The San Antonio Spurs aren't underdogs a lot. They're the team of the century for a reason. But beating the Golden State Warriors will require something that the Spurs have never done before.
In the five season that the Spurs have won championships, they've been the No. 1 seed three times. They were the No. 2 seed in 2005 and the No. 3 seed in 2007. As such, in those championship seasons, the Spurs have only faced a higher-seeded opponent twice. Both were the Phoenix Suns.
It's been a long time since the Spurs beat a higher seed in the playoffs, period. Not since the 2008 Western Conference Semifinals against the New Orleans Hornets have the Spurs beaten a higher seed. They're 2-3 vs. higher seeds in the West during the playoffs over the past 10 seasons.
And none of those teams come close to how good these Golden State Warriors are. The Warriors will arguably have four of the best five players in the series coming in. The best players in this series are Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson.
The last time a player faced that kind of challenge in such a high-profile series was LeBron James in 2015 when he miraculously led Cleveland to a 2-1 NBA Finals lead over the Warriors before flaming out because Golden State just had too much firepower.
Can a hobbled Kawhi Leonard do the same? There isn't much evidence to say that he can.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a lifelong Spurs fan that remembers the heartache of the '95 playoffs and has basked in the glory that Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan have delivered in the 21st century many times.
But even the Memorial Day Miracle was against a lower seed.
As much as I'd love to be optimistic and throw a "Nombre shut up, man, Go Spurs Go" at anyone who doubts the Spurs' chances in this series, one thing that the Spurs culture has done to Spurs fans is make many students of the game, an entire fanbase dedicated to understanding the game of basketball on a higher plane than any other fanbase in any other city.
And sometimes that makes realists of us.
I would've loved to watch a healthy Tony Parker playing his best basketball in years continue to do what we saw in the first seven games of the playoffs in 2017 with a team charging to interrupt an NBA Finals matchup of Warriors-Cavs that many have had penciled in since before the playoffs started.
But Tony's out. And even Kawhi isn't fully healthy.
I was talking to KENS 5 sports reporter Vinnie Vinzetta the other day, and going through the matchups reminded me of a scene in Miracle, about the USA Hockey team's upset of the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics. Head coach Herb Brooks is going through the matchups before the game, talking to his wife, and he tells her that he just can't see it happening.
It's quite funny that the architect of the greatest upset in sports history didn't see it coming days before it happened. He couldn't justify it in his own head.
Sure, before the game he gave the locker room speech to end all locker room speeches, but we know now that he had his own serious doubts in the days leading up to the game.
When you look closer at the Spurs, you start to see hints that give you hope.
-A No. 2 seed beating a No. 1 seed in a conference final wouldn't be the craziest thing to happen in the playoffs.
-The Spurs are coming off one of the greatest defensive series they've ever played. And they did it without Tony Parker after Game 2 and without Kawhi Leonard at the end of Game 5 and all of Game 6.
-In Game 5 and 6 of the previous series, Greg Popovich actually found a series of rotations that worked on both sides of the ball without having to sacrifice playing big and taking advantage of the latest small-ball phenomenon sweeping across the NBA.
-Steve Kerry won't be on the bench in this series. Pop will easily have the opportunity to outcoach the opposition and bring at least one win home that way.
-LaMarcus Aldridge is playing his best basketball since he joined the Spurs. After a long talk with Tim Duncan at practice, he found something that works for him, with or without Kawhi Leonard on the floor.
-Patty Mills and Danny Green are playing amazing basketball, as this is the first time they're defensive chops and ball-handling have been more tied to their value than their three-point shooting.
-Jonathon Simmons has earned major minutes and can be a disrupter and create chaos when an opposing defense thinks they've got things figured out.
The 1980 USA hockey team hadn't lost a game going into their matchup with the Soviets. Their goal differential made them the second-best team in the tournament. They even had a guy coming off an injury just in time to play. When you look at the evidence, it was all there staring at you. But it didn't play into the narrative that it would be impossible to win. That's the only reason we consider it a "miracle."
So maybe the optimism is founded when considering the Spurs' chances in this series. One thing is for certain. It's way more fun to play underdog spoiler in a series because when you've got nothing to lose in the eyes of your audience, it makes you even more dangerous.
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