San Antonio is the team that just never has to rebuild. They posted the best record in the West last year, winning 50 games in the shortened 66 game schedule, posting a .758 win percentage. Their core is old, but the Celtics have an old core, too. That makes this the battle of two aging powerhouses.
Tim Duncan may be on his last legs, but he’s still better than most of the post men in the league, and Manu Ginobili has continued to play on a high level, as well. Tony Parker is still in his prime. That Big Three, along with a host of up and coming role players has the Spurs primed for yet another deep post-season run. They swept both the Jazz and Clippers in the first two rounds, but were unable to cope with the high powered Thunder.
Both the Spurs and Celts were a series away from meeting in the NBA Finals, so let’s examine how things could break down if they get over the hump and meet this year in the Finals.
Rajon Rondo / Dionte Christmas vs. Tony Parker / Patrick Mills / Cory Joseph
Tony Parker has remained at the top and is coming off what many consider to have been his best pro seasons so far. Rajon Rondo is only getting better. Watching these two square off will be a real treat, and both have the speed to stay in front of one another. Parker and Rondo may be the two quickest point guards in the league, and both are great at getting into the paint to set up teammates.
Rondo ranked higher than Parker in ESPN’s rankings, as Parker came in at 16th and Rondo at 12th, but the difference is that Parker has a better championship pedigree, as he’s won three rings to Rondo’s one, including one Finals MVP in 2007. It’s tough to say which point guard has the edge, but both teams rely heavily on them to create, and the way they handle one another will obviously be a crucial determining factor in the outcome of a Spurs-Celtics series.
Both teams have uncelebrated backups, but Patrick Mills looked great in the 2012 Olympics, even against the high powered U.S. squad, as he put up a tournament high 21.2 points per game, more than U.S. Leading score Kevin Durant. This suggests Mills could be groomed for a larger role with the Spurs.
While many realize that the Olympics give host to a number of role players performing large roles for their countries, the Australian team outperformed expectations on the shoulders of Mills. Dionte Christmas will have his hands full with Mills in the second unit, though Christmas could pose some problems of his own, as he shot 45 percent from behind the arc in summer league.
2011 first round pick Cory Joseph will not see much court time.
Overall, it really comes down to which point guard you favor between Rondo and Parker, because they will see the lion’s share of the minutes. It’s pretty evenly matched.
Courtney Lee / Avery Bradley / Jason Terry vs. Manu Ginobili / Gary Neal / Danny Green / Nando Colo
Off hand, one would be quick to give the edge to the Spurs here. Manu Ginobili has been one of the best sixth men of the last couple decades, and though he now starts, he’s backed up by another great sixth man in Gary Neal, a red hot shooter capable of having big nights off the bench. Danny Green proved himself to be a good scorer and defender, too. So, the Spurs have an elite starter, and good depth.
Then, there is the fact that the Celtics have three elite defenders and all are guys who can play backup point guard while Rondo rests. Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley, and Jason Terry are all also good three point gunners in their own right. Avery Bradley could frustrate the hell out of Ginobili, as he did the majority of two guards he faced last season. That defense should give the C’s a pretty nice way of negating the offensive impact that the Argentine usually has.
The Spurs edged out the Celtics in their only matchup last year, winning 87-86, but Bradley (and the now departed Ray Allen) did their job on Ginobili. Manu saw only 24 minutes of play and managed to get off only six shots, missing four of them. They also shut down Kawhi Leonard, who attempted only two field goals. Danny Green had a pretty big night, going 6 of 13 en route to a Spurs-high 14 points, but the perimeter defense of the Celtics has shown its value against the Spurs wingmen. Gary Neal had the best night outside Green, with 3 threes and 13 points. So, it might not even be all about stopping Ginobili, anyway.
Advantage: Celtics, by a hair
Paul Pierce / Jeff Green / Kris Joseph vs. Kawhi Leonard / (Danny Green) / Stephen Jackson
Paul Pierce gives a lot of teams trouble, but Kawhi Leonard has shown himself to be one of the best young defenders in the NBA. He was able to prevent Pierce from having a big night last year when the teams faced, holding The Truth to 15 points on 7 of 16 shooting. His defense helps narrow the gap since the C’s have a better host of offensive talent with Pierce and a healthy Jeff Green coming back.
