SAN ANTONIO — Ever since they dusted off a young LeBron James and his overmatched Cavaliers with a backhanded sweep in 2007, the Spurs have been searching for a path back to The Finals.
Now, perhaps, the only thing missing is a red carpet rolled down an aisle or a trail of rose petals.
The Western Conference bracket that was supposed to a demolition derby involving a series of jarring collisions is beginning to look instead like dominoes falling just right for San Antonio.
What could have been a dangerous first-round matchup against the Lakers lost its peril the moment that Kobe Bryant collapsed with a torn Achilles tendon. Without their leader, the Lakers were toothless and clueless and simply ran out of healthy bodies to even put up a semblance of resistance, and the Spurs only had to fight boredom and try to avoid injuries.
Then while Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were sitting at home resting their veteran legs for a full week, the remainder of the West came unraveled like a cheap sweater.
So many experts around the league had picked the superstar-less Nuggets to build on their 57-win season with a team-first attack that could carry them to the conference finals or even beyond. Yet No. 3 seed Denver had its home-court dominance ended by the sharp-shooting of Stephen Curry and the Warriors.
A season-long hullaballoo and love-fest over the No. 4 seed Clippers finally winning more than 50 games and their first division title in franchise history went out the window when they were exposed as little more than a sideshow dunking act that gave little inclination to playing defense or being serious when the stakes were raised.
While those two pretenders were being exposed, even the top-seeded Thunder were taking a severe blow when their All-Star guard Russell Westbrook suffered a torn ligament in his right knee in Game 2 of their series against Houston. First it meant that OKC was extended to six games by the young and restless Rockets and then it sent them into the second round and beyond looking vulnerable and anything like the favorites to reach a return match against Miami than a month ago.
Now the Spurs go into a second-round series tonight against the Warriors and Curry, who have become the “must-see” TV-show of the playoffs and it’s likely that the top shooting ace in the game will provide a few moments of entertainment and drama and anxiety in Spurs huddles.
But it can’t be overlooked that Golden State has lost an astounding 29 consecutive games in San Antonio, a streak that goes back to Feb. 14, 1997, four months before the 37-year-old Duncan was even drafted by the Spurs. As much of a test that they’ll get from trying to guard Curry, the Spurs would much rather have it against the No. 6 seed than trying to run and keep pace with the Nuggets in the mile high thin atmosphere of Denver.
Of course, the grit-and-grind Grizzlies are still out there lurking with their powerful inside game of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and the much-improved point guard Mike Conley. But the Grizzlies already blew an opportunity to take Game 1 of their series at OKC on Sunday and trail 1-0. So the storyline couldn’t be playing out any better for the Spurs if they had written it themselves.
“We lost to an eight (Memphis, 2011) once,” Ginobili told reporters. “We won being seventh (Dallas, 2009). So anything can happen.”
Of course, the Spurs know they had won 20 straight games and took a 2-0 lead on the Thunder in the conference finals a year ago before dropping four in a row to be eliminated. Nothing is ever certain, nothing is guaranteed.
But the Spurs were looking for a route back to The Finals for the first time in six years, they couldn’t have found a clearer path.