While the NBA has gone haywire with Stephen Curry and record-breaking Golden State, the Western Conference, as expected, remains really strong. And, with heavyweights like the Rockets, Clippers and Thunder struggling, perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that old faithful San Antonio finds itself right back in the contenders mix despite coming off a disappointing first-round postseason exit.
The 15-4 Spurs sit comfortably behind the Warriors for the two seed and yet, it's hardly been perfect. Highly touted free agent acquisition LaMarcus Aldridge has struggled to find a scoring rhythm while 33-year-old Tony Parker, a surefire Hall of Fame point guard, has looked his age for the first time during his brilliant 15-year career. But what has always made the Spurs special is the sum of its parts -- and an unrelenting dedication to team basketball on both ends of the court.
Such a strategy is not unlike the Warriors' magical title run last year either. While we all focused on their splendid offensive prowess -- and rightfully so -- having the NBA's top ranked defense was ultimately the linchpin to a championship. Get stops when it matters most and a), you will close out games and b), you will survive cold shooting nights. The same can be said about San Antonio's five championships during the Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan era that dates back to 1997. Great offense is a bonus, but great defense is a necessity, especially in dethroning the Warriors, who just set the NBA record for the most points scored through 20 games. In fact, except for the 2014 title team (which ranked eighth), not one of the other four Spurs championship teams ranked below the top five in field goal percentage allowed.
The secret to the 2015 Spurs has been -- surprise -- tremendous individual and team defense once again. And it's basic stuff too: help the helper, don't allow skip passes to beat you and maybe most importantly, rotate properly on both the first and second passes out of the post double. With a hounding perimeter defender in the league's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard, the team's go-scorer at 21.7 points per game a wing who can check multiple spots -- think Draymond Green but better -- opponent possessions consistently get broken down. Of the top 11 players in defensive rating this season, Leonard is the only non-center, according to Sports Illustrated.
And then there is Duncan, whose staggering defensive rating of 91 ranks second in basketball. As a result, no team surrenders fewer points per shot (1.07) than San Antonio and no team surrenders fewer points than the 88.8 the Spurs give up.