Save us, Timmy, you're our only hope.
Fun fact about me: My life has never been worse, whether we're talking personally, emotionally, professionally, socially, physically or financially. I literally have terrible thoughts every day and think about ending it all the time, and the only reason I don't is because it will make like five people who don't deserve to feel that way very sad and maybe because I fear some reprisal in hell or whatever. Nothing ever brings me happiness, I hardly ever smile or laugh at anything anymore and I can't escape the black cloud that's forever enveloping me. My life is filled with pain and negative thoughts, 24/7, and existence seems altogether pointless. I should probably see a therapist or something, but I can't imagine how my damaged brain can be "fixed" by anyone's words. I've come to accept that some people are just not meant to be happy and exist just as a cautionary tale for others, and such is my fate.
So, on that cheery note, what better time for the playoffs to begin for our Spurs, in a postseason where I haven't been this pessimistic since 2009, when Manu was out with a stress fracture in his ankle. The really sick news? It's only going to get worse after this season, because it's not like Timmy and Tony are getting any younger. Strap yourselves in, gang, I'm about to make it morbid in here.
Look, lets face reality: It's just not in the cards for us, for a variety of reasons. We got the four 'chips, we should be eternally grateful for them (the NBA is not exactly a league of parity, with the Lakers and Celtics accounting for more than half the total titles won just between them) and we need to accept that we're not going to be adding to that total anytime soon, if ever.
Maybe if we had perfect health, home court advantage and some semblance of a bench we could stand a chance, but we're oh-for-three on that score.
In 2011 the team lost belief on the final day of the regular season, when Manu broke his arm, but truthfully they were sputtering and leaking oil well before then. You can only hide He Who Shall Not be Named for so long.
Last season our hopes sank when James Harden hit that killer three near the end of Game 5. Ginobili had a brilliant three quarters to keep the team in it, but Parker picked a bad game to have a bad game, the role players were mostly M.I.A., and we just couldn't get any stops down the stretch.
This year I lost all semblance of hope on March 31, when the Spurs dropped a game to the Heat at home, even though Miami was resting LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Sure, Ginobili was out for the Spurs, but that's hardly a justification. Also, I'm well aware that a terrible, unspeakably awful foul call on Kawhi Leonard turned that game around late, but it was the Spurs' fault for having the score be close enough where one bad call could influence it. Besides, that whistle was further proof that David Stern simply won't allow us to contend. Bad for the ratings. The TV execs who pay for those ad dollars have spoken and the fix is in. I'm convinced of it. I'm never going to get over Game 6 last year. Never, ever. I'm rambling.
(For the record, Bill Simmons on his latest podcast went to great lengths to declare that he fully expects the Lakers series to be 5-on-8, a complete and transparent refereeing travesty that the whole country will be cool with because really, who cares if the Spurs get screwed? They're the Spurs.)
Anyway, let's go into the reasons -- besides the officiating -- that the Spurs are screwed, one by one.
During the meat of the season The Wee Rapping Frenchman was playing like the third best player on the planet. As usual, Parker's timing was awful and he's picked the end of the season to wane. He's never truly recovered from the ankle sprain he picked up against the Kings and now there's some awful shin problem that's robbed him of his explosiveness, acceleration and lateral agility, on both ends of the floor. Also, his jumper has abandoned him.
Basically, he's become Deron Williams from the first half of the season, only shorter. So that's fun. Obviously without Parker at his absolute best the Spurs have no chance, and I hardly need to go over Parker's long and tortured playoff history against the Lakers. Oh, and if he gets by them, there will likely be JaVale McGee, Andre Iguodola, Andre Miller and Corey Brewer waiting for him in round two. Super.
Then there's Manu, who, at this point is basically just a nose, a bald spot, a charming wit and a sexy accent. Obviously I love the guy, and there is literally nothing he can do on a basketball court that will ever change that, but at this point even I've given up any semblance of faith that he has anything left. He just can't stay healthy, he doesn't have the stamina or strength to shoot threes straight consistently for a full game, he can't finish at the rim anymore (and the refs have stopped giving him any benefit of the doubt at all on those drives) and there's just no explosiveness or lift anymore.
Ginobili basically admitted during an interview that he has no faith in himself whatsoever to be able to score anymore and that he's hoping to contribute strictly as a passer. In other words, he's Pablo Prigioni/Nando De Colo. Awesome, I'm psyched.
