by Radoslav Komljenovic
With the midway point of the season having come and gone and the Rodeo Road Trip underway, the Spurs sit atop the league standings at 42-8.
Just how good these Spurs are is an open debate. But their record is so gaudy that it puts them on pace for 69 wins. How rare is that? So rare that only the ‘71-‘72 Lakers and ‘96-’97 Bulls have had as many wins to end the regular season and only the ‘95-‘96 Bulls have ended with more (72).
Barring a rash of significant injuries or a collapse of epic proportions, it's safe to say the West should be wrapped up. The Spurs have a seven game lead over the second place Mavericks, have eight fewer losses than the third place and reigning champion Lakers and sport a four game lead over the Celtics, who own the second best record in the league.
While it remains to be seen how they'll finish, this much is certain: The Spurs can no longer be considered a second tier contender, but rather the class of the league.
Three other teams have distinguished themselves as legit contenders: Lakers, Celtics, Heat. Some may argue for another team to be included in that mix, but those four have by far the best point differential in the league and are constructed in a way that has them possessing many of the elements found in past champions.
Before I get to how the Spurs are likely to match-up with each team, here's how I expect the minutes to be dispersed in the playoffs (roughly):
Rotation-wise, injuries, slumps and specific match-ups could always change things, but based on how well the Spurs have played thus far, it's difficult to see them deviating from the nine players they've gone with most of the way.
Seven players are locks to be in the rotation (Duncan, Ginobili, Parker, Jefferson, McDyess, Hill and Bonner), so it comes down to four players (Blair, Neal, Anderson, Splitter) for two spots. The seven locks are also the players who will close the game, at least when the result is undecided coming down the stretch.
Now, onto how the Spurs are likely to match-up with these three title contenders.
PF: Gasol vs McDyess, Duncan, Blair, Bonner
PF: Odom vs Bonner, McDyess, Blair, Jefferson
C: Bynum vs Duncan, Blair, McDyess, Splitter
Since the Spurs don't really have an answer for the Lakers’ bigs on an individual basis, look for them to throw the kitchen sink.
However they match-up, whoever Duncan isn't guarding will be at a significant size disadvantage (unless it's McDyess on Odom). Even in the case of Duncan, Gasol and Bynum are both taller and longer and Bynum is much heavier as well.
Look for the Spurs to combat this by playing a scrambling brand of defense and throwing various looks at the Lakers bigs. Digs, half doubles, hard doubles, on the catch, on the move, from the top, from the blindside, etc, they’re all tactics that will be used to throw their bigs off balance, putting them in the position of playing in a phone booth, and hopefully resulting in the turnovers that will fuel the Spurs’ transition game. The least amount of time the Spurs have to play against the Lakers’ length in the half court, the better.
SF: Artest vs Jefferson, Ginobili, Neal
SF: Barnes vs Ginobili, Neal, Jefferson
SG: Bryant vs Ginobili, Hill
SG: Brown vs Hill, Neal
Unlike the bigs, where no matter how you slice it, it's advantage Lakers and merely about minimizing the damage, the Spurs stack up better on the wings.
At minimum, Jefferson should be able to play Artest to a draw. Physically, Artest is a tough cover for Ginobili and Neal, but he's such a mediocre and erratic offensive player that if the Lakers go to him in the post in this match-up, the Spurs should consider themselves lucky.
In their initial meeting, Ginobili and Hill made a point to challenge Bryant's every dribble when he was facing up. When he took them into the post, the Spurs did the same thing they did with the Lakers bigs.
PG: Fisher vs Parker, Neal
PG: Blake vs Parker, Neal, Ginobili
Despite the Lakers much ballyhooed bigs, this match-up is actually the biggest mismatch between the two teams.
Neither Fisher nor Blake have any chance of preventing Parker from going wherever he wants and doing whatever he wants — consider the floor his oyster. For the Spurs to beat the Lakers, Parker has to have a big series. And there's no reason to think he won't.
The reason I list Neal and Ginobili in the PG match-up and not Hill is because the Spurs won't waste Hill's defense on either Fisher or Blake. They'll need him to guard Bryant. Because of the lack of a threat at the point for the Lakers, the Spurs can easily get away with Ginobili and Neal defending them when Parker is out.
PF: Garnett vs McDyess, Blair, Bonner
PF: Davis vs Blair, Bonner
C: Perkins vs Duncan, Blair, McDyess
C: S. O'Neal vs Duncan, Blair, McDyess
Like the Lakers, the Celtics have a significant size advantage over the Spurs inside. Unlike the Lakers, their bigs aren't as renowned for their post games, nor their rebounding. As such, this is mostly a tossup. However, Duncan is the best big between the two teams and if he's on top of his game, that could be enough to tip the scales ever so slightly in the Spurs’ favor.
Sure, O'Neal is still a load and a factor in stretches, but that's just it: He likely won't play enough to be that big a factor. Perkins is, not a non threat, but mostly an afterthought offensively. Garnett is the biggest concern. Garnett isn't exactly Duncan down low, but given the match-ups, he'll inevitably be playing in the post more than usual.
The Spurs are likely to have some trouble in the post with both Perkins and O'Neal, considering their sheer mass. The Spurs don't have anyone with that type of girth. The only big who comes close is Blair, but he's undersized.
Look for the Spurs game plan to be similar as it is against the Lakers. Of the four bigs, only Davis is likely to be played straight up regardless of match-up.
