|Have the Spurs turned back the clock?|
But the Spurs proved they still had some diesel left in the tank by securing the top seed in the West once again and tying the Chicago Bulls for the best record, 50-16, in the Association. Despite losing Ginobili and forcing Poppovich to pencil Duncan in as a "DNP-Old," the Spurs didn't skip a beat. Parker played some of the best ball of his career, the reserves played well and the front office acquired some late season firepower off the bench in the form of Stephen Jackson. Their defense was above average, as expected, but their offense ranked among the league's best (second in points per game, first in offensive rating). It also helped that they finished the season strong, on a ten game winning streak that vaulted them past the Thunder for the top seed in the conference.
Their success was a surprise to those who predicted the lockout shortened season would amount to a war of attrition that would wreak havoc on older teams, such as the Spurs, Lakers, and Celtics, but favor the younger, deeper teams like the Thunder, Pacers, and Sixers. The older teams were expected to rest regulars, pace themselves, do just enought to secure a playoff spot and then let the chips fall where they may.
So much for that. Everybody more or less ended up where they should be, and all but two teams that made the playoffs last year made it back this year.
The Spurs steamrolled through Utah, winning the first three games by double digits by an average of 19 points to take a commanding 3-0 lead. The Jazz defense couldn't contain San Antonio's offense, allowing them to crack triple digits in the points column all three games. Utah's offense struggled against the Spurs D, topping out at 91 points in Game 1. With their backs to the wall, the underdogs finally put up a fight at the end of Game 4, but it was too little, too late. Faced with a 21 point deficit in the fourth quarter, Utah charged back to close the gap to four points with 49 seconds last, but a Paul Millsap turnover led to a breakway Ginobili layup that killed Utah's momentum. San Antonio extended their winning streak to fourteen and advances to the Western conference semis, where they will play the winner of the Clippers-Grizzlies series.
This series proved the Spurs regular season success was no aberration, and served as a measure of redemption after their disappointing first round exit last year. Granted, the Jazz are far from an elite team, but I for one wasn't expecting San Antonio to sweep them. They're still old and lacking in front court depth, but they're not done.
Two series have been decided so far, and NBA fans have four potential closeout games on tap tonight. The teams in the driver's seat are written first.
Cetics @ Hawks
I said Celtics in five, and I'm sticking to it. Al Horford's return will not make a difference.
Sixers @ Bulls
The Bulls have looked lost on offense and dropped three in a row after losing Derrick Rose to a season ending ACL injury, but I think they'll regroup and make a last stand tonight in front of the home crowd. I just can't believe Chicago is rolling over like this with Rose in street clothes because during the regular season they went 18-9 without him. They proved time and time again that they could win without him, and I think they'll scrape out a W tonight.
Pacers vs Magic in Indiana
After eeking out a four point win in Game 1, the Dwight Howard-less Magic have lost three in a row. They got crushed in Games 2 and 3, then lost a crucial Game 4 by two points. I didn't think they were going to win a game at all in this series, so I'm not giving them much of a chance tonight on the road in Indy.
Lakers vs. Nuggets in LA
Games 1 and 3 were both 15 point blowouts, but Games 2 and 4 were decided by just four points apiece. So if that trend continues, we're due for another blowout tonight. I think it's going to be a close game, actually, but one that will go in the Lakers favor. LA's twin towers, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, have been too much for Denver's interior defense to handle. You get the feeling Kobe Bryant and co. aren't going to let this series go back to Colorado; they're going to finish this thing off tonight.