With the playoffs roughly two weeks away, the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers both came away with wins on Wednesday night. San Antonio extended their franchise-record win streak to 19 games, while victory for Indiana pumped the brakes on a rough skid that has seen them drop six of their last nine games.
In this week’s column, former Raptor Mike James draws on his experience with the championship-winning 2003–04 Detroit Pistons to discuss the impact of the end of the regular season on a team’s playoff chances.
When the playoffs start, your record is 0-0. What you’ve done in the past doesn’t have to hinder you—it doesn’t have to handicap or hurt you. You can refocus, lock back in and understand that, no matter what your did in the regular season, it’s time to step your game up even more. It’s a genuine chance to start fresh.
That said, it’s pretty obvious you’d rather go in playing the way San Antonio is right now. It’s less about the win streak than the momentum and confidence that come with it.
When I was with Detroit, we were the No. 1 defensive team in the NBA, but we only really started paying attention to that in the last 20 games of the season. We were regularly holding teams under 80 points and there was a realization, like, “Wow, we really are that good. We really can win the championship.”
Our motivation was to stop every team that we played against—to shut down every opponent all the way to the championship. We believed that no team was on the same level as us and it started towards the end of the season, with strong play in those last 20 games.
If you’re losing, moving down in the standings in the second-half of the season, it shows that there wasn’t any mental focus after the all-star break. You can’t just wake up in the morning and say, “Okay, we’re going to turn it on right now.”
In the playoffs, teams do their scouting better, preparing each night for the same opponent. They take away whatever your strengths are and you have to learn how to play through your weaknesses. If you’re playing bad basketball and you’re not figuring it out at the end of the season, its dangerous to just hope that there is a switch that you can turn on when playoff time comes around. The momentum has to start now. It doesn’t start in the first game of the playoffs.
The way San Antonio is playing now, they’re showing that they’re ready for the first round of the playoffs. They’re also showing their anger from losing the championship last year. The Spurs aren’t going to win when it comes to the ratings—I don’t know how many people have a No. 9 or a No. 21 jersey with “Spurs” on the front. But in the end, that’s not what our sport is judged on.
Our sport comes down to putting the ball in the hole, and San Antonio is one of the most efficient teams in the league on both ends of the court. Gregg Popovich has a great system and a great group of guys that know how to win. They’re showing that now, and they’ll continue to show it in the playoffs.
Mike, what do you think of the Raptors’ chances in the post-season? —Milo, Oshawa
Toronto has as good a chance as anyone else. They’ve earned everything that is coming to them this season. I think the playoffs will bring some real excitement to the city. Toronto has some of the craziest fans in the NBA. They are definitely going to be excited and it will be interesting to see what type of performance Toronto puts up on the big stage.