The final days of an NBA season are usually some of the strangest in American professional sports. This season is certainly no different. I liken the experience to the final week of high school. Whenever that may have been for you, try to remember back to those final few days before your passage into the “real” world.
There was a much different feeling and dynamic to the student body. Those smart kids who busted their butts to be in the top ten percent of the class? They were set. Most of them knew what they were doing for college, something more prestigious than whatever you had in mind. They were relaxing, mailing it in, maybe *gasp* skipping a class or two. At the other end of the spectrum, the slackers hadn’t changed much. They’d known they were going into a trade, a community college, or moving down to mom’s basement, for months. No MIT or Harvard for them. Heck, they might be taking it even easier as the year wound down. Then there was those in the middle. Pushing for their eighth semester grades to win that financial aid appeal at their prospective university, or narrowing down their choice of higher education over certain factors like cost, location or extra curriculars. But that still didn’t prevent them from partaking in some of the wacky festivities that the end of high school had to offer.
You can really break down the league into three similar demographics down the stretch. Those brainiacs at the top? They’ve had a top playoff seed locked up for weeks (Thunder, Clippers, Raptors, Cavaliers). They’re coasting to the finish line. Except those few elites at the top, chasing a 4.0 GPA that will end up meaning very little in the end to those on the outside (Warriors, Spurs). Even though it seems important at the moment, isn’t it what you do after your education that ends up making the biggest impact on not only yourself and your peers, but the world in general?
Then there’s those bottom dwellers. They’ve been out of the running for the postseason for weeks (Magic, Kings, Nuggets, Bucks), maybe even months (Pelicans, Wolves, Knicks, Suns). Maybe they didn’t even intend to get there in the first place (76ers, Lakers), content with their status as a lottery bound team.
Of course, those who still have something to work for are usually the most exciting and unpredictable around this time. This group usually varies from year to year, which keeps it even more intriguing. Who makes the push successfully (Hornets, Blazers), and who ends up blending in with those slackers (Wizards, Bulls) who are lottery bound? And who makes it too close to call (Mavericks, Jazz, Pacers, Rockets, Pistons) until grades come out when it’s all said and done?
Just because you’ve found your spot in this average-at-best analogy doesn’t mean you aren’t going to participate in the late season antics of the NBA. Everyone can join in on the fun. Let’s take a look at some of the more entertaining things that have occurred in the NBA over the past week.
- The Grizzlies set the NBA record for most players used on a roster in a single season (28). They’re on pace to make the playoffs.
- The Pelicans have shut down nine players (eight from their opening night roster) for the season. Last night they started Toney Douglas, James Ennis, Dante Cunningham, Alexis Ajinca and Omer Asik. That lineup averages 26.9 points per game combined.
- The Kings have “rested” each of their top six scorers over the past two games. Saving up some energy to sit around all summer? (Although I do understand sitting Cousins)
- The Nets, much to Celtics fans delight (Boston owns Brooklyn’s draft pick), have shut down their top two scorers (Lopez and Young) after already losing their third and fourth highest scorers to an injury and a buyout respectively.
- The Warriors, chasing the best regular season record in NBA history, played everyone against the 26-win Timberwolves at home Tuesday, and lost in overtime.
You get my point. It’s craziness right now, and it’s not likely to stop before the playoffs begin. Harken back to the final day of the 2014-15 season and you might recall Miami running out six players (one of which was Udonis Haslem, who played a grand total of 7 minutes) in a win against Philadelphia. Michael Beasley (now of the Rockets) and James Ennis (Pelicans) hoisted a combined 47 shots that night. Something called a Zoran had 22 points. It was madness, and I can’t wait to see (from a basketball fan perspective) what the final week of this NBA season has in store for us.
But through all that entertaining mess of a product that is rolled out across the NBA landscape in early April, we aren’t here for those sideshows. When the final bell rings and school is out for summer, all we care about is how San Antonio’s report card is reading, and where the Spurs are going at the next level. Luckily, they’ve done this before and know how to game the system a bit to give themselves the best shot at achieving their goals after all this fun ends and the real work begins.
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What many casual fans fail to realize (in my estimation) is the toll that making deep playoff runs year after year takes on an NBA player’s body and on a coach’s mind. The extra month, sometimes two, wears you down. Which makes what teams like the Spurs (players and coaches alike) do every season that much more impressive. For example, Duncan and Popovich have participated in 241 playoff games since 1998. That’s basically an extra three seasons of NBA basketball.
Through all of this perceived mastery, five titles and countless series victories, San Antonio is still learning how to approach the postseason in the best way possible. They set the trend over the last decade, resting players during the heat of the regular season, to ensure that they would enter mid-April with an A+ in Health. But last season, the Spurs realized that home court becoming more of a major factor that they needed to account for. After losing in the first round on the road in Game 7 last season, it was clear that there must be a bit more urgency to securing home court advantage, at least for the first series or two.
With the unprecedented signing of LaMarcus Aldridge, then David West and even Boban Marjanovic in the offseason, it has allowed Tim Duncan to play the least significant role of his 18 year career. Playing in only 58 games to this point and averaging five and a half points less per game than his previous low, a quick check of his per 36 minute stats show that Duncan is finally slowing down. Some can be attributed to the usage loss to Aldridge and of course the ascendance of Kawhi Leonard, but there’s no question that it’s all coming to an end (finally) for the Big Fundamental.
Then there’s Manu Ginobili, whose nickname El Contusion, is a perfect representation of how fragile he actually is. In his 13 years, he has never played a full season. Coincidentally, or maybe not, he’s played 56 games this season, with almost the same amount of wear and tear on his body as Duncan this season (ok, maybe he’s got him beat in the groin area).
But what really hurt the Spurs against the Clippers last playoffs was the inability of Tony Parker to hunt the paint and draw two defenders. While he’s not the Finals MVP caliber player of the late oughts, or even the threat he was against Miami in both the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals, Parker has maintained his health this season, and performed well in big matchups. He’s still got some left in the tank, and the Spurs will need it all from now until June.
As I mentioned earlier, health and seeding were the primary focuses of the organization back in November, and to this point they have achieved both. While still not the number one overall seed, the Spurs have set the franchise record for wins, and you’re just nitpicking if you complain about coming in a regular season second to the team who will likely tie or break the all-time wins record. As for the health of the roster, they’d have to be given a solid ‘A’. Boris Diaw skipped the current road trip with an adductor injury, however it’s plausible to speculate it’s just a precautionary move. Other than a few bumps, bruises and knees to the manhood, San Antonio has positioned themselves in a prime spot for another run to the Western Conference finals (where I think we can all agree at this point, the eventual champion will advance).
My belief in karma, especially in sports (looking at you Joe Lacob), requires me to mention that even if the Spurs rest players down the stretch, the team isn’t immune from a freak injury. Recall the final game of the 2010-11 season, where Ginobili “hyperextended” his elbow. After the Spurs loss in the first round to the eighth seeded Memphis Grizzlies, it was revealed that Ginobili, who played five of the six games in that series (averaging 20.6 points per game!), had actually broken his arm on the final day of the regular season.
So knock on the nearest wood, collectively hold our breath, and hope, pray, wish or whatever will help you calm your nerves until that final bell rings next Wednesday night in Dallas, and that the Spurs current 4.0 GPA doesn’t end up getting tagged with an incomplete in the final days of the regular season. Alice Cooper is waiting in the wings, and then the real fun begins.