few would have predicted the Spurs to be sitting atop the West — and the league — with a 26-4 record. But even after racking up wins at a franchise record pace, question marks still remain as to whether this Spurs team can truly challenge for their fifth championship.
For all the superlatives thrown the way of this new and improved Spurs team, they've yet to really test themselves against the big boys of the league. Their best wins to date have been on the road against the Jazz and Thunder — likely 50-win teams, and not expected by most to seriously contend through June – and at home against the old Magic — who later went on a run of 7 losses in 8 outings before shaking things up with a trade (and delivered a 22-point blitzing of the Spurs — albeit on a back to back for San Antonio). However, the upcoming schedule will afford the Spurs an opportunity to test themselves against what are very likely to be the two biggest roadblocks standing in the way of an NBA Finals return.
The Spurs will play host to Kobe and the Lakers tonight, and then travel to Dallas on Thursday to take a second crack at Dirk and the new and improved Mavs. If the Spurs are to make a return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007, they will likely have to go through at least one, if not both outfits come the playoffs. It’s safe to say, when it comes to the Lakers and Mavs, the Spurs won’t find a tougher test in terms of matchups.
Despite their recent and well documented struggles, it’s hard not to see the Lakers making yet another strong push come playoff time — evident by the fact they are still widely considered the favourites to represent the West in the Finals for a fourth consecutive year. They have too much size and talent throughout the roster to not be knocking on the door, but it will take a renewed sense of focus — especially on the defensive end — to attain a third straight championship.
The Lakers present matchup problems for every contender, but possibly none more so than the Spurs, who lack size and another interior presence to compliment Duncan. Tiago Splitter was suppose to fill that void, but after missing training camp and the entire preseason, as well as the new offensive focus brought forth by the coaching staff, the Brazilian bigman hasn’t been able to establish himself in the rotation. Instead, the Spurs are likely to combat LA’s frontline of Gasol, Bynum and Odom, with Tim Duncan and the undersized trio of DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner and Antonio McDyess.
Starting DeJuan Blair against the Lakers seems like a matchup nightmare for the Spurs, whether he’s forced to guard Odom on the perimeter — a nimble and agile 6’10” player with guard-like skills — or one of Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum in the post — both who have comfortable 6-inch height advantages and the touch around the basket to exploit it. To make matters worse, Blair doesn’t have the offensive game to create any real problems for the Lakers' bigmen, given his undersized frame and the fact that his scores come almost entirely from underneath the basket — a much tougher task with two 7-footers roaming the paint.
Matt Bonner has similar deficiencies to Blair on the defensive end of the floor, but his 3-point shooting is at least capable of netting a positive by drawing the Lakers’ bigmen out of the paint — opening things up for the Big Three. The problem with Bonner likely lies within the rebounding department, which is the weakest part of his game — something that will only be magnified against the Lakers' frontline of Odom, Gasol and Bynum, all of which are excellent rebounders.
An extended burn for the ever-reliable Antonio McDyess will be the Spurs' likely answer for this matchup. McDyess' game doesn't consist of the singular, one-dimensional strength the bigmen ahead of him possess, but he doesn’t have as many deficiencies either. He's an excellent rebounder, a good post defender and he can space the floor out to 18 feet with his respected and trustworthy jumper.
However, many, including myself, thought that the answer to the Lakers' frontline would be the 6’11” Brazilian import, Tiago Splitter. But with Splitter not being able to find consistent rotation minutes to this point of the season, it’s unlikely Pop will throw him into the fire against the Lakers. How the Spurs fare against the Lakers’ bigmen could force Pop’s hand in terms of adjusting the big man rotation in the future, one way or the other.
The Mavs have been alongside the Spurs near the top of the Western Conference for almost the entire Tim Duncan era, almost always due to a high-powered and multi-faceted offense. But much like the 2006 team that made it to the Finals under Avery Johnson, this 2010 version is built upon a defense-first approach and the MVP level play of Spurs nemesis, Dirk Nowitzki.
The Spurs are no longer faced with the sole task of slowing down Dirk, but also with the need to execute their league-leading offense with precision — something it will take to put up enough points on the board to combat what has now become one of the league's best defenses. The Mavs have always had a big, physical body to throw at Duncan and make him work for his baskets — think Erik Dampier, Brendan Haywood and DeSegana Diop — but the arrival of Tyson Chandler gives them someone who can not only limit Duncan individually, but also anchor an entire defense with shot blocking and rebounding.
The Lakers and Mavs games will be an important measuring stick for the Spurs, and will likely reveal a lot in terms of whether this team is really ready to hang with — and eventually topple — the big boys of the league. The Spurs of old used to almost treat the regular season as a mere a warm-up for the playoffs, the players and coaching staff knowing the defense and Tim Duncan would be there when it really mattered against the league’s best. But this is a much different Spurs team than their championship predecessors, both in principles and personnel, and it’s important to establish a sense of belief amongst a group, one that breeds the type of confidence needed to truly contend for a championship — and there’s no better way of displaying that than beating the best the league has to offer.