For the first time since 2007, the San Antonio Spurs are the last team standing in the Western Conference.
The more things change, the more these Spurs stay exactly the same. They'll tuck their 93-86 Game 4 victory away and dutifully prepare for the unparalleled challenge that awaits, using their extended layover to scout the opposition and enjoy some much-needed rest.
They won't get too excited about this win, and they won't fret too much about what happens next. Even if everyone else thinks they probably should.
Conventional wisdom suggests that as impressive as these Spurs have looked, the Miami Heat are a different beast altogether. They're the superhuman villain at the end of every B-movie—the bigger, badder Goliath archetype signaling all hope is lost.
The Heat haven't officially dismissed the Indiana Pacers, but who are we kidding? The Eastern Conference Finals are theirs to lose. Consensus on this point would be universal but for the fact that Pacers fans and hopeless romantics do in fact exist.
But if Indiana somehow guts out a lengthy series against Miami, the Spurs will be licking their chops for reasons that are pretty self-evident. There's only so much room in one postseason for feel-good stories.
The Pacers may be a more talented version of the Memphis Grizzlies, but they still wouldn't be favored against the Spurs—not with the way the Spurs have been playing lately.
For the record, yes, San Antonio is flawed. Excepting Game 1, Parker and Co. were unable to build anything resembling separation in the waning moments of regulation throughout the series. Two overtimes and a hard-fought Game 4 later, the Spurs somehow look unstoppable and thoroughly vulnerable at the same time.
They held on to win Game 4 despite several late charges that brought Memphis within three points. And it took an obscenely efficient 37 points (on 15-of-21 from the field) from Tony Parker to keep things under control.
At times, we've seen the Spurs' typically seamless offense stagnate. We've seen the three-point specialists go cold, and we've seen nearly flawless ball movement devolve into pure sloppiness. The first quarter of Game 3 against Memphis was a very real reminder than even the most well-oiled machines do weird things sometimes.
But for every misstep these Spurs make, there are stretches of brilliance that approach some rarely glimpsed exhibition of basketball nirvana.
These guys are good, and they're good enough to win a title against anyone.
Whether you give the lion's share of credit to Gregg Popovich's wizardry, Tim Duncan's longevity or Tony Parker's penchant for timely excellence, this much is certain: They do things the right way.
It's not so much that there's something special in the Spurs' DNA. It's that they have a discernible DNA in the first place—a way of doing things, a system, a reservoir of very successful institutional knowledge.
When faced with the kind of odds the Heat would create, that knowledge will give San Antonio a chance. Maybe even a pretty good chance.
Just when we'd all decided that San Antonio had become a spiffed-up remix of Mike D'Antoni's greatest hits, the playoffs happen and it's 1999 all over again. Tiago Splitter still has a ways to go on the David Robinson impersonation, but the modern-day Spurs are showing some loose resemblances to their stifling champion predecessors.
The Grizzlies never posted more than 93 points against San Antonio, but the real defensive success story was what happened toward the end of that second round against the Golden State Warriors.
After getting burned by Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in Games 1 and 2, the Spurs made adjustments and—helped by Curry's untimely ankle sprain—made a couple of scoring savants suddenly look mortal.
When they find themselves in the kind of grind-it-out games that typify playoff basketball, the Spurs are finding ways to win—no matter how ugly things have to get. And yet, this is also a team that's cracked 100 points eight times in these playoffs. This club wins at any pace and with an understated versatility.
Those 100-point games won't come easy against either Miami or Indiana, but nor are they as essential now that Pop once again has his troops exerting their will on both ends of the floor. There was a time when the sheer notion of LeBron James sparked nightmarish visions of Matt Bonner cowering under the basket in a fetal position. It's the emasculating meltdown every Spurs fan secretly dreads.
But it's also a fear that's increasingly less founded. Kawhi Leonard is a very good, athletic and versatile defender. Though not a licensed LeBron-stopper, the second-year forward has become Pop's go-to defender on the wing for good reason.
San Antonio also gets important contributions from those role-guys like Danny Green and Cory Joseph, perimeter pests capable of playing smart, energetic defense.
Meanwhile, the Spurs' interior defense is deceptively stingy. Just ask Zach Randolph. That won't deter LeBron, because nothing deters LeBron, but it will frustrate an offense that cherishes easy baskets inside.
In the final analysis, the Spurs' defense isn't about Leonard or Green, or even Duncan and his superior paint-protecting instincts. It's about the chess match that Popovich has won so many times before, the execution and intensity he elicits from his team when games are on the line.
We probably won't see Tony Parker score 37 points again anytime soon, but we will see him cause problems whether he's hitting that mid-range jumper or not. Sooner or later, he's sure to draw the other team's best defender.
It was Tony Allen most recently, and it's likely to be LeBron James at some point in the Finals (or Paul George for those still hoping). Parker's drawing defensive attention via penetration and pick-and-roll situations like usual, but his mid-range game is returning to form in these playoffs, and not a moment too soon.
Going into the Finals, Parker is averaging 23 points and 7.2 assists in 37 minutes an outing. In every conceivable respect, he's raised his game to a level we haven't seen since 2009's first-round exit (when he averaged 28.6 over the course of five games against the Mavericks).
This will easily be the tallest task of Parker's postseason, but we are talking about a former NBA Finals MVP after all. And there's little doubt that he's better now—a more polished and diversified product than the shoot-first youngster San Antonio discovered.
The new Tony was on display in Game 2 against Memphis. Suffering through a painful 6-of-20 shooting slump, he decided to rack up 18 assists and make Lionel Hollins regret giving him so much attention.
His shooting could well elude him again in these Finals, but he'll still leave his mark one way or the other. At worst, the Spurs will play Parker off the ball at times, relying more heavily on the kind of team passing that defines this group at its best. With complementary playmakers like Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw keeping the rock moving, stopping Parker becomes a necessary but insufficient condition for shutting this offense down altogether.
The Spurs have weapons. Parker just happens to be the deadliest.
The Ageless One
What Tim Duncan is doing right now defies logic. After his production and consistency began trending downward over the last couple of seasons, the 2013 All-NBA First-Teamer is playing like a man possessed.
And it's no secret what's possessing him. Timmy's never been about personal accolades, but he wants a fifth ring badly. His dominant overtime performances in Games 2 and 3 against Memphis were retro in all the right ways, and that's something that has to give even the most fervent Heat fan some pause.
If Duncan can play like an All-Star against the Defensive Player of the Year, the always-rugged Andrew Bogut and the Lakers' star 7-footers, well, he just might be able to get a couple buckets against Birdman too.
It's all too easy to respectfully dismiss what Duncan's doing as a quasi-heroic Hall of Famer farewell routine, but the Big Fundamental is making a difference when it counts, winning games like it's 2007 all over again.
For LeBron James, it just might be.
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