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NBA Playoffs: Spurs' greatness was born well before the playoffs — and Thunder could learn from that approach

by Jenni Carlson Published: June 16, 2014

A small-market city celebrates an NBA championship, delighting in its Big Three, cheering its youthful MVP and planning a victory parade on its downtown canal.

Hits a little too close to the quick, doesn’t it, Thunder fans?

The Spurs, of course, are the NBA champs. They beat the Heat in five games, playing exquisite basketball throughout the series. Beautiful and flowing on the offensive end. Stout and unrelenting on the defensive end. The last couple games were largely uninteresting blowouts by the fourth quarter, but you almost wanted the series to go a couple more games so you could marvel in the San Antonio basketball machine just a little longer.

If you’re a Thunder fan, you have to hope the boys in blue were watching and taking notes.

But here’s the thing, the Spurs’ greatness was born well before the playoffs. Success came in April, May and June because of what the Spurs did in November, December and January. They were preparing to play great basketball in the playoffs by playing great basketball throughout the entire regular season.

That is evident by one very telling stat: the Spurs lost only five games to non-playoff teams.

Granted, they lost just 20 games total, so they didn’t lose many games to teams of any ilk. But against teams that they were clearly better than, they didn’t mess around. They focused. They locked in. And the results bore that out.

The Spurs didn’t lose to a non-playoff team until Jan. 2, and they didn’t lose to another one again until Feb. 10.

By that point, the Thunder had already lost to four non-playoff teams on its way to nine regular-season losses against teams that didn’t make the postseason.

Now, Thunder faithful know well that Oklahoma City played much of the regular season without Russell Westbrook, who was trying to get that knee right. But the Spurs had their own injury problems. Manu Ginobili missed eight games after the first of the year with a hamstring injury. Tony Parker missed 14 games during the season with a variety of issues, most notably his back. Kawhi Leonard was sidelined with a hand injury for 14 games.

Then, of course, there are those random nights when Gregg Popovich decides to sit his stars.

And still, the Spurs had just five losses to non-playoff teams. It shows a great attention to detail. A dedication to seeing every game as a chance to improve. A commitment to playing during the regular season like you want to play in the playoffs.

At least one guy in the Oklahoma City locker room believes that’s the type of mental approach that separates the Thunder from the Spurs and the Heat, the teams that won the past three titles.

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by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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