SF: Pierce vs Jefferson, Ginobili, Hill
SG: Allen vs Ginobili, Neal, Hill
SG: West vs Neal, Ginobili
Should the Celtics go with West over Daniels, they'll be playing without a second small forward-sized wing in their rotation, much like the Spurs. Other than when Ginobili or Hill are on Pierce, the Spurs shouldn't be susceptible to the post up.
Much like the bigs, this is mostly a tossup. As with the bigs, the Spurs have the best wing (only by a hair), but the Celtics have the edge after that.
Allen will likely be the most difficult match-up for the Spurs. None of the Spurs wings are renowned for their ability to chase through screens. In their initial meeting, Allen both flummoxed and burned the Spurs when he was coming off, catching-and-shooting.
PG: Rondo vs Parker, Hill
PG: Robinson vs Hill, Parker
Again, the match-ups are mostly even. Give the Celtics the slight edge here, though, because the Spurs aren't particularly adept at defending lightning quick point guards, while Rondo is arguably the best point guard defender in the league. Also, Rondo is the rare player who can impact the game in a big way without scoring.
PF- Bosh vs Blair, McDyess, Bonner
PF- Haslem vs McDyess, Bonner, Blair
C- Ilgauskas vs Duncan, McDyess
C- Anthony vs Duncan, Bonner, Blair
Unlike the Lakers and Celtics, who are both significantly bigger than the Spurs, the Heat are not, nor do they posses the quality of bigs that those two teams do. Bosh's quickness off the dribble is an issue, but other than that, the Spurs match-up good with the Heat bigs.
The Heat will probably lean on Dampier some to take a turn guarding Duncan, but look for the undersized Anthony or the even more undersized Haslem to man the pivot for stretches. If the Heat close with Haslem at center, then look for the Spurs to play through Duncan, because he'll have to be doubled.
SF: James vs Jefferson, Hill, Ginobili, Anderson
SG/SF: Miller vs Ginobili, Neal
SG: Wade vs Ginobili, Hill, Neal
In James and Wade, the Heat have arguably the game's top two players. Their combination of size, strength, athleticism and ball skills will be major issues for the Spurs.
Jefferson will have to stay out of foul trouble, since he's the only Spurs wing with the size and the strength to somewhat guard James, especially if Anderson isn't in the rotation.
Unfortunately for the Spurs, James and Wade in particular, are good defenders, so getting it back on the other end won't be easy. Still, that's the Spurs best hope when it comes to minimizing the damage done.
If the Heat send James and Wade into the post, look for the Spurs to deploy similar schemes as they do against the Lakers bigs.
PG: Chalmers vs Parker, Neal, Hill
PG: House vs Neal, Parker, Hill
Arroyo could easily usurp House. The Heat could also utilize James/Wade as the backup point, bench both Arroyo and House and insert Jones into the rotation.
Still, if it's House, who's a more proven playoff performer than Arroyo and Jones, then look for the Spurs (when Parker is out) to cross match defensively and use Neal a lot defensively on either. Ginobili is another option, so Hill can be used to guard Wade and maybe even James. Hill would be wasted on whomever the Heat play at the point, since they're all limited, spot up shooters in the Heat offense.
So, who do the Spurs match-up best with? It's close enough that a case could be made for all three. I'd rank them as follows . . .
1) Heat: Despite the fact that they have arguably the two best players in the league, outside of that, they don't have quality size to give the Spurs problems and they're weak at the point. Perhaps more importantly than any match-up, though, is the fact that they've played the least time together out of any of the contenders (in fact, their projected top eight haven't played a single game together yet). As such, they don't have a stable rotation, nor the chemistry that championship teams typically feature.
Because of their high end talent, they can't be entirely dismissed. But my sense is they're a season away from putting it all together.
2) Lakers: The consensus is probably that they're the toughest match-up for the Spurs, but it probably shouldn't be at this point. Their size advantage over the Spurs is legit, but the advantage that it nets them is overblown. The Lakers’ lack of a reliable outside shot allows the opposition to send help down to the interior that would otherwise be occupied at or near the 3-point line. Teams will take their chances with the Lakers’ shooters before allowing their bigs free reign in the lane. In reality, the Spurs have held their own rebounding wise with the Lakers and have played them well defensively going back to when Gasol was acquired. It's still an advantage for them, though. But outside of it, they don't really have an advantage over the Spurs.
Whether it's not being as hungry, the wear and tear of three straight Finals appearances, a decline, or a combination of all of the above, they're seemingly in denial about where they're at.
3) Celtics: They're the one out of the three who seemingly have an answer for everything the Spurs can throw at them. Lightning quick point guard to defend Parker and make him work at the other end? Check. Quality shooting guard to somewhat offset Ginobili, while tiring him out at the other end as he's forced to chase him through a maze of screens? Check. Championship proven closer? Check. Lock down defense to combat the Spurs' explosive offense? Check. Size? Check. Depth? Check.
This team is highly motivated, focused, selfless and in tune with what it's going to take for them to reach the top again. You won't find anyone who routinely breaks off the offense and ignores the game plan to do as they please. In that sense, they're a lot like the Spurs.
I picked the Spurs to win it all before the season started and suffice it to say, nothing that's happened so far this season has changed my opinion.
Home court in the Finals in particular is a huge advantage, because of the format (2-3-2). The Celtics would need to either sweep the middle three or win two on the road. With two teams this evenly matched, it's difficult to envision either happening. But as someone who will undoubtedly have a hand in deciding how the championship is decided once said . . .
Anything is possible.