And another one gone
For all intents and purposes, the Spurs had wrapped up their second round series with the Portland Trail Blazers, having led by double-digits for longer than I could remember them up by less than 10.
But with just a few minutes remaining, Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” piped over the AT&T Center sound system, courtesy of the folks running the PA system. The classic tune summed up San Antonio’s march to its third straight Western Conference Finals, how the Spurs have operated since drafting Kawhi Leonard in 2011 and the machine-like process with which the silver and black dismiss the league’s up-and-coming playoff teams year after year.
At the center of it all this year has been Leonard. After Tony Parker went down with a right hamstring injury in the second quarter, Leonard took it upon himself to create plays for the Spurs, which he did in finishing with 22 points, seven rebounds, five steals and the first podium game of his career.
Going somewhat contrary to the previous paragraphs, this is Leonard’s third season in the NBA with as many trips to the Western Conference Finals. Any and all learning experiences were dealt with on the fly. While he’s been blessed to land on a team of veterans who have been there, done that, Leonard has by no means been riding coattails to the top.
He’s just 22 years old and expects the world. When asked after Game 5 who he would rather play, between the Oklahoma City Thunder (who lead the other Western Conference Semifinal series 3-2) or the Los Angeles Clippers, Leonard said it didn’t matter to him. No disrespect, but he’s got bigger fish to fry.
“Whoever’s the best team, I guess, I wanna play them” Leonard said in a solid but unspectacular postgame podium debut. “It’s gonna prepare us for the Finals.”
He’s not looking past the Western Conference Finals, he simply sees it as a stepping stone to what’s really important. For perspective, Chris Paul has yet to make a conference finals in his nine seasons.
Most years, this one included, the Spurs find themselves in the postseason facing, if not the flavor of the month in the NBA, one of the teams poised to be a contender in the Western Conference for the foreseeable future. And just as quickly as observers—myself included—talk themselves into said flavors, San Antonio dispatches them to a summer of growing expectations and increasing pressure, ripe for infection with “the disease of more.”
The 2013-14 Portland Trail Blazers join a long list of teams who have faced the Spurs in the postseason and resigned to obtaining merely a “learning experience” out of the ordeal. High hopes but little playoff experience, these teams were upstarts with the potential to take down San Antonio. In the end, however, they were sent packing for the offseason with the expectations of improvement waiting for them when they arrived for training camp at the end of the summer. Notables on this list include last season’s Golden State Warriors and the 2007-08 Chris Paul-led New Orleans Hornets. These squads were a year away and the lessons learned from having faced the Spurs was going to help lift them to new heights.
While that progression works in some ways—teams don’t just make the Conference or NBA Finals right off the bat, there is something to be said for taking your lumps in the postseason over the span of two or three seasons—the realities of the NBA don’t always allow for that linear growth.
After losing to the Spurs, those Chris Paul Hornets brought in glue guy James Posey, fresh off a NBA title with the Celtics, in hopes of securing the missing piece for an NBA Finals berth. They battled injuries in 2008-09 however, and the team lost in the first round to the Denver Nuggets—including getting blown out by 58 points (GOOD LORD) in Game 4 of that series.
Likewise, one could argue that the Warriors regressed some this season. After losing starting center and interior defensive anchor Andrew Bogut to injury just before the playoffs, the Dubs fell to the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games and fired head coach Mark Jackson.
And now we find the Blazers who, in losing to the Spurs 104-82 in Game 5, fit the mold of a team on the come-up. They’ve got a young core in LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum getting their first taste of playoff success. That core is locked up through at least next season. In theory, they should only get better and a humbling experience against a playoff-tested opponent should help that process along.
“[This series] definitely shows us the quality of basketball we have to get to be on their level or to be one of these elite teams to win a championship,” Aldridge seemed to marvel after Game 5. “It showed us where we are trying to go, and we came to the series and learned some valuable things.”
This is a common refrain from vanquished foes of the Spurs. San Antonio has a track record of out-executing teams, one that borders on the mythical. Every mistake their opponent makes, the Spurs immediately take advantage of, almost as if San Antonio is stagnant in and of themselves, but feeds off of the miscues of others. Live ball turnover? You’re pretty much guaranteed to see a pull-up 3-pointer in transition from Patty Mills or Danny Green. There are few momentum igniters like the turnover leading to a basket and even fewer demoralizing moments for a young squad.
Many teams have been thwarted by the Spurs over the years in their run-up to sitting on the throne of the Western Conference. It’s a rite of passage that doesn’t always lead to the storybook ending, however, as the Spurs continue to take on all comers. Portland’s loss continues the semiannual tradition of seeing the West’s young teams succumb to the Spurs in hopes of gleaning enough knowledge to spark an even greater run the following season.
More often than not, though, things don’t end up that way, and Portland’s improvement, while promising, is far from guaranteed. Meanwhile, there’s death, taxes and Kawhi Leonard in the conference finals.