This is my first fan post. For some reason in the preview before publishing this, there is spacing between the paragraphs but the published version doesn't. I'd seek to sort it out. Sorry for how it can be less comfortable to read.
My roommate, a non-Spurs fan, thought that the Spurs were better last year. This prompted me to think about whether that might be true or not. After all, last year, we were rolling into the playoffs with a 10 game winning streak, our offense seemed in sync, and we seemed to be peaking at the right time. As we all know, we went on to sweep the Jazz and then the Clippers - who did have some injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Equally, our first two wins over the Thunder were so convincing that it seemed inevitable we were going back to the Finals.
And then Games 3, 4, 5, and 6 happened. From a combination of James Harden and Kevin Durant heroics, to Spurs players like Danny Green and Tiago Splitter being taken out of the series by themselves and/or the Thunder's physical play, to an improbable Serge Ibaka 11/11 shooting night, and to what irritates me to this day - a change in officiating from Games 3 onwards to allow the Thunder's more physical play to bad officiating in Game 6, the Thunder beat the Spurs. If the officiating was fair, I would have had no problems with the Thunder's victory. I was surprised by Popovich's remarks after Game 6 which essentially said that the Thunder beat the Spurs. I don't agree. I thought that purely on Game 6, those bad/missed calls would have swung the game back to Game 7 in San Antonio. I thought we matched up well and better with the Heat than the Thunder. And furthermore the Heat then didn't have the confidence and experience that comes with winning a championship, save for a few individuals from the 2006 team. I thought that the league's officiating robbed us of a chance to see whether fair and square our team last year could have beaten the Thunder and the Heat.
Which brings us to this year. We currently have the chance to go back to the NBA finals against our nemesis from 2011. We have finished the regular season with the league's third best record with 58 wins. We swept a Lakers team that had an imposing front court and other players who beat us convincingly in our last meeting in the regular season. That game showed that without Kobe Bryant, the Lakers team is still one to be reckoned with. With their backs against the wall and seeking a berth in the playoffs, that team played inspired defense, shared the ball, and pounded the ball inside - a situation which was not observed in the hero ball version of the Lakers. The Lakers did get progressively more injured and yet the effort and adjustments made by the Spurs in the opening round shouldn't be discounted.
In round 2, a matchup with a team that boasted two of the world's best shooters, utilized the strategy of exploiting mismatches (Barnes on Parker), and sought to run our head of the snake, Parker, ragged through screens and defended by a longer and bigger defender in Thompson posed a challenge. In the end, this years Spurs demonstrated that they could overcome these challenges, win in a hostile arena, and have the ability to defend two of the best perimeter shooters in the world. Yes, Stephen Curry had an injured ankle but this was also the same Stephen Curry that had an ankle injury in the first round and beat the athletic and deep Nuggets. And Thompson wasn't injured. This year's Spurs team defense- led by Green, Leonard, and Duncan in the interior, helped win us the series.
Which brings us to the comparison of this year versus last year's team. This year's team came into the playoffs in a slump/decline since February which only begun to change from the opening game in the playoffs onwards. It seemed that the playoffs bought everyone to be more focused and motivated to clean up what was needed in a hurry. Parker also had time to come back from his injury in February. Overall throughout the entire season, a combination of a plantar injury to Gary Neal, injuries to Parker, Ginobili, and Diaw, this year's Spurs came into the playoffs in decline. It went from a top five league defense (measured by opponents points per game per 100 possessions) to being a middle of the pack team defensively again (until the playoffs). Similarly too, its offense didn't seem as in sync as it was in its peak in February. As Aaronstampler pointed out here (http://www.poundingtherock.com/2013/5/16/4336328/nba-playoffs-spurs-league-nba-best-defense-warriors), Diaw was less consistent during the year, as well as Jackson's performance before he was released. Ginobili, too, wasn't in the same form as he was last year whether due to his injuries this year and/or age.
