Including Friday night, there are 13 days left in the NBA’s regular season. There are pitched battles for significant seeds taking place in both conferences – mainly the Eastern one – but we don’t really care about the Eastern Conference, because it is terrible. As such, this scribe is going to look way out West for something interesting, and focus on the two most prominent Seed Fights 2013 in the Western bracket.
Up first? The race for eighth, featuring the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. The Spurs are currently a half-game up on the Thunder.
After years of unwavering confidence heading into the postseason, it’s a nervous and unfortunate time to be a fan of the San Antonio Spurs. The team entered the 2011 postseason with the West’s best record, and were dumped unceremoniously soon after by an underrated Memphis Grizzlies team in the first round. The Spurs rolled into the Western Conference finals last year on the heels of an 18-game winning streak, took the first two against Oklahoma City, and then lost four in a row during a borderline-shocking six-day stint that end their season.
Now, with Manu Ginobili already out until the start of May with an injury that looks like it could linger for far longer, worries surround point guard and MVP candidate Tony Parker as he attempts to steady himself while working through an ankle and shin injury that even coach Gregg Popovich is on record as being “very concerned” about.
As our Dan Devine noted on Friday, even though the Spurs have myriad perimeter helpers that can keep the ball swinging and the team’s seventh-ranked offense cracking, Parker is the noted straw that stirs this team’s drink, and his penetration and scoring ability will be missed even by a Spurs team that seems capable of overcoming just about anything. No amount of derring-do from Nando De Colo or skip passing from Boris Diaw can overcome what Parker brings to this particular table, and it would certainly be in San Antonio’s best interests if they decided to sit their star with 15 days between Friday and the start of the 2013 NBA playoffs.
Earlier this week, Yahoo! Sports’ Marc Spears broke down why either team might be shooting for second, so as to avoid the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. It’s an interesting and understandable concept, even if we don’t truly think the Spurs and Thunder would passive/aggressively tank on purpose so as to avoid the Lakers.
It’s true that Los Angeles has wanted the playoffs to start since last August, treating the regular season like an afterthought from autumn to spring (the lack of seasons in Los Angeles may contribute to that), but this is also a re-formatted Laker team that has lost seven of its last eight Conference semifinal games. Are they that fearsome?
And aren’t the Thunder that much better?
The Thunder, quite healthy and winners of five of six, are not one of those white hot teams that wants the regular season end immediately. They’d like to make up that half-game advantage on San Antonio, we’re guessing, and don’t mind in the slightest if they turn out to meet the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. Oklahoma City has beaten the Lakers three out of four times this year, losing a nine-point game in the defeat but winning the other three by a combined 38 points.
The Rockets don’t appear to be any tougher of an out, OKC has topped them by 22 and 30 points before losing by three to Houston in February. Still, there’s the sneaking suspicion that the ever-improving Rockets, growing in confidence game by game, could pose quite the challenge with James Harden’s drive and kick game pairing up against his former team.
San Antonio has four playoff teams to take on versus two lottery teams to discount, but in this league (and with these opponents) contests in April are hard to predict.
A game on Saturday with the mercurial Hawks would appear to be an easy out for the heady Spurs, but Tony Parker’s injury and Tiago Splitter’s up and down spring (to say nothing of his beard) may get in the way. Three needed days off (from game action, at least) follow before San Antonio takes on the frustrated Nuggets, now working without Danilo Gallinari and Ty Lawson, in the rough confines of Colorado.
What would appear to be an easy out at home against Sacramento follows, and then the Spurs take on a tough back-to-back featuring the Lakers and Warriors; two teams that are both fighting for playoff seeding, with both contests taking place in California. A home game against the rehabilitated (mostly) Minnesota Timberwolves ends the season.
The Thunder have what could be a League Pass classic (they’ve done it before) on Friday night on the road against the Indiana Pacers. A nationally-televised showdown with the streaking New York Knicks takes place on national TV on Sunday afternoon, followed by what could be a rough three-game road trip featuring matchups against Utah, Golden State, and Portland. Those last two games are a back-to-back, and as good as the Thunder are … these are NBA teams. Sometimes paper doesn’t play.
Home games against a goofball Sacramento Kings team and Milwaukee Bucks squad that is in no danger of moving up or down from their eighth seed round out the season. A team as talented as the Thunder could tear this particular run up, but there are significant road blocks to consider, here. Starting tonight.
The planning for this column, sadly, got a whole lot easier as Thursday’s curious Tony Parker performance turned into Friday’s bad news about his shin. The Spurs were already on uneasy footing heading into this final stretch with Manu Ginobili sitting, and what looked like a well-earned two-week respite for Mssrs. Manu, Tim and Tony turned into something completely different with the two guards having to mind their maladies while Duncan shoulders the burden.
This is why, as Marc Spears suggested, a pairing with the Houston Rockets may not be the worst idea. Not because coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t do anything but laugh when staring across the sideline at Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, but because two weeks rest for the stars (and veterans, including the injured Stephen Jackson) and a whole lot of seasoning for the team’s bench could pay huge dividends in a playoff run that is still two weeks from starting. Somehow.
The Spurs and Thunder have split their season series, but the Thunder have the better conference record (a tie-breaker, in this instance), which makes just a half-game jump on OKC’s side enough to take the team’s first top conference seeding since … well, we’re not going there. We refuse to count the accomplishments of the legendary Seattle SuperSonics amongst the Thunder’s achievements.
What we will do is assume that the Thunder take the top seed, given the current and unfortunate climate. Even with the Spurs’ injuries in place, Oklahoma City will have earned it.