Due to the San Antonio Rodeo taking control of the AT&T Center, the Spurs are headed on a 22 day long road trip, starting in the northern (read: cold and empty) part of the United States before heading East for a quick stop in New York, then heading West to meet those "I" states in the middle, and then to that state that has more people than Texas before ending their trip in Arizona. This crossing of most of the United States led me to think about other journeys in books and games. Super Mario World has the clearest and most straightforward comparison to the 2013 RRT, with 9 stops in both worlds. As in most video games, a few worlds will be more challenging than others, while some will be relative cakewalks. Let's see how they match up:
Wed 6 @ Minnesota World 1 - Yoshi's Island
Fri 8 @ Detroit World 2 - Donut Plains
Sun 10 @ Brooklyn World 3 - Vanilla Dome
Mon 11 @ Chicago World 4 - Twin Bridges
Wed 13 @ Cleveland World 5 - Forest of Illusion
Tue 19 @ Sacramento World 6 - Chocolate Island
Thu 21 @ L.A. Clippers World 7 - Valley of Bowser
Fri 22 @ Golden State World 8 - Star World
Sun 24 @ Phoenix World 9 - Special World
Yoshi's Island - The Spurs begin at Minnesota, where they face the injury-ravaged Timberwolves, losers of 8 of their last 10 games, as they've plodded on through the season without Kevin Love, Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger for most of the season, with Ricky Rubio only rounding into shape these past couple of games. Once in the thick of the playoff race, they have fallen behind Dallas and are firmly in the basement of the Western Conference, only 4 and 1/2 games ahead of New Orleans (last) and 6 games behind Houston for the 8th seed. Their team stats are average or below average across the board except for rebounding, where they rank 6th overall, with nearly 44 a game. This is due to their big front court and their ability to really crash the glass without sacrificing that many fast break points. They also have the 4th best rebound differential in the league, averaging more than 3 rebounds per game than their opponents, which can be important for second chance points or ending opponent's chances at scoring more points. This is very important for the Wolves, as they rank 21st in points per game, 25th in FG percentage and dead last in 3 point percentage, and need points any way they can. Just like Yoshi's Island, this should be an easy first stop, as the Spurs will have to learn how to play on the road for the next three weeks. The boss, Iggy Koopa, is easily toppled into a pit of lava, just like the Wolves will be easily dispatched by the Spurs.
Donut Plains - The second world is known for having the first Ghost House (recently known as the Palace o Auburn Hills) in the map. Shaped like a donut, this also signifies the number of players remaining on the Pistons from their amazing 2004 Championship team, and their 2005 Finals team (oh and they reached 6 consecutive Eastern Conference Finals from 2003-2008, no big deal). Unfortunately, they have now been decimated, forced to look to the draft in order to rebuild their once storied franchise. They have chosen talented players, such as Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and dark horse Rookie of the Year contender, Andre Drummond (everyone except Damian Lillard is a dark horse right now). Even so, they rank 22nd in points per game, 28th in FT percentage and 24th in Assists per game. They have a surprisingly strong 3 point team, ranking 8th in the league. They are also 8th in the league in rebounds per game and blocks per game, which they sorely need, as their point differential is 19th in the league, allowing about 2 points fewer than they score on a nightly basis. The Spurs, 1st in point differential, 1st in assists per game, 3rd in points per game, and 5th in FT percentage, have too much talent and experience for the young Pistons. Like Morton Koopa, Jr., the Pistons will attempt to climb and grab rebounds or alley-oops out of the air, but the Spurs will stomp them into submission.
Vanilla Dome - This grey world goes well with the Brooklyn Nets Logo, which, even though it is now black and white, is still very drab. This world contains enemies of all kinds, and has a Ghost House, a fortress and even lava. This is similar to the talent seen on the Nets roster, which on paper, seems like it could rival any of the best in the league, but once you see them play, the fear of playing them goes away. Sure their record may be 28-19, good for 5th in the East, but their record against .500 teams or above is a measly 10-17, easily the worst in the current playoff teams in the conference. They beat up on bad teams and play the slowest pace in the league, which has beefed up their points allowed per game to 6th in the league. They are a middling team at best, as shown by their +1.23 point differential and their currently home-heavy schedule. They'll make the playoffs, and might even host a playoff series, but will be lucky to make it past the first round and definitely the second. If the season ended today, they would face Chicago...with a healthy Derrick Rose coming back, who do you think would win? Anyways, the Spurs have a good chance against this team (remember when they only scored 5 points in one quarter the last time they met? Great memories), as their lack of ball movement and constant isolation plays kills the offense and a lack of bench destroys their chances against the deep Spurs (even without Timmy or Manu).