Leonard will not only play, but is expected to log 40-plus minutes a game and be the team's top perimeter stopper. Yet anytime you watch the games you see him flex his knee and subtly grimace in pain during stoppages in play. So you'll forgive me if I'm not brimming with confidence that Kevin Durant will be seeing him in his nightmares during the summer.
Then there's Boris Diaw, who will be out this series recovering from minor back surgery, and the fact that we even have to discuss the impact of Diaw's absence, when the guy has to practically be zapped by a cattle prod to shoot the ball and has collected like twelve rebounds all season, makes me want to barf.
2. The bench, or lack thereof
Not sure if you've noticed, but the Spurs bench has been secretly terrible this season. Once Ginobili lost it (he's had like one good month all season) and Splitter was moved to the starting lineup for good, it became a fait accompli for the second unit to be the anchor that drags us down to mediocrity.
Basically, by moving Splitter to the starting lineup (a move I fully endorsed by the way), Pop made the radical decision to start his five best athletes. Not necessarily his five best basketball players, mind you, because I'd still rank Ginobili higher than Green on most nights, but his five best athletes.
I'm not sure any other team in the NBA starts their five best athletes. Miami? I dunno. Doesn't feel like most do. The problem is further exasperated by the fact that not only is Pop starting his five best athletes, but he literally only has five.
Diaw is a slug. Matt Bonner makes Diaw look like a decathlete. He might be the worst athlete in the league and he plays every game like his sole goal is to not make an opponent angry at him, like a guy politely handing his wallet to a would-be mugger. "Here's a rebound sir, please don't hurt me." DeJuan Blair is painfully undersized, can only jump over a phone book every tenth game, and after four seasons his basketball I.Q. remains far behind his actual I.Q., and we're talking about a fellow who, despite having no ACL's in his knees, thought it'd be a swell idea to purchase over $50,000 in jewelry with his rookie contract as a second-round pick.
Gary Neal is short and stubby and can't stay in front of anybody and simply refuses to stick with shooters by the three point line, as if he'll be of any help in the paint. He continues to draw at least one idiotic "and-1" foul a game, where the negligent contact he makes with a driving opponent doesn't encumber the guy's ability to finish in the slightest. Stephen Jackson aged in dog years and couldn't move anymore.
The best two athletes on the bench are De Colo and a 35-year-old, broken down Ginobili. Think about that. Hell, maybe it's Aron Baynes. I want to cry.
The fatal flaw in Pop and R.C. Buford's roster construction was in going to war (if you pardon the terrible analogy) with the least athletic bench in the NBA, and quite possibly the smallest as well. If anything a proper NBA bench should be more athletic than the starters, filled with youngsters with zip and energy and hustle, dudes who can make up for their lack of experience or basketball skill with quickness, size, desire and raw physical tools.
Basically, you need guys who can run and jump a little bit when basketball skills and smarts fail you, when the jumpers refuse to fall, when the passes aren't as crisp or the balls don't bounce your way. You can't teach size or strength or speed or leaping ability. For whatever reason, Pop and R.C. don't think it's a priority to have athletes on the bench. Maybe they could get away with that line of thinking in Duncan and Ginobili's prime, but those days are gone.
Anyway, if everyone was healthy and Pop had the luxury of playing a seven-man rotation, a la Mike "Pringles" D'Antoni, maybe the team would have a chance. Alas, the principles are all either old, hurt or both, so guys like Neal, Bonner and Blair will have to be shuffled onto the floor, whereupon they'll be immediately exploited without mercy. We just can't hide any of them. We can't.
So Ginobili, in the winter of his career, will be left once more trying to make the perfect play, literally the only play available to him, through an impossibly tangled jungle of arms and legs and limbs stretching forever, hoping against hope to deliver the ball cleanly through clogged traffic so that maybe, just maybe, Neal or Bonner can bury a jumper or Blair can finish a simple layup. Good lord.
3. We threw away home court
Last year's Spurs were far healthier, had all the momentum in the world, home court throughout the playoffs once Derrick Rose got hurt and the Bulls were done, and they still couldn't get it done. They simply couldn't get a stop when they needed one on the road, couldn't get a call at OKC in any of the games there, and Danny Green and Tiago Splitter both shriveled up under the bright lights.
So why should we expect a rosier outcome this time, without home court against the Thunder and (gasp) the Heat? Is it at all realistic to expect these guys to pull out a road game against a great team when everyone's beat up and limping around, the zebras are giving them zero breaks, and the free world is rooting for them to just go away? I can't remember the last road game they've won. For all I know it was at Sacramento, in a game I attended. (Just checked, not far off, it was actually February 27, at Phoenix.)
