Spurs serving notice, Magic's disappearing act & more
Posted: Tuesday March 13, 2007 12:34PM; Updated: Tuesday March 13, 2007 2:56PM
The NBA's hottest team plays in Texas, it owns the league's longest winning streak, and you get the feeling that the San Antonio Spurs are just starting to figure things out.
Gregg Popovich's squad is dominating opponents, winning by an average of 15.1 points over the 12-game winning streak it took into Tuesday night's game against the Clippers. The hot spell couldn't have come at a better time, in part because it's nice to start firing on all cylinders once March rolls around, but also because the Spurs also have the added pressure of trying to hang on to that third seed in the Western Conference, with the Jazz (who have won six straight) just 1˝ games behind.
A third seed means the Spurs would be able to miss the Rockets in the first round, while possibly putting off a matchup with the Mavericks until the conference finals. And though playoff wins over teams like the Lakers and Suns (San Antonio's projected opponents in the first two rounds) may not seem like a cakewalk, one has to consider just how good the Spurs have looked at times this season, and the idea that anything less than a championship run is a wasted season for this organization.
Now, I'm not going to give you the same tired retelling about how the Spurs were supposedly one Dirk Nowitzki free throw away from getting to the conference finals (and beyond, more than likely) last year. Had Jason Terry not been suspended for Game 6 of that second-round series, Dallas would have probably won it at home in the sixth game. Dallas had the better team last spring, and though it may still have the game's best player in Nowitzki (and the most obvious source of motivation after a Finals meltdown last June), I'm not so sure that the Spurs and Mavs aren't more evenly matched up this time around.
As it's been for years, the Spurs are dominating with defense, one that has vaulted to second in the NBA in defensive efficiency after floating around the top five since November.
It seems too easy a comparison, but we're enjoying it nonetheless: Avery Johnson's startling run as Mavs coach (128-34 record) reminds us of Phil Jackson's early years with the Chicago Bulls. Johnson hasn't influenced as profound a philosophical shift as Jackson did with that Chicago team, but he has turned what was once the fastest team in the NBA (second in possessions per game in 2003-04, Don Nelson's last full year as head coach) into a walk-it-up squad (28th in possessions per game this season) bent on efficient offense and a fine, fine defense. In Nellie's last year, the Mavs were 26th in a 29-team league in defensive efficiency. This year? Fifth. Personnel change has a bit to do with that, but not nearly as much as Johnson's influence.
Jackson took a Bulls team that was one of the slowest of its time under Doug Collins and taught it to run -- coincidentally, all while initiating a half-court offense that had been laughed out of the NBA in years past for being too lugubrious. And while Chicago's defense matured, its offense grew dominant; sort of the polar opposite of what we're seeing in Dallas, but as astonishing a turnaround.
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