Each week NBA Australia‘s stable of experts - which includes Downtown’s Liam Santamaria and Michael Collins - takes a close look at the big issues in the NBA.
We’re entering the final stretch of the regular season, and as the standings begin to heat up, the Starting Five look at some of the playoff contenders who have been slumping.
What can they do to recover?
Liam Santamaria: San Antonio Spurs
Finally, the San Antonio Spurs are headed home.
After the best part of a month on the road, the Spurs’ annual Rodeo Road Trip concluded over the weekend with a 27-point drubbing of the reeling Phoenix Suns, along with a win the previous night in Sacramento.
It was a happy way to end what had been a fairly miserable month on the road for the defending champs.
The Spurs went 6-5 for February and now enter March in seventh place in the Western Conference with a 36-23 record.
It’s unfamiliar territory and the strain has been evident, with numerous players speaking out about the team’s lack of form.
After a string of recent losses, coach Gregg Popovich called on his veteran players to take ownership of their situation.
“The players have to participate in their own recovery,” Pop said.
Pop also sat down with struggling point guard Tony Parker for what the six-time All-Star described as “a good chat.”
And there it is; the remedy for all of the Spurs’ on-court problems… Gregg Popovich.
The legendary coach has been finding effective ways to teach, motivate and focus these Spurs for almost 20 years.
A similar ‘family business’ chat with Kawhi Leonard after Game 2 of last year’s NBA Finals propelled the young swingman to three consecutive dominant performances and a Finals MVP trophy.
Pop is, after all, the master.
And let’s face it, there was always going to be a lag period following the emotion of the past two seasons. After losing the 2013 Finals in such heartbreaking fashion, the Spurs were almost like The Bride from Kill Bill last season; unleashing a rampage of basketball revenge on all who dared to stand in their way.
That takes its toll; mentally and emotionally, if not physically.
But discount San Antonio at your own risk. It’s a mistake many have made before, time and time again.
Parker was outstanding in the second half of their win in Sacramento and they cranked up the D in Phoenix, holding the Suns to a franchise-worst 24 first-half points.
They’re starting to roll and four of the Spurs’ next seven games are against struggling teams; Sacramento, Denver, Minnesota and New York.
With some home games against easier opponents on the schedule, all is in readiness for the champs to fully find their groove ahead of the playoffs.
Pop has his players “participating in their own recovery,” and they’re currently in the process of turning things around.
In the words of the great Dr. Seuss, Hop on Pop.
News flash: The Clips are a damn fine team, even if they’ve endured seesawing months.
The secret to them potentially turning around their season and surging through the playoffs may actually be unfolding in front of us.
Blake Griffin’s absence has given this team – similar to Chris Paul’s midseason injury last season – a genuine opportunity to find new confidence in different places.
Think about it – what is the most memorable characteristic of last year’s champion Spurs? They were able to weather nearly an entire season of injuries, during which lesser players netted greater minutes and confidence.
Typically we notice DeAndre Jordan only when he’s flinging bricks at the free throw line and dunking from almost any distance. But his last month, which includes five 20-rebound games, has been extraordinary on both ends of the court.
With Jordan policing the paint, opponents have only attempted 31 percent of their field goals in the restricted area, a number that climbs to 39 percent when he’s on the bench.
He’s even maintained deadly scoring efficiency while enjoying a usage spike in Griffin’s absence.
No team is built to survive its star’s absence, especially in a brutal Western Conference, but Griffin’s sideline stint may just be crafting a sharper and better-equipped Los Angeles team for the Western Conference bloodbath.
Of course, the questions surrounding the Clips arise from the same place it always has in the Chris Paul era: Who are the five guys that’ll close out the final two minutes of an elimination playoff game? In other words, can we really trust LA’s crunch time five-man unit in money time?
For as long as we’re dabbling in the regular season, let’s not overreact to any flameout or winning streak.
The Clips are going to have to stand in the shadows and acknowledge that any fan illusion can’t be squashed until the playoffs.
To read which other teams the #StartingFive think might be in need of some repairs, click here.
This article first appeared on NBA Australia.