This was a big win for the San Antonio Spurs.
In more ways than one.
Last nights 116-90 win over the Los Angeles Clippers cemented the Spurs as the hottest team in the NBA. With the best record in the Western Conference and add to that a healthy margin to boot. It will take a supreme effort from the teams below them to surpass them and gain Home Field advantage in the Playoffs.
Not that Home Field was much of an advantage last year, as they were ousted in 5 games by the Oklahoma City Thunder. It should be tight again this year in the West and you couldn't say with any confidence who will make it to the NBA finals. The Spurs have their critics, some stating that they will always fall short of their main goal of a Championship. The main criticism of this team is their age. Can a team full of thirty-somethings. Cope with the intensity of a deep playoff run?
They have been there before and have the experience, that's for sure. However, this is a young man's league and team's like the Thunder, and last nights opponents the Clippers, will look to exploit the ageing legs of the Spurs. The Clippers have demonstrated this over recent meetings with the Spurs. They have dominated them in recent times, Popovich struggling to devise a game-plan to stop the offensive wisdom of Chris Paul and the explosive Blake Griffin.
Until last night, at least.
Well rested from the All-Star break, the Spurs dominated this game from start to finish. Led, as always, by their outstanding Point Guard Tony Parker. Parker has been on a tear so far this season. You could argue he has been the outstanding point guard in the league this year ahead of Paul. Parker has had his struggles with injuries over the years and his high profile divorce to Desperate Housewife Eva Longoria came with it some unwanted headlines. He now seems to have put all that behind him and is a legitimate Most Valuable Player candidate based on his current form. He is the complete player, dictating the tempo of play when he's on the court and facilitating for others whilst being able to score at will. A devastating combination. Parker has the ability to blow past opposing guards with ease with either hand whilst maintaining his vision to find the open man. Parker finished with 31 points and 7 assists in another superb outing from the French International. Gregg Popovich will have to wrap him in cotton wool down the stretch as they will need him at the peak of his powers if they are to get to the promised land.
The Spurs dictated everything about this game at the Staples Centre, visibly frustrating the Clippers, who aren't used to being bullied like this on their Home court. They may put it down to being a bit rusty after the break. Regardless, this is a morale boosting win for the Spurs. It has shown that they can stifle the potent Clippers offense on their home floor, something that few thought they could do. Popovich has done a great job of keeping this team fresh during the regular season. Resting his stars, albeit to the fury of NBA commissioner David Stern. Stern fined the Spurs $250,000 for sending Duncan, Ginobili and Parker home from a road game against the Miami Heat. This hasn't deterred Popovich, he only sees the bigger picture. The only thing that concerns him is bringing another Championship and if that means incurring a fine or two along the way, so be it.
With the score 92-64 after three quarters. The Spurs could afford to rest their stars as the game was won. This is a very deep San Antonio team, with experienced role players on the bench to go with the youth that provide the energy. Popovich preaches team needs over individuals and this has ensured a stable locker room over the years. Take controversial shooting guard Stephen Jackson, for example. Jackson has often been classed as a troublemaker throughout his time in the league. He has clashed with Coaches, been in trouble with the law on numerous occasions and who can forget his role in the infamous 'Malice at the Palace' riot in Detroit. Many thought he wouldn't fit in with the Popovich mould. However, with high character men around him he has accepted his lesser role and it now a key role-player and a reformed character.
This is typical of everybody at the Spurs. They ignore the marquee free-agents, instead focusing on high character individuals that come with a modest price and mould them to the Popovich way of thinking. Players like Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green have thrived at the Spurs after struggling to find homes elsewhere. With the imminent retutn of the promising Kawhi Leonard to add. This is a strong team in every department that can be relied on to contribute as we enter the crucial stage of the season.
Ultimately though, their success will be dependant on their 'Big Three'. Whilst they aren't 21 anymore, any of them can take over a game on any given night. Duncan can still play solid defense and always provides his team with valuable rebounding and scoring. Ginobili is a vital bog off the bench, ensuring that the scoring doesn't drop of when Parker and Duncan catch their breath on the sideline. He has had his problems with injuries and Popovich must keep him healthy if they are going to make it to the finals. Then there is Parker, the unquestioned leader and star. Leading by example, he is the key without question. This seasons success will begin and end with Parker. He has role players around him but it's the stars that come to the fore in the Playoffs. Parker knows this, he's been there before.
As the Clippers trudged off the floor at Staples last night, they knew it too.
The Spurs are unquestionably the best team in the NBA right now. Whether the ageing warriors can keep it up, remains to be seen.
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_