Both teams expect to compete for the NBA championship. Both teams found their rhythm at the most opportune time of the season. Both teams stormed to the league’s best record and home court advantage throughout the playoffs.
There are obvious differences as well. For one, San Antonio still needs 10 straight wins – a run reached by only three other teams this season – to merely match Miami’s streak. Even if they win out, the Spurs will still come up one short of the Heat and have to resume the chase next season.
But here’s the biggest difference. The Heat were somewhat consumed by their streak. The Spurs are not consumed by theirs.
Before being rested for wins 26 and 27, Dwyane Wade and his balky knees played at least 30 minutes in every game of last season’s streak. LeBron James did not sit out once and played at least 40 minutes nine times. Only Chris Bosh, with six games of less than 30 minutes, got an occasional breather.
At the time, no one faulted the Heat for chasing history; the league’s best record and another MVP for James had been reduced to formalities, and the record 33-game winning streak by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers was within reach.
But when Wade needed to be held out of playoff games to rejuvenate his knees while struggling to break 20 points and Bosh was disappearing for long stretches against the bigger and stronger Pacers, the burden almost entirely shifted to James, who averaged over 43 minutes over the last two playoff series and barely had enough to get the job done.
By comparison, the Spurs are gliding through their streak and should be better rested for the postseason.
On March 4 at Cleveland, no starter played more than 26 minutes. On March 14 vs. the LA Lakers, no starter saw more than 22 minutes. On March 22 at Golden State, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli were rested. On March 24 vs. Philadelphia, Tony Parker, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter were rested. On Saturday vs. New Orleans, Splitter again was rested.
“It is even fun to watch when you are on the bench because everybody is in a good mood,” Ginobili said.
During the streak, Green’s 40 minutes at Golden State marks the team individual high and he has no other games above 30 minutes. Parker has played more than 30 minutes just five times and in consecutive games just once. Duncan has played over 30 minutes just six times and consecutively twice. Ginobili has yet to play more than 30 minutes, Splitter has played more than 30 minutes once and Belinelli and Boris Diaw have exceeded 30 minutes twice each.
Among San Antonio’s top eight rotation players, only Kawhi Leonard – at 22 by far the youngest of the group – has had a considerable workload, and only when compared to his teammates. Leonard has cleared 30 minutes seven times, including three in a row.
That makes total sense when you consider that Leonard is arguably San Antonio’s best two-way player, and the start of the streak coincided with his return from a broken finger.
“Kawhi’s starting to really get a kick out of being a stopper,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s understanding what he can do and he’s become more and more demonstrative in that respect, playing defense for us.”
To be fair, the streak also has coincided with a soft stretch of the schedule. San Antonio has played just five teams with winning records – Dallas, Miami, Chicago, Portland and Golden State – and has won by an average of 15.9 points. Only two games have been closer than eight points.
“Maybe this comes too easy,” Popovich said last week. “Losing is not a bad thing at this point of the year.”
That may happen as early as tonight, when the Spurs visit the Indiana Pacers, the first of eight straight games against teams with winning records. And if you believe Popovich is being disingenuous, consider what happened to his team two years ago.
In the lockout-shortened season, the Spurs won 21 of their last 23 games, including the last 10. Then they won their first 10 playoff games. They had not lost in seven weeks and were two wins away from the NBA Finals. Not only did they not get there, they never won again.
The Spurs might not get there this season, either. They still don’t match up very well with the longer, quicker Oklahoma City Thunder, and it has been 25 years since a team that lost in Game 7 of the NBA Finals returned the following year.
But one thing is certain. If the Spurs get there, they won’t be tired.