SAN ANTONIO — No early playoff collapse this time. No skeptics doubting whether they’re really the caliber of a No. 1 seed. No injuries to overcome.
Not a single loss in the last month.
By practically any standard, the San Antonio Spurs are dominating and doing so at a pace that few NBA teams have sustained into the playoffs, returning home Tuesday with a 14-game winning streak after sweeping Utah in the most lopsided series yet this postseason.
“You know what?” Spurs forward Tim Duncan said before leaving Salt Lake City, “We got a team here.”
San Antonio finished off the Jazz on Monday night, and could have as long as a week to rest before starting the Western Conference semifinals against either Memphis or the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers lead that series 3-1 and get their first crack at advancing Wednesday. If Memphis hangs on to the brink, the Spurs may not host Game 1 until next Tuesday.
Here’s what the Spurs can reflect upon in the meantime: They haven’t lost since April 9, and since then, they’re winning by an average margin of 17 points. The NBA’s running punch line for being too old and frail — a worn-out joke that’s now a misnomer, really — is now one of only six teams since 1986 to maintain an overall winning streak this long in the playoffs.
It’s almost enough to make the Spurs feel confident returning to the second round, particularly after not even surviving the first last year despite being the No. 1 seed then, too.
Almost enough, anyway.
“As usual,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said about the next series, “scared to death.”
Popovich knows history is maybe the only thing the Spurs don’t have going for them. As invincible as San Antonio has looked for the past month, Popovich has helmed an even hotter team in the postseason — only to lose in the West semifinals, exactly where these Spurs are headed next.
That was in 2004, when the Spurs finished the regular season on an 11-game tear, followed by six mostly blow-out wins to start the playoffs. But that 17-game winning streak came to a screeching halt by Game 3 of the second round against the Lakers, who won the next four on their way to the NBA finals.
Just as they remain eight years later, Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were all the leading scorers on that 2004 team. Ginobili, at the time, was left afterward sorting out the difference between “failure and disappointment.”
After closing out the Jazz 87-81 on Monday — only the third time in the past month the Spurs haven’t won by double-digits — Ginobili struck a tone of cautious optimism.
“We had great additions late in the season to make us even better. Our defense is slowly improving,” Ginobili said. “I think we are a little better, but the league is so tough. Anybody can beat the other team.”
Few know that better than the Spurs. Blowing out Utah helped them exorcise any lingering demons from Memphis stomping out their 61-win season in the first round last year. Proclaiming the demise of the four-time champion Spurs has become a tradition since their last title in 2007, and the death rattle never sounded louder than following that humbling exit to the Grizzlies.
Whether the next round brings a rematch with Memphis or a date with the Clippers, the Spurs were a combined 7-1 this season against both. The only loss was to the Clippers at home in March, when Parker didn’t play because of a sore thigh.
No injuries are shackling the Spurs this time.
No guarantees, either.
“We didn’t accomplish anything. We just passed the first round,” Parker said. “We can be happy, but tomorrow is a new day, and it’s going to be even harder.”