First and foremost, a congratulations to our Spurs for a 61 win regular season that earned the #1 seed in the Western Conference and home court advantage over every team sans the Bulls of Chicago. Take this moment to appreciate a great run of victories while playing in the superior conference, and division, of the NBA. One need not look too long around the NBA landscape to see established franchises and fan bases that would envy the status of Spurs fans, just from a round 1 perspective. Some have not won one single playoff series in ten years (Blazers, Knicks); some have advanced only twice in twenty seasons (Nuggets, Warriors); another has advanced beyond the 1st round only once in four seasons despite winning 50 games in each (Mavs); and one group of fans is likely to lose their franchise to relocation.
Sports, as life, is not fair. But both can be a heck of a lot of fun. So after a moment of silence to give thanks for the near six month run of success, let's now up the energy level and prepare for the round ahead by looking back at a near decade of first round nervousness that has most always ended with Spurs advancement.
It would be foolish to ever dismiss or look past a first round opponent, regardless of seeding or record. An appropriate fear must be maintained to properly prepare for and defeat the challenge that lie ahead. The past decade of Spurs first round dominance could understandably make lazy fools of us all, but I think there are lessons and trends to be noticed in how a Popovich team plays when entering the playoffs and how they play their first opponent, then leads to where the season completes itself.
My Spurs' fandom precedes the days of Little Greggy, a time when winning a playoff series was far from assured and championship hopes rested on the kind of shallow hyped optimism currently enjoyed by the Nuggets. The era of Pop and Duncan have made late April far more stable and enjoyable while making June a reality. I will now look at all first round match-ups since the 2003 post-season, a time span that features the Big-3 (as if you needed me to tell you that), from the perspective of expectations entering that series, and why the fear of a specific opponent or "side of the bracket" often ends up being pure folly.
2003: (1) Spurs v (8) Suns | Regular season series: Spurs lose 1-3 | Avg margin of victory/loss: 8 points / 7 points
An eventual championship playoff run began with a series against a team that barely made the playoffs. A Suns team led by a fresh out of high school post player and malcontent point guard was the worst possible match-up for the Spurs despite the difference of sixteen regular season victories. Tony Parker had, to that point, struggled mightily to defend Suns PG Stephon Marbury. It was now a mental thing. Tony was in his second season, Manu his first, and the team did not have a bench stacked with championship experience. Making matters worse, despite finishing the season on a dominant 24-4 run, half those losses were to Phoenix.
Results: Spurs win series 4-2 despite giving away the opener due to putrid FT shooting and a career moment luck of a winning shot from Marbury. The two losses were by a combined three points whereas the four wins averaged a near nine point spread. The grit shown in responding to the opening loss, a close game two victory, and out-classing an excellent home Suns team in the road game 3 prepared this team for the difficult tasks ahead, including defeating the defending three-time champs. Im retrospect, this was much more valuable than a sweep. Also, being in the same bracket as the Lakers was not a hindrance.
2004: (3) Spurs v (6) Grizzlies | Regular season series: Spurs lose 1-3 | Avg margin of victory/loss: 11 points / 5 points
The defending champions ended the season with eleven consecutive victories and seemed to be the best team in the NBA. Their 3-seed standing was a result of the NBA quirk that division champs had to be the top 2 seeds for the first round, thus this 57 win team was seeded behind a 56 win Lakers team. This seemed to the Spurs' disadvantage, as they had to play a Memphis team with a great home record whom they only defeated once all season. Proper seeding would've put the Spurs against a Rockets team whom they swept 4-0 during the regular season.
Results: Spurs sweep a series that had only one close game, winning by an average of fourteen points. Playoff experience, having a healthy roster for all four games, plus the famous playoff adjustments from Pop put this series methodically out of reach. Memphis had nothing left in their collective tank after playing their absolute best but still losing at home in game 3. Sadly, the now fifteen game win streak would reach seventeen before the Spurs hit a week of poor shooting from everyone. Every great run will be counterbalanced by even a minor dip, and for the Spurs it happened at the wrong time against the worst opponent.
2005: (2) Spurs v (7) Nuggets | Regular season series: Tied 2-2 | Avg margin of victory/loss: 11.5 points / 10.5 points
"Perhaps the best 7-seed to ever make the playoffs" was a phrase often uttered about the Nuggets. Those poor Spurs, having to face a team that finished on a 25-4 run (32-8 after the mid-season hiring of George Karl) that included two wins over San Antonio. The Spurs finished in much poorer fashion, a 9-8 closing assisted by Tim Duncan severely injuring his ankle. Even after his return, the Spurs closed with three losses in the final four games, costing themselves a 60-win season and number one overall seed.
Results: After losing game one with a rusty appearing Duncan and team-wide poor 4Q play, the Spurs responded to win four consecutive games by an average margin of over fourteen points. The loss woke up a team that believed themselves to be best in the NBA, Their run through the remaining Western Conference playoffs seemed to be lit by the initial loss, and the season concluded with a stellar game 7 win over the defending champion Pistons.
2006: (1) Spurs v (8) Kings | Regular season series: Spurs win 2-1 | Avg margin of victory/loss: 2 points / 11 points
"This is not a typical 8-seed and may be the best to ever make the playoffs" or some variation of that was uttered about the Kings (if only the experts had waited one more season they could've made a bunch of money). Sacramento closed the season 9-2 including a physical win in San Antonio on a SEGABABA. They looked impressive and revitalized with the mid-season addition of Ron Artest, who was not on the roster for both early season losses to the Spurs. Life would be much easier if the Lakers had fallen to #8, a team with no physical post players.
