In hindsight, neither result was all that surprising.
The Indiana Pacers, seeded first in the East, wilted down the stretch in the regular season. They got a stiff challenge in their first playoff game – this against Atlanta, a losing team that was fortune just to make the postseason – and they lost, 101-93, on Saturday.
The top seed in the West, meanwhile, got a stiff test in its first playoff game, too. But San Antonio, which was virtually unbeatable the last six weeks of the regular season, overcame a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter to hold off Dallas, 90-85, on Sunday.
The difference between the Spurs, who have won four NBA titles since 1999, and the Pacers, who haven’t been to the Finals since 2000, can be summed up in two words:
The Spurs have it; the Pacers don’t.
“I think that it has been something that carried (the Spurs) to 62 wins,” NBA on TNT analyst Kevin Harlan said on The Damon Amendolara Show. “(They were) the only team to have 60+ wins this season, (they got) the No. 1 overall seed (and they had the) best record in the league.”
But that only tells part of the story.
“Think of this,” Harlan began. “Think of how they entered this year – after the catastrophic memory of really having the title taken from them by Miami with that Game 6 dagger by Ray Allen. They had it. The championship trophy was in their palm, and Miami pulled it away, won Game 7 (and) won the series. And the devastation that you hear them talk about individually as players and collectively as a team is gut-wrenching. And then to carry that throughout the summer and then come into this year (with) 12 returning players – same returning five – and it’s (Gregg) Popovich who has got to get this team buoyant and back in sync. And they rattle off the 62.
“And that is a team that also had to traverse incredibly difficult months in January and February with injuries that I think would sideswipe a lot of teams, but they just plug in other guys.”
Popovich, as usual, kept his players fresh all season.
“They didn’t overtax an older lineup,” Harlan said. “They’ve got older players, as we know. Coming up on 32 is (Tony) Parker. Coming up on 38 is (Tim) Duncan. (Manu) Ginobili is in his mid-30s, and he’s not getting any younger. And other players on the team that have seen a lot of years.”
That’s fine. The Spurs were still the best team in basketball.
They were also the first team in NBA history to not have a single player average at least 30 minutes per game. They also had the highest-scoring bench in basketball.
“They are truly a team,” Harlan said, “and they did it collectively.”
Game 1 was proof. Duncan scored a game-high 27 points against the Mavs, while Parker and Ginobili had 21 and 17, respectively. Game 2 is Wednesday at 8 ET.
“They fell collectively in Miami, they recouped what they lost (and) they’ve come back strong,” Harlan observed. “As Tony Parker said, ‘This season is meaningless unless we win the title.’ So they’ve got a clear and distinct goal right ahead in their crosshairs – and they showed it by coming back against a tough, offensive-minded Dallas team (Sunday) in San Antonio.”