It wasn’t long ago (December 31 actually) that the 55–26 San Antonio Spurs, who’ve won 11 straight games and are currently one win away from clinching in the second seed, were firmly entrenched in seventh position out west with a 19–14 record.
No one was talking repeat title back then—including me.
Back in December, Tony Parker was struggling through a hamstring injury and it showed. The 14-year veteran missed 14 games and his scoring average (14.2) and assists per game (4.9) are now the lowest they’ve been since he was a 19-year-old rookie during the 2001-02 season. It should be noted that he averaged 18.2 points per game in March as the Spurs started to heat up.
Even bigger than Parker’s re-emergence though has been the return of small forward Kawhi Leonard.
The 23-year old Leonard, who leads the team in scoring at 16.6 per game, missed 17 of 19 games from early January to mid-December, coinciding with the team’s slide.
He’s back and playing better than ever now, averaging 19.5 points per game since the beginning of March.
Amazingly, he’s on pace to be the first person other than Parker or Tim Duncan to lead the team in scoring since the 1997-98 season. Yet, despite the changes in the team’s makeup, the Spurs keep winning. This season marks coach Gregg Popovich’s 16th straight 50-win season in San Antonio. But it might not have happened had the defending champions not had this season-altering 11-game winning streak to sneak back into the 2-seed.
Fourteen years ago, the then defending champion Lakers pulled off a similar move.
On April 2, they sat in the 4-seed at 48–26, just a half-game ahead of Portland in the five.
The Lakers’s problems though were blamed mainly on the escalating internal feud between reining MVP Shaquille O’Neal and rising star Kobe Bryant—who were arguably the two best players in the league at the time.
It appeared the roster wasn’t big enough for the two of them.
Eventually Phil Jackson, the ultimate in massaging egos and getting everyone on the same page, got the ship righted and the Lakers reeled off eight straight wins to finish the season 56–26 and slide into the two-seed.
But their streak didn’t stop there.
L.A. swept Portland, Sacramento, and San Antonio, to run their overall streak to 19 wins, before dropping the opener to the Sixers. They still rebounded to beat Philly in five games to close out one of the most dominant postseason runs ever.
The Spurs of 2015 don’t quite have the same youth that the Lakers had in 2001, but both teams were coming off title runs, both had great coaches that stressed defense, and with one more win by San Antonio, will enter the playoffs with identical 56–26 records. It’s time to start talking repeat.