Yet, as the playoffs and for most of the regular season has indicated, the Spurs has improved defensively from being a team around 12th in the league to being a top five defense this year. Aaronstampler's article also has interesting stats to support this, especially one that compared our starting five's defensive efficiency across the league's best defensive units. Starting Splitter next to a resurging Duncan, helped improve the defense alongside an additional year of experience for Leonard/Green and an emphasis placed on defense from training camp. Oh and also having a tenacious defender in Cory Joseph later in the season as the backup point guard also helps. The team's systematic defense is definitely much better than last year's. This improved team defense, alongside improvements in the game performances of Duncan, Leonard (who received special attention from the coaching staff from summer league to practices to a point where the plays he's making in games are noticeably different than last year's), to Green (as evident in this year's playoffs shooting, plays, and defense), to Splitter (who seems overall more confident and better in rolling to the basket), this year's team seem's much better. To top it off, Matt Bonner, too, seems better in this year's playoffs as he seems more confident and reliable in shooting the three (as well as defending post players).
Yet when I was discussing basketball with my roommate, I felt like last year's team was better than last years Thunder team and I would feel nervous if this year's current Spurs team in the playoffs would to face last year's Thunder. I think this is a combination of the fact that last year's Spurs were rolling, their offense was clicking. Meanwhile, this year's Spurs - in consideration of the improvements demonstrated in its defense and several players - has several questions hanging over its head. How is Parker's calf and achilles hanging up - will he get back to the form he was in February? Will more time since his injury in the regular season help Ginobili get him back to his form? He is shooting poorly but making up for it with his passing and steals in the last round. The law of averages indicate that he will sooner or later get back to shooting much better. And he did have that thunderous dunk against the Lakers - amongst a few other plays in recent weeks where he drove to the hoop with the skill and quickness that he has shown many times in the past. Still, Ginobili seems to be more tentative in driving to the hoop in this year's playoffs (seeming to avoid the possibility of injury). Other questions include will we miss Stephen "I make love to pressure" Jackson who was one of the few players who stepped up in the Thunder series last year, and who gives us a bonafide long and athletic backup small forward to play defense, make hustle plays, and hit shots? Will Gary Neal shoot better this year like he did last year? Until Game 6, he wasn't shooting that well. Will Diaw become more consistent like he was last year? I thought that since coming back from his injury and having a cautious Pop giving him an extended time to come back from his injury that Diaw has performed really well in his defense, passing, and spacing on the floor. He also hit big shots in our Game 1 comeback against the Warriors though he did shoot poorly in Game 4 if I remember correctly.
Despite losing Stephen Jackson who I believe will step up in the playoffs like Robert Horry did in the 2005 playoffs, I believe that this year's Spurs are better than last year's Spurs. There are question marks surrounding Parker's injury but I believe that he will have time to get treatment and bounce back strong. Same as Ginobili. I am an optimist but I don't think that this is blind optimism. Diaw seems to be getting back in shape. Neal, too, has these two days to get in better shape and his role - while important as an offensive sniper for us - isn't crucial (minimizing the potential negative effects of a poor shooting night that he may have while a hot shooting night by Neal could be the difference in a game for us). It feels to me that the reason why I feel that last years Spurs were better than last year's Thunder while this year's Spurs are better than last year's Spurs and yet am nervous about meeting last year's Thunder, under last year is in large part due to injuries robbing us of our momentum and offensive rhythm. While right now, Parker and Neal is a little banged up, we lost Stephen Jackson, and Ginobili and Diaw are inconsistent coming back from their injuries - I believe that the improvements in our defense, Duncan's performance, Leonard's, Green's, Splitter's, CoJo's, and Bonner's make us a better team. Though I regret the Stephen Jackson situation, I am optimistic about Parker, Ginobili, Diaw, and Neal.
What do you the rest of you think? How do you think this year's Spurs will fare against last year's Thunder? Do you think we are better at this point right now relative to this point last year?