Twin Bridges - A week into the RRT, the Spurs face a tough defensive task, Tom Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls. Even without their MVP, they have clawed their way to the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference, when most analysts predicted many struggles without their point guard to lead the way. Their offense has sorely lacked a punch without him in the lineup, ranking 26th in the league due to having to rely on Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, serviceable second or third options on a good playoff team, but won't fool anyone as elite offensive weapons. Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler have shown up for a few games, but are not consistent enough to get them to the next level of greatness. They have played selfless basketball throughout the season, ranking 8th in assists per game even without their starting point guard, and have been playing great defense, allowing only 90 points per game and crashing the boards at a high rate, 5th overall in the league. Coach Thibs is again a COY front-runner, but he has run his players into the ground, with Luol Deng out for a stretch in January and Noah and Carlos Boozer out indefinitely with injuries likely sustained to their high minute counts. Ludwig van Koopa, the boss of the Twin Bridges castle, is named after the great composer and mastermind, Beethoven. But without the Bulls' own offensive composer, (and with significant injuries to their starting front court) they stand a small chance at defeating the Spurs, who will hopefully have Manu back in the lineup by this point in time, and an elite point guard facing off against the Robinson/Kirk Hinrich duo that is filling in for Derrick Rose.
Forest of Illusion - The Cavaliers are currently tied for the third worst record in the entire league, standing at 14-34. But this may be a small illusion, as they have won half of their past 10 games, including an impressive performance against Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Thanks to their #1 pick and All-Star point guard, Kyrie Irving, taking the next step to superstardom, they have been able to keep games close and defer to him during the fourth quarter, where he may be the most dangerous player in the game. The best proof may be the magnificent last 3 minutes of the Cavs-Thunder game (http://youtu.be/3FtoqOdy5ls), in which he scored 13 points and took over the game for good, punctuating the game with a dagger 3 pointer over Russell Westbrook in the last seconds of the game. The most amazing thing about him is that he's only 20, he was hurt most of his year in college and a good amount these past couple of seasons, AND IS STILL an All-Star. This guy has future MVP written in his future. This team was more dangerous with Anderson Varajeo in the lineup, but his injuries have allowed the youth and inexperienced players of the team (top 4 picks, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters especially) to get valuable playing time and adjust to how the league works. It doesn't hurt that they have Irving closing out games for them. In Forest of Illusion, after each level is beaten, a path appears to the next level; for the Cavs to reach the playoffs once again, they will need another post player or for Kyrie to become an MVP-caliber player this next season. They are highly unlikely to make the post-season this year, but will doubtless gain great experience for the long run. Roy Koopa, the boss, is defeated just like his brethren, being hit on the head three times. Unlike the previous levels though, the walls close down quickly, giving Mario a limited amount of time to defeat the Koopa. Just like these Cavaliers, it is only for a few more years that the Spurs will be able to win against these young Cavs, until the walls close in.
Chocolate Island - The Kings have been in the headlines recently due to their impending sale to a Seattle-based investment group that will likely revert the franchise back to the SuperSonics. Seattle fans are undoubtedly thrilled with the possibility of regaining their once storied team, they are doing so at the expense of Kings fans everywhere...well mostly in Sacramento, 'cause honestly, who else roots for the Kings? If they do move, it will be a bittersweet moment, mostly because the Kings were pretty good in the early 2000s, and that will be missed. I hope that Timmy can be back by now, as he should have a good two weeks of rest, counting the All-Star break, which he probably won't participate in (did someone say Stephen Curry?). The are 17-33, second to last in the conference, and have the worst point differential in the West, with a -7.2 (the Spurs have a +8.4), likely due to their second to last place in Assists per game and points allowed per game (oh and they're 27th in rebounding). They've only won 2 of their last 8 games and should be an easy opponent to defeat. Getting the win will be important because the next two opponents will definitely be tougher to beat. Chocolate Island is a mountainous area, which reflects the valleys and peaks of the Sacramento season, the highs reflecting their obvious talented players, but their valleys with the inability of these players to fully realize their potential. Wendy Koopa and DeMarcus Cousins share at least one trait: a quick temper. Cousins just got his 12th and 13th technical this past week, leading the league. Hey, that's a statistic the Kings are first in.
