Even with Tim Duncan back on the court, the Spurs' late-game struggles may frustrate San Antonio's title hopes.
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If you took a survey of the basketball punditry before the start of the 2004-05 playoffs, you'd probably have found that San Antonio was the consensus pick to take home the title. Indeed of SI.com's eight-pack of experts, six took the Spurs.
No surprise there. What's not to like about San Antonio? The Spurs finished second in the West behind Phoenix -- and that can be written off to Tim Duncan missing a host of games with a sprained ankle. When healthy, they appear to have the perfect mix of bona fide stars and cagey role-players, not to mention a deep bench. A balanced attack combining inside scoring, capable perimeter players, seasoned playoff performers and lockdown defense (and everyone knows that defense wins NBA championships right?) was supposed to add up to the third ring in seven years for this low-key Texas town.
Then along came the scorching Denver Nuggets who have in one game not only taken the early lead in the series, but also provoked a sudden rush of doubts about whether the Spurs are truly championship quality. Does San Antonio have an Achilles Heel? Does Denver know what it is?
The hallmark of the Spurs is supposed to be consistency. Night after night they play tight defense, execute on offense, generally go about their business and pull away from their foes in calm, convincing fashion. In games decided by 10 points or more, the Spurs boast a daunting 40-5 record.
Ah, but there's a flip side. In close games the Spurs have been vulnerable, managing only a 19-18 mark when the final margin is in single digits, and just 10-10 when the margin is five points or fewer.
The Nuggets, on the other hand, have been remarkable overall since the arrival of George Karl on the scene, but also very good in tight contests, posting an 8-2 record with Karl in games decided by five or less. So one might surmise that Denver could feel good about their chances if they could keep the game close entering the final minutes.
Since a couple of cheap buckets in garbage time can make a game seem closer than it really was, an alternative measure of team clutch performance would evaluate a team's performance over the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or in overtime when neither team was ahead by more than five points. In these circumstances the Spurs' net plus/minus was -9 this season, whereas the Nuggets were +39 with Karl and +33 all told.