Let's start with a quick look at the first round of the 2015 Western Conference Playoffs
Grizzlies and Blazers: All but over.
Mavs and Rockets: Meh.
Whether it's The Little General, Captain Jack, or Danny Green, the Spurs have always been about reclamation projects. If they could find a way to put Homer Simpson in the silver and black, by the end the season he'd be looking like Good Boris Diaw. With the help of the Clippers, SA has now branched out its business to salvage the first round of these Western Conference Playoffs. In fact, this is only series in either Conference to be tied 2-2. Though the Spurs and us fans are loathe to have squandered home-court advantage so soon after the Clips squandered it to us, the rest of the league is no doubt grateful to still have some meaningful basketball to carry them through the second week of this long postseason. Right now, the West Playoffs are Jack Rabbit Slim's, and the dance floor has cleared to watch Vince Vega and Mia Wallace do a seven-game twist:
Before this series started, it was pegged as a Conference Finals disguised as a first round series, a filet mignon masquerading as h'ordeuvres. But this is the West, and any combination of opponents could potentially serve up a series for the ages; the fact that only 25% have actually managed it is more a function of bad timing and injuries than anything else. In reality, all four first round series should be playing out like a quality WCF. If the Spurs survive LA, they can look forward to a second Conference Final-quality series against Houston. And if they survive that, the actual Conference Finals await, featuring the seasoned and angry winner of the inevitable Golden State-Memphis second round series.
Dispensing with the present business of the 3-seeded Clippers got more difficult after Sunday afternoon's slopfest. The Spurs could have put their foot on LA's neck, made the engine seize on Cornelius Griffin's Kia, and wrinkled Cliff Paul's bowtie. Instead, they missed shots, committed lots of fouls, and in general handled their recent success poorly. It's what we've come to expect and fear from this team. Not that it does any good this time of year to speculate as to why the Spurs struggle to be consistent, or what can be done to fix it. In the playoffs, the stakes keep rising while the excuses stop mattering.
"We know how to win on the road," Duncan told Jeff McDonald after the game. "We have some stuff we can clean up easily, so we have to do that and by ready for their best shot."
Speaking of expected things, Duncan seems to pass a new milestone with each game. Tonight, he rose to 3rd on the all-time list of most playoff games played, while becoming the first player ever to spend more than 9,000 minutes on a basketball court in the playoffs. And he just had a birthday. 39, it would seem, is the new 21.
The party Kawhi would throw for Timmy, probably. pic.twitter.com/3z29EuAbYu— Christina (@christinadunnn) April 25, 2015
Speaking of unexpected things, Austin Rivers had himself a game. He may go on to be a big star and throw off all the punchlines. On the other hand, Game 4 could be his Woodstock. However it turns out for Doc's Boy, in San Antonio they'll always remember The Austin Rivers Game.
(Unless the Spurs win in 6. In which case, who cares that Rivers scored 16 points and abused Patty Mills for a few minutes in the first half?)
When Austin Rivers gets an And 1 against your team https://t.co/pa4dUQz7Eo— Courtside (@courtside) April 26, 2015
Returning to the subject of the expected, Kawhi Leonard scored 26 points in Game 4. Long ago, during the gestation that transformed him from super role player to superstar-undisputed-max-player status, Leonard bumped up against that number the way a Ferrari's engine bumps against its rev limiter. Now that the playoffs are here, the limiter has been removed, and The Inhuman Kawhilight Film has been unleashed to wreak havoc on poor Matt Barnes and whoever else LA has to throw at him (which is no one.) With the benefit of foresight, we can imagine the conversation that took place between Pop and R.C. Buford in early summer 2011, during which it was decided that the Beloved George Hill would be traded for a small forward with big hands who couldn't shoot, out of a mid-major school where he played as a reluctant offensive focal point, and that said SF would spend four years being rebuilt into Mecha MJ. "Live the life you've imagined," Thoreau said. But with Kawhi, who could have imagined this?
Kind of a stark admission from Manu Ginobili, here talking about Kawhi Leonard today: pic.twitter.com/GNRhhbnDjj— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) April 25, 2015
AD-Kahwi is going to be the new LeBron-Durant debate.— Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) April 26, 2015
Symbolism aside, that 26 points by no means signals Kawhi's return to sub-superstar - without his 3-bombs and deft passing, the Spurs would have been blown out by 20 - but his brief return from outer space in Game 3 to the mere stratosphere in Game 4 was apropos of the Spurs' wider stumbles as a team. On an otherwise excellent 10-19 shooting day, the eighth and ninth of Kawhi's nine misses would have cut the Clippers' lead down to 6 with 1:53 remaining, or to 7 with 1:33 remaining. The Clips followed up both misses with a score. Like the Spurs themselves, Leonard just couldn't quite get over the hump Sunday afternoon after launching into hyperspace Friday night.
To be fair, this game was similar to Game 1. The Spurs had chances, missed shots, and let the Clippers do mostly what they wanted on offense. Like Game 1, the following game is played at Staples Center, where the crowd will be loud, boisterous, hungry, and in all other ways completely dissimilar to their Lakers counterparts. Unlike Game 1, we can say with confidence that Tony Parker looks mostly like his old self, that Mills and Boris Diaw are active participants in the competition, and that Kawhi has a firm grasp of the mantle he'll need to carry in order for the Spurs to hang more banners on the east side of the AT&T Center.
What else is in their favor? When the Spurs tied up their 2008 WCSF series with Chris Paul's New Orleans Hornets following a 100-80 win in Game 4, I recall none other than numbers guru par excellence John Hollinger (then of ESPN) talking about how important point differential was in determining which team would break a 2-2 tie in a seven game series. Call it Hollinger's Correlation. At that time, the team with the positive differential in such a series had won 100% of the time. The good news? SA's Game 4 loss to the Clippers still leaves them at +7 for the series. I guess the bad news is that since the unveiling of Hollinger's Correlation, a team has won a seven game series despite a negative point differential after being tied 2-2: It was the 2008 Spurs. Those Spurs, as you may recall, went on to lose Game 5 of that series by 21 points before rebounding to win the final two and advance to the Conference Finals. It was the only time in the Duncan era that a Spurs team has gone down 3-2 in a series and come back to win.
That Hornets team had Paul, David West, and Tyson Chandler, an eerily similar likeness to the three-headed monster of Paul-Griffin-DeAndre Jordan that the Clippers roll out. Peja Stojakovic played the role of J.J. Redick, while Birdman Anderson and Bonzi Wells played enforcer, ala Matt Barnes. What's doubly eerie: The 07-08 Hornets were coached by a former NBA guard who was born in 1961 (Byron Scott), they were top 5 in Offensive Rating, and they won 56 games. Just like the 14-15 Clippers.
The lesson as always? The Spurs are like the Simpsons, they've done it all before.