The Spurs finished the season two games behind the Thunder and lost so many 50/50 games down the stretch. Blew a 12-point fourth quarter lead at Golden State. Lost at home to the freakin' Suns after they tied it on a three at the buzzer (and yes, Manu missed what would've been the game-icing free throw). Lost buzzer beaters at Houston and at Memphis. The unforgivable loss to Miami without their stars. Losing to Denver after getting out to a 14-0 lead. Losing to the Lakers without Kobe.
Just three of those games go differently and at least they'd have home court throughout the western playoffs. At least that. But hey, at least they're healthy, right Pop? Ha.
You'll excuse me if I'm in "I'll believe it when I see it" mode.
4. No chemistry, mojo, momentum
Talk about a bunch of dead men walking. Thanks to the various injuries the full lineup hasn't played together since late March and they've been a bunch of zombies in April. The defense has gone to hell, the offense has no flow or rhythm, the ball movement is crud, Leonard and Green have gone into slumps from deep at the worst time, Splitter looks soft and gassed and disinterested in protecting the paint or going up strong on offense and the aforementioned bench is a sinkhole.
The decision to cast out Stephen Jackson practically on the eve of the playoffs has cast a pall over everything. Maybe it was a long time coming and necessary, but with the roster being what it is from a health standpoint, I just don't understand what you stand to gain by releasing Jackson. Why not just DNP him and have him out there in a suit, available in an emergency? Are we really supposed to expect Tracy McGrady, a guy who doesn't know the plays or the sets or anything, to fill in? He's not gonna play, period. We know this.
No matter how much a stink Jackson made about playing time, I can't imagine the big three would've been affected by his mutterings. They probably tuned him out long ago. To hear Jackson tell it, things came to a head with Pop when he refused to accept that Player X was better than him. Now, if X is Leonard, then yeah, Jack was being an idiot and I can kind of understand Pop's decision.
However, if X was Neal or Bonner, then Pop was stubborn and bullheaded and wrong and I'd still rather take my chances with Jackson. I wonder if that mystery will ever be solved.
I've ranted and raved about Pop ad nauseam. By now you know where I stand with him. He certainly has his strengths, and even me, idiot that I am, will readily concede they far outnumber his weaknesses. That doesn't change the fact that the weaknesses are there, that they are real, and it annoys me to no end that Pop has stubbornly refused to acknowledge or fix them.
Making an enemy of an egotistical commissioner is not smart, especially when your team gets zero ratings. Refusing to ever concede anything to the business and marketing aspects of the league is not smart, especially when you're a small-market team with mostly unmarketable (read: foreign) stars and those business and marketing interests help pay your handsome salary and those of your players. Refusing to ever point out the league's inconsistencies in officiating is not smart, because as Phil Jackson has proved time and again, there's nothing lost with planting a seed in public about crappy refs. Look, we know the Spurs, like most every other team, send tapes to the league about bad calls and rulings against them that they think are unfair. If you're airing those grievances in the first place, you might as well make them public. You've already crossed the line. What's the harm in letting your fans know that you give a damn about this stuff?
Also, as I stated above, as ahead of the curve as Pop is about the X's and O's, I think the game has passed him by as far as his bench philosophy. He should've found some athletes to fortify the bench, regardless of whether it was dudes from the D-league, or scrounging in Europe or whatever. There's more to the game than being able to hit open threes, and those shots don't come all that often against committed defenses in May and June.
Now, after all that, if you've made it through 2,700 words of doom & gloom negativity without wanting to hang yourself, let me counter with some positives, just to mess with you.
1. Duncan hasn't looked this good since 2006.
The dunks he threw down late against the Lakers the other week, the post moves he was making against Howard, the way he was running the floor in late March against the Nuggets and Clips? It's enough to make one weep tears of joy.
I don't care what he's taking or what medical procedure he had in which country or what deal he agreed to with whichever prince of darkness. All I know is that, as I type this sentence, Duncan can make a legit claim to being one of the three or four best players on the entire planet, even on the dawn of his 37th birthday. If there's any justice in the world he'll be named First-Team All-NBA for his remarkable season but of course there isn't.
Anyway, having Duncan playing at this level is the only -- I repeat ONLY -- reason where even .0001% of hope flickers throughout this franchise for a miracle run. And even that probably rides on LeBron suffering a freak injury, but still.
If Duncan and Parker can somehow find their peak form simultaneously, if Manu can play like he did in January, if Leonard can continue his ascent, if Green can rediscover his stroke and if Splitter can play like a man when it matters... if, if, if, if.