Valley of Bowser - The final world in the game (and the most difficult) is the Valley of Bowser, which has two bosses, instead of the usual one like the previous levels. This can reflect Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the two Clipper All-Stars that are the most likely to give us fits. Since this is after the All-Star break, I expect both injured players to be playing, unless Chris Paul's injury is really serious and they'd rather save him for the playoffs. I doubt this, so the Spurs must be ready to play a great game in order to keep Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan off the glass and must pressure Paul into giving up the ball, rather than doing something himself. It tears me up to say this, but Chris Paul is better than Tony Parker, if only by a hair. He's a better defender, and while I think Tony is better offensively, Chris is always getting in other point guard's grills and maintains a spectacular steal rate, ranking first in the league ahead pickpockets like Mike Conley, Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker. By the way, he's doing this in only 33.5 minutes per game, more than 3 minutes fewer than his career average. He's scoring less, but he's assisting at the same rate, in addition to shooting at a higher clip from the field and at the free throw line. He's got Tony beat on the passing side and defensive side, and is a better floor general. Tony doesn't have to be as commanding as Paul, since the Spurs are a more efficient and disciplined team than the Clippers, and can run the team without major players in the fold, which we've seen, the Clippers CANNOT do, losing 7 of their last 10 games, 8 of which Paul's been injured. Without him leading the team, they stand no chance against the Spurs. If he and Griffin are able to go? Well then, it's another story. They still have a great record due to their 17-game win streak earlier in the season, and are 3rd in the league with a 34-16 record coming into tonight. They have a great margin of victory (+6.5) and have a better than looks defense, showing up at 4th in points allowed per game. The Spurs are 7th, allowing two more points per game, 95.7, compared to 93.7. But they have the better offense, with the most assists per game in the league and a scoring clip of 104.1, nearly FOUR points better than the Clippers' 100.2. They rebound at around the same rate, more than 41 a game. Bowser is the toughest opponent in the game, but he can be vanquished, but the Spurs must keep their game at a high level when facing this playoff threat.
Star World - Ah Star World, one of the extra worlds in the game. They even had Blue Yoshis! The Warriors...have blue jerseys, so that's how they are similar! They are also the surprise/breakout team of the season, as anointed by the popular media. They have a couple All-Stars on their team, and Andrew Bogut coming back from injury to man the middle alongside David Lee (All-Star #1), while Stephen Curry (likely All-Star #2, since Timmy might be hurt), Jarrett Jack and Klay Thompson roam on the wings and along the three-point line. With a strong inside game and deadly shooters out on the perimeter, this team is one to be reckoned with, knocking on the door of locking down home-court advantage, as they're only a half-game out of the 4th seed now that the post-Rudy Gary era in Memphis is not going as planned. I think if all goes as planned, and the Spurs win each game before this, these next two will be okay to rest the starters for a bit and get the bench players in to get some valuable playing time. The Warriors are great, but I think we match up well with them, and have a better bench and discipline, something that these shooters are not known for. Their free-flowing offense can be amazing if they shoot the lights out, but they aren't that strong on the defensive end, as shown by their blow-out at the hands of the Rockets last night. Their scoring margin is only +1.04, less than the Lakers, who have an under .500 record! This says more about the underachieving Lakers than the overachieving Warriors, but I think they still have a year or two before they become a truly scary team to play, a la Thunder. They are a little erratic, usually beating bad teams and going toe-to-toe against top teams, shown when they knocked off the Heat, the Clippers and the Thunder, but they lose to middling teams such as the Bucks, Sacramento or the Magic. They have only been able to defeat the Nuggets once out of their past four match-ups, and have lost to Memphis both times they have met. I don't think they're consistent enough this point to truly pose a threat, and should be an okay yet challenging game.
Special World - The last and most secret world is Special World, which also goes by Arizona, is straightforward, just like this final game of the RRT should be. The last time we faced the Suns was only a week and a half ago, and they gave us some trouble, specifically Michael Beasley and Jared Dudley, their better-than-advertised wings. While these guys definitely have talent, they are erratic (Beasley more than Dudley) and don't have enough firepower around them to sustain long stretches of good offense or defense. They rank in the bottom half of most major team stats, such as Points per game, Rebounds per game, Assists per game and Points allowed. Their scoring margin isn't too terrible, good enough for third worst in the West, but a slightly more respectable seventh worst overall, right where their records places them. They allow the second highest field goal AND three point percentage in the league, while also having the second worst three point percentage in the NBA. This team is not a threat to reach the playoffs, and is deeply in rebuilding mode, having traded their largest asset, Steve Nash, to the hated Lakers for picks, and will earn more if the Lakers don't make the playoffs this season, a possibility that is getting to be more likely every day. Goran Dragic and Luis Scola, two former Spurs draft picks, are flourishing for a bad team, and their performances make me wonder if they would have been good fits for the Spurs. Ultimately, I believe not: even though they are some of the better offensive players at their position, they have less than stellar defensive reputations, and Scola is over 33, and was never known for his athleticism. Now that defense is once again a priority in Pops' overall scheme, I'm glad with the squad we've got right now.
Here's hoping the Spurs go 9-0.
All Statistics from espn.go.com/nba; teamrankings.com/nba/stat; basketball-reference.com; nba.com; espn.go.com/blog/truehoop/post/_/id/54302/rodeo-time-for-the-spurs