Leonard is young and only getting better, but what he lacks is the veteran experience that Pierce has. As time goes on, the Spurs may rely on Leonard more and more offensively, but at this point in his career, he is an average offensive talent, with above average potential. That limits any potential of the Spurs have a huge advantage here, and the Celtics still have to get the nod despite the fact that Leonard and his backups Danny Green and Stephen Jackson are both capable scorers with a lot of value off the bench. Stephen Jackson has declined a lot, and Green is an up and comer, but I don’t see them outweighing the benefits of having a starting caliber backup like Jeff Green.
Brandon Bass / Jared Sullinger / Chris Wilcox vs. Tim Duncan / DeJuan Blair / Matt Bonner
For as good as Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger may be, they aren’t Tim Duncan. I realize Duncan has fallen off a lot and said as much in the intro, but he’s still one of the better power forwards in the league and his impact goes far beyond numbers—he changes shots, leads the team, and sets an example for the Spurs younger players. His impact is very similar to Kevin Garnett’s role for the C’s.
Duncan won’t light up Bass and Sullinger and drop 30, as he may have in his prime, but he will do the small things and help the Spurs win.
DeJuan Blair, despite having no ACL in either knee, has carved out a nice niche for himself as a banger and rebounder, and he’ll body up and frustrate Sullinger in the second unit.
Matt Bonner is a bonafide assassin from downtown. Wilcox may end up being a true non-factor now that the Celtics have Darko Milicic to allow Garnett to play more power forward. And that’s the crux of the matter: Against the Spurs, Celtics coach Doc Rivers may seek to employ KG more at the four, and while using Milicic at center. Garnett would be a better matchup for Duncan’s declined greatness, and we’re going to take that into consideration. Still, it’s not fair to roster jostle when making a position-by-position comparison.
Kevin Garnett / Darko Milicic / Fab Melo / Jason Collins vs. Boris Diaw / Tiago Splitter
It’s first off worth noting that Boris Diaw is in no way an actual center, and is only listed on the depth chart as a center because everyone insists that Duncan is actually a power forward. Garnett isn’t a center either, so perhaps it’s a moot point. Even if the Spurs do start Diaw at the five, and the C’s counter with Garnett, expect to see a matchup switch with KG on Duncan and Bass/Sullinger covering the overweight and athletically challenged Diaw.
That said, I already made it clear we’re sticking to the depth charts here, and KG has an advantage over both Spurs “centers.” Tiago Splitter has shown a lot of promise, but is already entering his prime since it took him so long to finally get to the NBA after spending years in Brazil. As good as Splitter is defensively and on the boards, his offense should be nothing that Darko can’t shut down in the second unit. Fab Melo and Collins are both unlikely to see much time if these teams met in the Finals.
Doc Rivers vs. Gregg Popovich
I’m not used to calling the C’s coaching at a disadvantage, but Pop is one of the best coaches of all-time. Defense has been his calling card, and he’s developed a number of average NBA players and made them into stars. Leonard appears to be the next, and Pop already compared him to Bruce Bowen. Both coaches have a great way of maximizing talent, but the fact is that Pop may do it even better than Rivers. He’s kept the Spurs relevant for over a decade, and Doc just doesn’t have that body of work to speak for himself yet.
It’s strange to give an edge to the Spurs considering I gave the Celtics the advantage at center, small forward and shooting guard, but the edges there were slim, and the Spurs are still likely a slightly better team.
Sometimes, the parts and components add up greater than the sum, and the team chemistry and ability to enhance one another’s talents has been what has kept the Spurs at the top of the NBA for so long.
Parker/Duncan/Ginobili may be old, but with age comes experience, and they know how to win. They have the unfair advantage of playing in the West, so we may not get to see these teams meet in the Finals this year, but it isn’t outside the realms of possibility either.
Prediction: Spurs in 7