This was the supposed to be the year that the Thunder rose to the top of the West. Kevin Durant and company have been battling for the top spot over the past few seasons, but the Spurs just haven't gone quietly into the night. And this year, despite Durant's MVP-caliber season, the Thunder were looking up - once again - to the Spurs in conference seeding.
We've seen the Spurs claim the top seed in the West only to falter before, but something seems different with this team. Tim Duncan is still working his magic, and even more role players were taught the Spurs way this year. Can Duncan get his elusive fifth ring this late in his career? Can Tony Parker stay healthy enough to lead the team? Can Manu Ginobili be an asset in the playoffs after being a liability in last year's?
Before we find out the answer to all those questions, we need to first see if the Spurs can handle their bitter rival in the Dallas Mavericks first. The team is starting to show their age as well, but they won't go away quietly either. Let's see what our numbers say about this first-round Western Conference showdown.
San Antonio Spurs (1)
Championship Odds: 15.5%
Dallas Mavericks (8)
Championship Odds: 1.4%
Regular Season Series – San Antonio 4, Dallas 0
The Spurs reigned supreme against one of their in-state rivals this year, and really, it wasn’t close. San Antonio won by at least six points in each contest and scored at least 106 points in every game they played against the Mavs this year. And on top of sweeping the series this season, the Spurs have won the last nine meetings between the two teams.
In their second matchup of this season, the Spurs won by 22, thanks in part to 52.6% shooting from the floor for the team. Tony Parker added seven dimes to his team-high 25 points, and Marco Belinelli thrived in the sixth man role in that game, contributing 17 points.
However, the bigger tale in the Spurs-Mavericks games this year has been their three-point shooting. The Spurs shot 43.3% from beyond the arc, well above their league-high 39.7% average. If the Spurs sharpshooters – Belinelli, Danny Green and Patrick Mills – can continue to hit from downtown, we could see another sweep.
How the Spurs Can Win
The Spurs will need to keep turning back Father Time. Their aging team is back at it yet again thanks to Coach Greg Popovich resting players at the most opportune times. The fact that they secured the top seed somehow still surprises many, when it shouldn’t. The Spurs' SRS, basketball-reference.com's Simple Rating System, of 8.00 is tops in the NBA. The SRS takes into account the average point differential in the games the Spurs played as well as their strength of schedule. The team also finished with the second-highest nERD in the NBA this year.
In maintaining the lofting ranking and pushing for yet another title, keeping Parker and Duncan healthy will be key. However, if either has an off game, players like Kawhi Leonard can easily up the slack. The original Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili may be aging, but the Spurs seem to be grooming Leonard, Mills, and Belinelli as their next set of three. The Spurs find ways for everyone to contribute, making them one of the biggest favorites to knock the Heat off their throne if they were indeed to meet in the finals.
Spurs Player to Watch – Marco Belinelli
There’s a myriad of players that could go here: the Big Fundamental for his near double-double every night; Tony Parker for his electrifying drives to the rim; Kawhi Leonard for doing a little bit of everything on the court. But I want to put the spotlight on Marco Belinelli, the Spurs biggest free agent signing this past offseason.
The Italian has put up career highs by shooting 48.5% from the field and 43.5% (seventh best in the league) from beyond the arc. Belinelli wasn’t asked to score a lot, but when he did, he made it count. His three-point shooting was so good that he contributed a 4.3 nERD score, which was higher than big-name guards such as Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, and even teammate Tony Parker. Belinelli may be the quietest weapon the Spurs have, but he will make a noticeable impact in the playoffs.
How the Mavericks Can Win
The Mavs will have to be at their best offensively if they want to win. Dallas is pretty lousy on defense according to the numberFire Power Rankings, coming into the playoffs as the ninth-worst defensive unit. The team’s nERD score makes them barely above average, but they finished the season with the third-highest offensive efficiency. If the Mavericks get others besides Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis sharing the scoring load, they could push the Spurs to their limit.
And don't think that the Mavericks can't keep up with the Spurs. They finished with a 47.4 field goal percentage on the season, tying the Clippers for the third-best mark in the league, and finishing only 1.2% behind the Spurs. The Mavericks could outshoot the Spurs from behind the arc as well; Jose Calderon's 191 three-pointers on the season were more than any Spurs player. And as a team, Dallas finished with the eighth most three-pointers made in the season. Dallas even finished with the second highest percentage of three-pointers made with 38.4%, second only to the Spurs' 39.7%. If the Mavericks get hot from three-point land, they have a puncher's chance at taking a game or two in the series.
Mavericks Player to Watch – Vince Carter
You may laugh that I put a 15-year veteran in this section, but Vince Carter has averaged 15 points per game against the Spurs coming off the bench, while his season average was only 11.9 points per game. Aiding Carter's point totals were his 146 three-pointers, second best on the team. Yes, as Nowtizki goes, so do Mavericks. But Carter put up 967 points, good for third highest on the team.
The biggest advantage for the Spurs is their supply of role players and three or four options that can take over on a given night. The Mavericks will need Nowitzki, Ellis, and Calderon to preform, but 16 to 20 points from the former dunk artist could go a long way to keep their season alive.
The Spurs have too much going for them right now. I didn't even mention the fact that they won 19 games in a row this season - you can't take that lightly. The quality of depth will overwhelm Dallas despite their high scoring and efficient offense. The Mavericks might keep a few games close, but in the end, a key turnover or missed three-pointer could end their season. While the two teams have been long rivals and we've seen many epic matchups between Dirk and Timmy, the Spurs will move past their in-state rivals fairly easily this year.
According to our algorithms: Spurs in 5
My final prediction: Spurs in 4