Results: Motivated by the skepticism, the Spurs throttled the Kings in game 1. A cornered Kings team, missing a suspended Artest, played like the playoff vets they were and nearly won in San Antonio. It took the schematic mind of Pop, screen setting of Duncan, clever passing of Manu, and sweet stroke of Brent Barry to get this game into O.T. From there the Spurs pulled away. The series was won in six, with wins by an average margin of nineteen points, with the Spurs truly placing a headlock on the Kings and reality by pulling away in the 4Q of game 5 (magic of Manu) and extending that confidence and efficiency into game six. The Spurs would regret giving away game 3 with a late turnover/non-called foul, thus preventing a short series, as they would be physically tired and sluggish early in the next series. That slow start, combined with poor officiating in the games 3&4 and the seeding quirk of the two best team forced to meet in the second round, derailed a repeat championship run.
2007: (3) Spurs v (6) Nuggets | Regular season series: Spurs win 2-1 | Avg margin of victory/loss: 12 points / 23 points
Perhaps you've heard before how tough a first round match-up awaits the Spurs. San Antonio ended the season with three consecutive defeats, again costing themselves a 60-win season and possibly HCA in the second round. A late season blowout loss in Denver provided reason for some to see an upset in the making. The larger worry was that the Spurs had placed themselves in the more difficult side of the bracket, where they'd have to beat both the Suns & Mavs without home court, while Dallas would cruise past the Warriors and the winner of the Utah/Houston series. Speaking of best-ever lower seeds...
Results: Very much a repeat of 2005, with the victory margin down to nine points per game due in small part to Spurs age and larger part to Nuggets experience. Spurs again win in 5 and vault themselves to a championship by defeating the Suns despite not having HCA. The Mavs celebrated their division title and MVP trophy instead of earning a trip to the WCF for a Spurs revenge tour. The upcoming Finals series was far easier than 2005.
2008: (3) Spurs v (6) Suns | Regular season series: Spurs lose 1-3 | Avg margin of victory/loss: 3 points / 9.3 points
Spurs were picked by most to lose this series (7/10 espn experts) despite finishing tied for the second best record in the West and only one game behind LA for the top spot of 57 wins. San Antonio finished the season 12-3 but all three losses were to West playoff teams by double digits, including a home debacle to Phoenix. The West was hyper-competitive, with 50 wins needed just to make the playoffs and only two games separating the #1 and the #6-seed. It was truly up for grabs, more than the media and Laker fans remember. The addition of Shaq to the Suns seemed to give them the Duncan stopper they so desperately needed. There was no way the older than dirt Spurs, with a near retirement Horry and old and too short Kurt "Crazy Eyes" Thomas, could counter all that Suns size and shooting.
Results: Never take D'Antoni over Pop. Don't believe the "Duncan stopper" hype. And never underestimate the heart of a champion. The Spurs had multiple champions, the Suns one (from another uniform), and the mental advantage of having dismissed the Suns in two of the previous three seasons. They certainly had an appropriate fear of a team they had great respect for, and had struggled against recently. The focus was there, the execution splendid, and the bench contributed more than some people thought they could, as the Spurs won by just over seven points per game. I needn't recap this series for you; surely you remember. In retrospect, it was decided in the great game 1 comeback. Losing that game likely means it takes the Spurs a full seven to advance, making the likelihood of winning the Hornets series quite small. The true damage from this series was the ankle of Manu, as I believe this cost the Spurs (and NBA fans) a great Finals of Spurs-Celtics.
2009: (3) Spurs v (6) Mavs | Regular season series: Spurs split 2-2 | Avg margin of victory/loss: 12 points / 11 points
Spurs were not healthy in three of the four matches with Dallas during the regular season and this, unfortunately, continued into the playoffs. You already know the results from this one, as Manu was unable to play after missing the final 31 games of the regular season.The sad thing is that this had been Tony Parker's greatest season, and he deserved better than a five game dismissal. He managed to carry this team to 54-wins, good enough to tie for second best in the West. A healthy Manu in the second half of the season pushes this flawed squad to nearly 60 wins, a first round date with a poor Hornets team, and likely WCF loss to LA. It would've been nice to get that far.
2010: (7) Spurs v (2) Mavs | Regular season series: Spurs lose 1-3 | Avg margin of victory/loss: 9 points / 7 points
This one is fresh in your mind so let the lessons from this be: 1) the importance of match-ups. 2) Pop's ability to turn his familiarity into an opponents contempt. 3) the ease of defending a team with one great scoring threat, especially if he isn't a post player. 4) Anything is possible in a rivalry.
To recap, in the past eight first round series the Spurs have gone up against teams to whom they've lost the regular season series four times and won them all. They've twice split (splitting those) and twice faced teams against whom they won the reg season series (winning both). The tendency is that their lower seeded opponents are teams the Spurs have lost to late in the regular season, much like this year. They appear to be at their sharpest when facing an opponent that has gotten the better of them, and while playing a tough, physical series does not impeded their championship hopes, an early extended series with close games is likely to catch up with them in the following round. Lastly, how they have finished the regular season has had no bearing on their ability to win their first round series, or their advancement in the playoffs.
And so begins the Drive for 5. Go Spurs Go! Please handle the Grizzlies in five games or less.