While the New York Knicks were in the midst of the most ballyhooed seven game winning streak in the history of the NBA, a far more significant run was going on far away from the bright lights in Texas. No, I don’t mean the Dallas Mavericks six game streak (and they have won eight of eleven since the return of Dirk Nowitzki to the lineup), instead I’m referring to the nine game winning streak of the San Antonio Spurs. It marks their return to the championship conversation.
The Spurs have seemed to be in decline since their last title five seasons ago, but the progression hasn’t been that linear. The Spurs had the best record in the Western Conference last season and only fell in the playoffs due to the early absence of Manu Ginobili and a tough matchup (not that it counts for anything but last season’s Memphis Grizzlies may have been the best eighth seed in NBA playoff history). With this season’s compressed schedule, it was widely assumed that the Spurs, whose core trio of Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are all on the wrong side of 28, wouldn’t be able to keep up with the pace of the games. Early on, this looked to be true. Just over two weeks into the sesason the Spurs were 6-4. Since then they have gone 15-5, including those nine wins in a row. The nine wins include some signature victories too, most notably a 107-96 win over the Conference leading Oklahoma City Thunder on February 4.
At 21-9, San Antonio sports the second best record in the Western Conference, and they have the hallmarks of an elite team (again). They are impossible to beat at home; the only blemish on their 13-1 mark is a January 20th loss to Sacramento that feels like a fluke. Their offensive rating is top 5 and their defensive rating, once their calling card has risen from bad to mediocre (14th).
This is what the Spurs used to do. They’d start out slowly then pick up momentum as the season ground on, and by playoff time they’d be one of the best teams in the league. Can they do that again? This year’s squad is deeper than the title units which were built around a big three and a lot of this and that. Except for forward Richard Jefferson whose skills have vanished so dramatically that it would be a good subject for a Sherlock Holmes sequel, the Spurs rotation is full of solid players like Danny Green, Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard, and Matt Bonner. Center Tiago Splitter deserves some play in the rookie-sophomore challenge. In other words, the Spurs have found the depth to manage this season. Only Parker is averaging more than 30 minutes a contest.
At the start of the season, the Western Conference appeared to be Oklahoma City and then a pack of teams with possibilities. The Spurs have become the first team to distinguish themselves from that pack. Today’s game with L.A. Clippers could be a second round playoff preview.