Following their 90-92 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, the San Antonio Spurs are now granted a temporary reprieve from their gauntlet of upper echelon playoff opponents.
If the brutal span of games stretching from last Wednesday through this Thursday--with a quick break against the Orlando Magic at home tomorrow night--serve as a final exam of sorts before the playoffs, as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich put it, the team is on the verge of a "C", with a mediocre 2-2 record so far.
Thursday night's nationally televised game against the Oklahoma City Thunder could have as much to say about the Western Conference's top overall seed as the Spurs loss to the Heat had in possible NBA Finals seeding ramifications. But the Spurs have always been more concerned about how the team is playing headed into the playoffs than where they were seeded, and in that there are certainly questions.
The Spurs two-game losing streak holds no more negative bearings on the their playoff chances than their previous two-game winning streak brought positive projections, though the different outcomes certainly provoke different responses. There is a reason that statisticians measure strength by point differential rather than overall record at times--games that come down to the last few possessions are often a coin flip proposition.
The results of those final plays are often a product of chance. A fortunate bounce, a lucky shot, or even the whims of a referee's whistle (the Tim Duncan travel no-call versus the Clippers against the Norris Cole phantom foul in Miami) can change the outcome of such games when left to chance.
Remove results, however, and what can be evaluated is execution. In that the Spurs have some matters to clean up before the playoffs begin.
There is enough that goes into winning an NBA championship that is out of a team's hands that it's safe to say that a certain amount of luck goes into every NBA title. Extended playoff runs are often defined by unlikely moments, like the top of the key three-pointer the Heat's Chris Bosh hit to win the game.
Losing an NBA title can be as simple as affording an opponent an opportunity for chance to wreak havoc. Something the Spurs have dangerously allowed with defensive breakdowns in the waning moments of the last few games.
Had Duncan been available for the Memphis game (he was out with a sore left knee) it's unlikely he would've allowed himself to be taken out of the last defensive possession as Matt Bonner did in following Zach Randolph all the way out to the three-point line where he's hardly a threat while Mike Conley drove for the game-winning layup with no deterring big in the lane to help.
That play might not have been relevant if not for a Gary Neal breakdown with 35 seconds remaining in the game. With the Spurs up three, the Grizzlies' Jared Bayless ran a pick-and-roll with Mike Conley spotting up on the weak side. As Gasol dives, Neal steps into the lane too far, leaving Conley open to hit a game-tying three-pointer. Even if the Spurs base defense dictates that guards on the weak side dig and recover, in that situation Neal needs to know time and place in that scenario and realize that only a three-pointer ties the game.
In Miami, Splitter leaves Haslem to double an already well-defended Ray Allen, leaving Duncan to hopelessly choose between a diving Haslem and an open Bosh at the top of the key.
Against the Clippers, a breakdown in communication between Parker and Leonard leaves Jamal Crawford to hit a wide open corner three-pointer.
Up three, Spurs guard Manu Ginobili leaves a three-point shooter to contest what would've been an Al Jefferson elbow jumper, eventually leading to a Marvin Williams open corner three-pointer to send the game into overtime.
When coaches talk process over results, these are the small details that matter. When looking back on the this stretch run, these games could have easily been all won, or all lost. But the execution would still be the same.