The NBA has long had the reputation of being the most predictable of team sports leagues, at least as far as the United States is concerned. The stereotype is that only a handful of teams every season are true contenders and that the rest are just happy to make the playoffs and to make a bit of a name for themselves. Certainly, the Spurs are the personification of the perennial contender, with their household-name stars, their collective experience, and their legendary coach. Though they've won "just" five titles in the past 16 years, San Antonio has earned a reputation that mythologizes and exaggerates their accomplishments somewhat. They carry with them an air of invincibility and, more importantly, inevitability.
The Spurs in the Duncan/Popovich Era have become a cliche. The regular season and opening rounds of the playoffs are one endless funtastic highlight reel, and then, once we get into the serious business of mid-May, there, always, are the Spurs, as the gatekeepers, waiting to ruin the party. Or, more aptly, they're literally the burly bouncer at the front door, waiting to bounce you from the playoffs.
It's true enough that the Warriors have had the best record all season, and with a historic scoring differential to boot. By any measure they should be the overwhelming favorites to win it all, Spurs or no. All along though the perception has been that San Antonio is the Warriors' kryptonite, that their combination of interior size with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, their agile and dogged wing defenders in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and the crafty playmaking of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili would be the ultimate test for the league darlings from Oakland. That the Spurs thumped the Warriors so handily the last time they met did nothing to alleviate that hypothesis.
It's one thing to win a bunch of games by blowout margins in the regular season. True greatness is measured in the crucible of the playoffs. Regardless of seeding, the Spurs would be the dragon to slay, for Golden State, for Cleveland, Atlanta, anybody. They were the team with the fewest variables to question and the most solutions to offer. You didn't have to worry about their nervousness or poise, their emotions or their health. No matter what they would be solid and make you beat them, instead of self-destructing as so many do.
And then, suddenly, they were gone, vanquished by the Clippers in a classic seven-game series that came right down to a last-second shot by a future Hall-of-Famer in Chris Paul. The Clippers had to play so far above their collective heads to beat San Antonio that now the Rockets seem almost like child's play to them in comparison.
I don't think I'm being a homer to suggest that the playoffs feel somewhat incomplete without the Spurs in round two. It all feels wrong, like there must have been some kind of clerical error or something, an invitation sent to the wrong address.
Yet here we are, with the NBA rudely deciding to stage their playoffs even without the Spurs, and I dare say that I don't think it's a coincidence that the underdogs in all four second-round series are up 2-1 and dreaming big. All eight of these teams legitimately seem to feel they have a real chance to win this thing now, and they should. Athletes of all stripes spout the same rhetoric about believing in themselves and refusing to quit, but it's mostly boilerplate nonsense and particularly so against the Spurs. It's my conservative estimate that at least half the teams the Spurs have played in the postseason in the Duncan/Popovich Era harbored no delusions about beating them and that number only increased once the Spurs got into a closeout situation. For example, Portland last year was happy to just win one game at home in front of their fans, while players on the Heat openly admitted after Game 5 that they knew the series was over after Game 4.
Maybe I'm delusional, but I don't quite see the Grizzlies having this much life in them if they knew the Spurs were waiting in the conference finals. I don't see the Wizards fighting their guts out, without John Wall, if they knew they were going to be obliterated in the Finals against an experienced West juggernaut. The Warriors have a super team on paper, but their greenness is a glowing neon light of vulnerability. Teams are going at them, making them prove they're as good as their numbers suggest they are. The Spurs haven't had that burden of proof against the lesser lights for some time.
The playoffs continue, without the Spurs, and for once we have no idea what's going to happen. You're welcome, America.
(Would this be a bad time to mention that I picked the Bulls to beat the Clippers in the Finals back in October?)