Hypothetically, say we had gone into hibernation around the All-Star break with orders to be released just before the playoffs began. Before we'd have hit the pillow and gone into a deep slumber, we would have proclaimed the San Antonio Spurs the future champs, citing their ability to play at any tempo and the likelihood that they would overcome Phoenix for the Western Conference home-court edge.
|Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are more playoff-tested than any West guard tandem. (Getty Images)|
San Antonio's first-round opponent, Denver, turned into a world-beater once George Karl took over and lit a fire under Marcus Camby, among others, helping the team ascend from a future filled with pingpong balls to the most dangerous No. 7 seed in recent memory.
Plus, knowing from personal experience how nagging ankle injuries can be and how easy it is to aggravate one, the thought of backing a team so reliant on Duncan is a sizeable gamble.
"The healthiest team will win the title," Seattle coach Nate McMillan told reporters earlier this week. "You've got to win so many games that if you lose a key player or two, or if they're not healthy, it makes it difficult. You'll have bumps and bruises, but if you have some serious injuries to some key guys, that makes it really tough."
That said, there's a reason the boys in Vegas have installed the Spurs as the favorites to capture rings in June. Quite simply, as competitive as the West will be and as daunting as Miami or defending champion Detroit would be in the NBA Finals, if Duncan is still on the floor, even at less than 100 percent, San Antonio remains the smart choice to win it all.
Consider us smart and in agreement; the Spurs will win the 2005 NBA championship.
Duncan, brought along gingerly by coach Gregg Popovich once he returned in the season's final games, proved he's still the most dominant big man west of Shaquille O'Neal. Backcourt mates Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, blossoming into stardom, are playoff-tested veterans. They're still young, but inexperience is not a factor. In fact, when you consider their opposition will likely be Denver's Andre Miller/DerMarr Johnson, Dallas' Jason Terry/Michael Finley and Phoenix's Steve Nash/Joe Johnson, they'll have a decided edge in playoff experience. In that group, only Nash and Finley have played more postseason games, and neither has a ring.
Toss in the likes of standout playoff performers Robert Horry and Bruce Bowen, in-season acquisitions Glenn Robinson and Nazr Mohammed adding quality depth, and the inclusion of Devin Brown on the playoff roster -- he should be back at 100 percent (limited leg strength) deeper into the postseason -- and you've got an incredible collection of wily know-how at Popovich's disposal.
Ah, yes, Popovich. Unless Phil Jackson is whisked from whatever personal retreat he's currently on, is there a coach outside of Larry Brown left in these playoffs who can touch his pedigree? Anyone? Didn't think so.
He has won more than 60 percent of his playoff games, the best percentage of anyone still coaching, and even trumps Brown in the championship ring department, two to one. No, we will not count Brown's ring at Kansas or Mike D'Antoni's success in Italy. In both instances, that's basketball played at different speeds, under different rules, in different languages.
These playoffs, despite the absence of major markets New York and Los Angeles, should be among the most competitive and riveting as any since Michael Jordan and the Bulls parted company. At the end of the day, the biggest crop of winners will be left standing. The Suns can cling to their regular season success, Detroit to last year's breakthrough and Miami to an O'Neal-led revolution. All should be fine consolation prizes as the Spurs dance away with their third title in seven seasons.