You can keep debating about who's best positioned to battle through the 2013-14 postseason, but this much has already been established: The San Antonio Spurs are the regular season's most dominant team.
By a long shot.
Their 103-77 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Monday night proved as much, just in case the prior 17 consecutive wins didn't already have you convinced. These Spurs are making history at the best possible time, cultivating a confidence that could be devastating come the playoffs.
The Spurs treated the romp like a playoff game, putting the ball back in Tony Parker's hands and watching him lead the club with 22 points. That hasn't always been the case during this streak, a testament to San Antonio's depth and willingness to share the ball.
The Pacers, meanwhile, took another step in the wrong direction—watching their grip on the Eastern Conference slip away and any remaining mental edge along with it. This tale of two cities is a crash course in how and when contenders start peaking. The Spurs are doing it at the right time, affording themselves the ability to rest key contributors in the season's waning days.
Indiana will struggle to regroup, much as it did Monday night after San Antonio jumped out to a 10-point lead by the end of the first quarter. But for a third quarter that narrowed the gap ever so slightly, the Pacers looked outmatched all game long—their defenders overwhelmed by ball movement and their offense stymied by a deceptively rigid Spurs defense.
It didn't always come this easily for the Spurs this season. Early on, they looked vulnerable against the league's better teams, losing to teams like the Thunder, Clippers and Trail Blazers, looking like a formidable but secretly fragile beast.
Things changed at some point after San Antonio's annual Rodeo Road Trip. These Spurs have found themselves—at just the right time. And it didn't happen by accident.
San Antonio has spent much of the season with minor injuries disrupting its ability to develop any kind of rhythm. Tony Parker has only played in 62 of the club's 74 games. Kawhi Leonard missed 14 games in January and February. Danny Green missed 10 straight.
On the one hand, those kinds of injuries have obvious implications for perimeter play. San Antonio was without its two best stoppers for a significant stretch, without its leading scorer for another span.
But the damage was even more pronounced for a team like the Spurs. They depend so heavily on a motion offense that places a premium on things like timing and chemistry. Everybody has to know where everybody else is supposed to be—and everybody else has to actually be there. Anything short of that leads to confusion, turnovers and, ultimately, stagnation.
"It's been piecemeal back and forth, and we haven't really had a consistent sort of run," Popovich said. "I think that's got a lot to do with it. We've just got to keep plugging here and there until everybody comes back. You just deal with it."
And the Spurs certainly dealt with it, maintaining a respectable record and waiting for a month like March to come along. Lesser teams would have folded—or at least taken a potentially irreparable step backward. San Antonio used it as a learning experience, giving minutes to guys like Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills.
Those minutes have paid off. According to Hoopsstats.com, San Antonio's bench ranks first league-wide in points and assists. The second unit has become adept at breaking games open in the second quarter. Most teams hope the bottom half of the rotation can hold on to a lead, but San Antonio's actually expands leads more often than not.
In short, health has meant two things for San Antonio: a fluid system and unmatched depth. Those are the kind of force multipliers that make average talent look unbeatable, that make the Spurs winners of 18 straight.
We know these aren't the same Spurs who used to shut opponents down. This isn't like the twin-towered team that claimed San Antonio's first title. It's doubtful a team like that could even exist in today's NBA.
Relatively speaking, though, this is a very good defensive team. On the season, San Antonio ranks fourth in points allowed and seventh in opponents' field-goal percentage. But the more telling indicator is what this team has done against its playoff competition during the streak.
Holding the Pacers to 77 points speaks for itself. But the Spurs have also held the Warriors and Trail Blazers to 90 apiece, and the Heat to just 87. When the big games are on the line, San Antonio's defense elevates to a more playoff-like intensity and the results show.
Popovich's philosophy may finally be sinking in with this generation of Spurs. Offense comes and goes, but defense wins championships.
San Antonio's rotations are looking sharper, and passing lanes increasingly clogged. Pop's defense forced 15 turnovers against the Pacers, five from Paul George alone. Miami turned the ball over 20 times earlier in March.
The season-wide defensive numbers won't blow you away, but that's because the Spurs exert effort selectively, when they actually need to (and because Leonard and Green both missed extended time). That ability to flip a switch is the trademark of a team that doesn't only work hard, but plays smart.
That could be the difference in the playoffs, too. The Spurs haven't overexerted themselves, effortlessly putting up points in bunches against lesser opponents and clamping down on an as-needed basis. When that becomes a nightly requirement, San Antonio should still have the juice to get it done.
Statistically, Duncan doesn't stand out as this team's most important contributor. If anything, it was Leonard's return from injury that seems as responsible as anything for sparking the Spurs' fortunes. But a closer look at the Big Fundamental suggests he's as essential as ever.
On the one hand, he was uniquely instrumental in pushing San Antonio's streak into historic territory.
He posted 29 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals in the first of two back-to-back games against the Denver Nuggets. He scored another 20 against Denver the game after that.
But the truly illustrative factor has been his willingness to defer. Duncan's March could be a precursor of things to come for San Antonio. He averaged a season-low 11.2 field-goal attempts per game, in part because of the rest that so many lopsided wins afforded him. But it wasn't just about sitting out fourth quarters.
Duncan also spent March averaging a season-high 3.9 assists. He's looking for cutters and rewarding his teammates when they move off the ball. And his work from the top of the key in high-low situations is as good as any big man in the game, rivaling Marc Gasol's passing in Memphis.
Most impressively, Duncan's been doing his damage in just over 28 minutes per game. He's making those minutes count, rebounding and defending with the best of them during his limited opportunities. This isn't a man confined to the bench because of old age. He's rewarded with ample rest because his impact on the game is so efficient.
Good as these Spurs have been, nothing's really proven until this team does something in the playoffs. There remains an unsavory NBA Finals stench surrounding everything Silver and Black, even during these best of regular-season times.
Will the Spurs remain dominant when it counts?
The Western Conference is as deep as ever, so nothing will come easily—not even in the first round. Unless injuries once again ravage San Antonio's competition, it's hard to see them sweeping through two series like they did last time around (against the L.A. Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies). More protracted series could of course become problematic, draining the Spurs of life before they even have another shot at the Heat.
That said, the Spurs are clicking right along and should make quick work of whomever they face in the first round. After that, there are fewer certainties.
If the playoff picture remains the same as it looks today (itself anything but certain), the Spurs would face either the Houston Rockets or Portland Trail Blazers in the second round. Both teams have given San Antonio trouble, and both can score lots and lots of buckets. The Spurs will be fine so long as they can turn up that defensive intensity that's characterized their streak. A return to the Western Conference Finals is very doable.
Dealing with the Oklahoma City Thunder is another matter altogether. With a healthy Russell Westbrook, the Thunder could actually walk in as the favorites—even if they remain the second seed. They've beaten San Antonio twice, with a third meeting coming up on Thursday. But the Spurs can take some solace in those losses coming in November and December. Things have changed since then.
A return to the NBA Finals will ultimately depend on continued health and execution. San Antonio's formula for success can work against the best of the best, but it's a formula with very little margin for error. If the Spurs are beat up and depleted, this postseason could be shorter than anticipated.
If all goes according to Popovich's master planning, however, those 2013 Finals will be a distant memory soon enough.