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The Spurs, their competition, and the NBA’s Death Star

San Antonio, Houston, and Los Angeles are jockeying for position; and this week’s games have helped settle the early pace.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

This year, Golden State stopped being the “gritty little Warriors” and instead became the Death Star. Kevin Durant, one of the best 5 players in the league, joined the powerhouse Warriors. Understand I do not blame KD at all. He decided, as I would have, that he would rather live in the Bay Area than Oklahoma. He decided, as I would have, that he would rather play with Curry, and Thompson, and Iggy, and for Steve Kerr, than spend another year with Russell Westbrook and whoever is coaching OKC. KD had given his all for OKC, and was free to play where and with whom he wanted.

However, even though I had adopted the Warriors as my back-up team (behind the Spurs, naturally) several years ago, KD’s move it made it hard for me (and others) to root for the Ws. The collection of superstars seemed somewhat like the Big Three Heat team we had all rooted against. I still like most of the Warrior players, and Steve Kerr. I know logically I should root for a team with guys I like who also play the game the way it should be played, but my heart does not allow me to root for the Death Star.

Once KD went to Golden State, this regular season in the West became largely about which teams could come in second and third – and thereby have a fighting chance to avoid the Death Star until the Western Conference Finals.

At the start of the season, the conventional wisdom was that the Spurs and Clippers were prohibitive favorites to be second and third, and that the Clippers had the likely edge over the Spurs for the second seed and home court advantage if the two teams met in the playoffs. Conventional wisdom was that all of the other Western Conference teams were a significant step below the top three teams – Houston would not be good enough defensively, Utah was too young, Blazers too reliant on their two star guards, etc.

Of course, conventional wisdom is often wrong — and it was wrong about Houston, at least thus far in the season. Everyone who watched the Rockets vs. Spurs game Tuesday night knows that the Rockets are really defending. Since Phil D’Antoni has never before emphasized defense, you can be fairly certain that one of Houston’s assistants is coaching up their D – and doing a great job. The Rockets, not the Clippers, may be the Spurs’ primary opponent for the second seed, leaving the Clippers to try to avoid the dreaded second round matchup with the Bay Area Boys.

Which is why this week’s games for the Spurs, first against Houston and Thursday in LA against the Clippers, were so educational.

After watching the Spurs steal one against Houston on NBA TV Tuesday night, I was lucky enough, along with super-son Pablo, to be invited to the Spurs - Clippers game Thursday night. BYU hoops legend Steve Carlston had scored a Staples Center luxury box for the game, and knowing my Spurs obsession, invited us along along with Entertainment Tonight star Kevin Frazier. Such is life in LA. (Very good guy, by the way, who knows a lot about hoops.

Watching a game from the luxury box is akin to watching a game live but while still in your living room. Except the beer in your living room does not cost $11.

The game lost a bit of its predictive value because Blake Griffin, who normally gives the Spurs fits, is out for the next 4 to 6 weeks. Nonetheless, the game counted in the standings and there were many lessons to be learned. First, when the Spurs shoot as badly as they did Thursday night, even the Griffin-less Clippers can outscore them. Second, the Spurs need Manu on the floor for 20 minutes to be their best. The difference between Tuesday’s win and Thursday’s loss may have been that Manu played in one and not the other. Third, playing a team right after they lose a good player to injury is often dangerous. While it is hard to be up for every game in the long season, the Clips were clearly motivated last night – they even avoided getting their quota of two to three technicals. Of course, they also showed that the conventional wisdom (that the Clippers would struggle without Griffin) was wrong, at least for one night.

The good news about the week is that the Spurs knocked off Houston, and therefore still have a bit of a cushion over the Clippers and Rockets. The Spurs thus remain in the (early) driver’s seat for the second seed. If they can stay there, and prevail in the semi-finals, the Spurs can then attack the Death Star in the Western Conference Finals. Hopefully, the fourth seed (probably the Clippers with a healthy Griffin) will have been able to draw off the enemy fighters protecting the Death Star.

If I remember correctly, the Spurs beat the Warriors 129 – 100 in the first game this season. Like the Death Star, the Warriors are not invincible, and can be blown up. It will be very hard to do – but if Luke Skywalker could blow up the Death Star in his little X-Wing Starfighter, perhaps the Spurs can find and exploit the Warriors’ weakness. We just need Obi Wan Kenobi to deliver the secret plans.

Come to think of it , Popovich does look a bit like Obi Wan.