With 25 games remaining on their schedule, the San Antonio Spurs are gearing up for the stretch run before the playoffs begin. The team is currently number one in the NBA at 47-10, but are still not at the level they need to be at come April.
The Spurs will be looking to figure out the best way to lock-up home court, stay healthy and improve their defense.
So in no particular order, I’ve compiled a list of the top five objectives to watch for in these final 25 games before the playoffs begin. Please note these numbers were based off games played prior to last night’s Spurs win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
1. Get some rest and avoid the doctor
It is vital that the Spurs have a fresh unit by the time the playoffs come around. As I wrote in Views From The Couch on Tuesday, Manu is already the first player that is beginning to be affected by fatigue. After carrying the team for the first three months of the season, his production has begun to decline.
Manu is currently averaging 31.1 minutes per game. If the team can get him averaging anywhere from 28-30 minutes per night, and on occasion rest him on back-to-back nights. This could be the best method to preserve his body and keep him fresh for the playoffs.
Tim Duncan is averaging 28.8 minutes per game. Tim still looks fresh, and keeping him under 30 minutes this season has worked well. If he can stay along this pace, all signs are pointing to a Duncan with a full tank, ready to dominate in April.
Tony Parker is averaging 32.7 minutes per game and I expect him to either increase his minutes or slightly decrease to 31 minutes. Recently, Parker has taken the drivers seat in the Spurs racing machine (team) and has done so at a very efficient rate. Expect him to continue to lead the team offensively for the final two months.
The Dallas Mavericks didn’t know Caron Butler would be out with a season ending injury. The Portland Trailblazers didn’t know they’d lose Brandon Roy again. Why am I mentioning these players? Because in basketball, you never know when an injury is coming. As Spurs fans, for a moment against the Warriors earlier in the season, we thought we might have lost Duncan. The point is you can’t help it if a player gets injured. If it happens, it just happens. There’s no way to tell? You just have to hope for the best every single night and that the players stay injury-free. Let’s hope the Spurs can “avoid the doctor” at all cost.
2. Improve D-E-F-E-N-S-E and keep gunslinging
You cannot win a championship unless you play defense. That is just a fact. If it weren’t true, the Phoenix Suns would have won a trophy every year with Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudamire. The Spurs players and staff know their defense must be performing at its highest level in the playoffs to have a shot at the ultimate prize. Recently there have been flashes where the Spurs show that they may be molding their defense into an elite unit.
Here’s a month-by-month breakdown on how the defense is progressing:
- October: 104 ppg
- November: 98.13 ppg
- December: 95.87 ppg
- January: 95.73 ppg
- February: 93.44 ppg
As you can see, each month the numbers continue to drop. In the month of February there have been major defensive quarter showings. Recently in the third or fourth quarter during a game, the Spurs might hold their opponent under 20 points. This was seen several times during the rodeo road trip.
I’d say the Spurs are currently playing defense at an 80% level of their potential. That is from viewing them as holding teams under 20 points for one solid quarter. If they can do it for two quarters consistently, I’d move them up to 85%. Then if they played three full quarters of defense, I’d go with 90% and etc.
The rebounding woes are there (especially in losses), but with the trade deadline on Thursday, the Spurs most likely will have to rely on Duncan, DeJuan Blair, Antonio McDyess, Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter to try and hide the rebounding weakness as much as possible. This is the 2011 frontline and they’ve only given up 10 losses as a unit. Rebounding is an issue, but if you can find ways to hide it, then the strategy may work.
Gunslinging means scoring over 100 points in a game. The Spurs have scored 100 points 38 times in their first 57 games. That’s at a rate over 50% (66% to be exact). That means that through the entire season, the Spurs are still scoring points at a very high rate. As the trend shows, they will be able to score points consistently. The gunslinging should continue heading into the playoffs.
3. Robin must produce
The young players will need to continue to play at an efficient rate. The new trend has become a combination of Manu, Tim or Tony dominating a game along with a young player having a stellar night. Blair, Gary Neal, Hill and Bonner have all come off the bench and had outstanding nights on different occasions (15+ point games). Even Richard Jefferson can be accounted on for a certain number of games, you couldn’t write that last year.
A key reason why the Spurs have continued to score many points this season is because of the young role players they have. Hill, Neal and Blair can push the tempo and perform efficiently, even while the big three are taking a break. If the role players can continue to be the “Robin” on different nights and help out “Batman” (Tim, Tony, or Manu), then resting the “Big Three” won’t be a problem.
4. Tiago, swat that injury bug
Splitter has had an unfortunate season dealing with nagging injuries. From missing training camp to not even finishing a dunk without getting hurt, Tiago has not had any luck with his health. The Spurs will need Tiago to find a consistent pattern of playing in games. If Tiago is not present, the frontline will have to be held by Duncan, Blair, McDyess and Bonner. Let’s hope the injury bug can leave Tiago alone so he can get into games, find a spot on the frontline and provide that fifth frontcourt player the Spurs will desperately need.
5. Game 7 must be at the AT&T Center
The last objective the Spurs will need to complete is to lock-up and secure home court for the playoffs. This will not be an easy task though.
I made a point system on how to calculate the toughest schedule. Here’s my system:
- There are 14 teams that say “We know we can beat you”: Boston, New York, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago, Dallas, San Antonio, New Orleans, Atlanta, Miami, Orlando, Oklahoma City,and Portland.
- Nine teams that say “You may win, but we’re putting up a fight!”: Philadelphia, Denver, Utah, Golden State, Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix, Indiana, Milwaukee, Houston, Memphis, and Charlotte.
- Seven teams that ask themselves “Are we going to get blown out tonight?”: New Jersey, Toronto, Sacramento, Cleveland, Detroit, Washington and Minnesota.
After categorizing the teams, I assigned them points from greatest to least.
- “We know we can beat you” teams: 4 points
- Back-to-Back games: 3 points
- “You may win, but we’re putting up a fight!” teams: 2 points
- “Are we going to get blown out tonight?” teams: 1 point
Let’s use the Spurs as an example. Of their final 25 games, they play:
- “We know we can beat you” teams: 12 games x 4 points = 48 points
- Back to back games: 7 games x 3 points = 21 points
- “You may win, but we’re putting up a fight!” teams: 9 games x 2 points = 18 points
- “Are we going to get blown out tonight?” teams: 5 games x 1 point = 5 points
When you add it all up the Spurs had a 92-point toughness schedule level.
After I accumulated all top 5 NBA teams, here’s what I found:
- San Antonio Spurs: 92 points
- Dallas Mavericks: 91 points
- Los Angeles Lakers: 90 points
- Miami Heat: 85 points
- Boston Celtics: 83 points
So as you look at my point system, the Spurs actually have the toughest schedule to finish the year while the Boston Celtics have the easiest schedule down the stretch.
Even though as of Monday night the Spurs have a five game lead over the Celtics, it will be a challenge for the Spurs to stay at number one overall while having the toughest schedule of any contender down the stretch. Attaining home court will not be an easy task.
So Spurs fans, these are my top five objectives the Spurs need to complete in order to be ready to compete and chase that precious fifth championship. Please share your thoughts.