Everything starts with the coach. Gregg Popovich sets a steady tone for the San Antonio Spurs, who resemble the Aristotle theory that excellence is a habit, not an act.
The Spurs can appear as boring as a brown suit, yet year after year, they get the job done minus the flash and hype that permeates the rest of the NBA.
Flash is fine. Sensational players such as Kevin Durant and LeBron James excite fans and spike TV ratings. Hype is good. The Miami Heat get most of the media attention, and that’s not a bad thing. But this appears to be a year when the consistent excellence of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker will pay off for the boring team from San Antonio.
For the record, I never consider the Spurs, who posted the best regular-season mark in the league at 62-20, to be boring. But they do not inspire the public the way James does.
“It’s the LeBron factor. If LeBron is there, you’re going to watch,” Sunset Station sports book director Chuck Esposito said. “The interesting thing about the Heat, if you love them or hate them, there are people rooting for or against them.”
Who really hates the Spurs? Maybe the Dallas Mavericks, their first-round opponent in the playoffs, but even that hate is out of respect.
Duncan turns 38 in a week, but he’s still one of the league’s best big men. Parker turns 32 in a month, but he’s about as good as it gets at point guard. Add Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter and the pieces fit for a title team.
March is a month for Cinderella stories. In April, May and June, when the NBA playoffs are decided in a sequence seven-games series, the best coaches and most experienced teams tend to prevail.
“Five teams have a legitimate shot,” said handicapper Erin Rynning of Sportsmemo.com. “It’s not the NCAA Tournament. The No. 1 seeds and favorites usually get there.”
Of Rynning’s fab five — San Antonio, Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston and Miami — four are from the Western Conference and one of those is a long shot.
“I put Houston in there as a sleeper,” Rynning said. “The Rockets shoot the most 3-pointers in the NBA, and if they get hot, they can win a couple series.”
The big problem with the Rockets is they play no defense. The Spurs have the league’s best coach in Popovich, and according to Rynning, they had the best defensive rating of any playoff team since the All-Star break. No, this is not the NCAA Tournament, but great defense and a veteran point guard carried Connecticut to a title, too.
“Pop knows how to push the right buttons,” Esposito said. “The Spurs look awfully good, of course, and they have been there before so it will be tough to beat them. I think it will be San Antonio, but a surprise team will face them in the West finals. That’s my gut feeling.”
Oklahoma City would not qualify as a surprise team. Durant, who averaged 32 points and won his fourth scoring title, would be hard for the Spurs to handle. But the Thunder, seeded No. 2, need to get by Memphis and the Clippers first.
As for the Clippers, they will get by Golden State in the first round. Chris Paul is the league’s top point guard, and Los Angeles’ inside strength is too much for a Warriors team that is significantly weaker without center Andrew Bogut.
“Golden State looks to me like a bet-against team,” Rynning said. “I think Bogut’s injury is a huge loss.”
It’s a high price to pay, but the Clippers, minus-380 series favorites over the Warriors at the LVH sports book, are a good bet to advance because of defense, rebounding, Paul’s play and Doc Rivers’ coaching.
The West will be as wild as the East is woeful. The top-seeded Indiana Pacers, with the NBA’s worst record against the spread since the All-Star break, are begging to be upset.
“Nobody’s going to beat the Heat in the East, but they definitely have some cracks in their armor, and I’ll be looking to go against the Heat against the spread,” Rynning said.
If there’s a surprise team, it might be the Brooklyn Nets, who swept four games from James’ gang this season.
At this late stage, there is no value in a futures wager on the Spurs (at 5-2 odds to win the NBA championship) or the Heat (9-5), but a sequel to last year’s NBA Finals is the most likely script.
“I think it’s going to be San Antonio and Miami, and I’m picking the Spurs in seven games,” Rynning said.
A year ago, flash and hype prevailed, and James was lucky to celebrate after the seventh game. This time, Popovich gets payback, because the NBA’s best team just happens to be boring.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.