Duncan deserves some help, guys. Come on, don't waste this.
2. The West is there to be had
I simply refuse to believe the Thunder aren't mortally compromised by the Harden trade. Don't tell me they can lose their third (possibly second) best player and still win the conference without a struggle. The thought simply boggles the mind. Especially when you consider that the Heat are at a whole other level above them.
The Nuggets looked formidable for a time, but now Danilo Gallinari is out, Ty Lawson is gimpy, and they're using guys like Evan Fournier and Anthony Randolph in their rotation, when those guys spent most of the season as spectators.
As we saw Saturday against the Warriors, the Nuggets' crunch-time scorer is Andre Miller. Are you telling me the Spurs are really gonna let Andre Miller get between them and a trip to the Western Conference Finals? Really?
The Grizzlies have zero perimeter scoring. Just pack the paint against them and they're toast. The Clippers have a shoddy coach who the players don't respect, some wonky internal chemistry issues and when all else fails you can put DeAndre Jordan at the line.
I just don't see any great teams here, and yes, that certainly includes the Spurs. Call me a homer, but I think at their apex the Spurs can reach a level of basketball nirvana (Neo-ball) that none of these other teams can reach. The problem is that the Thunder pretty much live in their "B-game" mode and thrive quite well in it, while the Spurs injury, athletic and age limitations have them in their "C-game" more often than not, where they're vulnerable to anybody. Sure, the potential exists for them to hit their stride for a solid month and outlast all these pretenders to the throne, but everything has to break exactly right.
3. Even Miami can be beat
The 27-game winning streak looks glitzy, but look closer. Look at the scores of the games. Look at the scores at certain intervals. The Heat trailed a skeleton crew from the Cavs by 20-something points. Ditto with the Celtics. They trailed big against New York and faced decent deficits and near-losses to Orlando, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Sacramento. When they finally lost, it was to a Bulls team without Rose and Joakim Noah.
Yes, they won 27 in a row, but they didn't win many of them convincingly. Despite the brilliance of James, and to a lesser extent Wade, they're still a club that has issues with rebounding and interior defense and they lack a low-post scorer.
I've followed the NBA for nearly 30 years. Regardless of who comes out of the West, the Heat will be overwhelming favorites, but I've seen bigger disparities. The '86 Celtics vs. the Rockets, for example. The '96 Bulls vs. the Sonics. The '99 Spurs vs. the Patrick Ewing-less Knicks. The '02 Lakers vs. the Nets (and the Lakers weren't even the best team that year, the Kings were.)
All of those series were bigger mismatches than this Finals will be. The Heat are a great team, but I still don't think they're an all-time juggernaut. The numbers just don't bear it out, nor does their roster. It's a two-man team, and a bunch of spare parts. I think they're catching the rest of the league in a down year, is all.
Obviously it's morbid and gross to root for injuries, and I won't do it here, but I'm just saying, stranger things have happened.
4. The Lakers are a great match-up for the Spurs
Officiating aside, I'm pretty ecstatic that the Spurs drew LA instead of a funky Warriors with their crazy home court advantage and hot shooting from the perimeter or the Rockets with Harden and Omer Asik to complicate things.
If there's one team where our bench can get away with being crap, it's the Lakers since their bench is even bigger, smellier crap. If there's one team where a hobbled Parker can look somewhat fleet of foot, it's the Lakers, who employ Steves Nash & Blake. If there's one team where our lack of athleticism won't be exposed, it's the Lakers, who are even somehow slower and older.
Also, I don't know if you heard, but Kobe Bryant isn't playing, Mike D'Antoni is their coach and they also have a big galoot who doesn't shoot free throws so well.
At the risk of jinxing it (honestly, what do I care at this point?) if the Spurs don't beat the Lakers in this series we might as well quit being Spurs fans forever and move on to another hobby. Spurs in five.
5. I'm done with this crazy long, 90% negative column, so you can stop feeling terrible. You're welcome
"Wait," you're saying. "I thought this was supposed to be a Spurs-Lakers preview. You hardly mentioned the Lakers at all."
Deal with it. This is a Spurs blog. If you want Lakers insights go tune into ESPN. It doesn't matter when you click on, it's literally all they talk about.
My fervent hope is that somehow, someway, Manu regains his form enough to make some positive impact on this series, just so Kobe can tweet something juvenile and self-serving along the lines of "That wouldn't have happened against the Mamba."
In fact, we need to start a #ginoisbetterthanvino movement on Twitter and send it to the Kobester in spades if and when that happens.