Tim Duncan has never missed out on the playoffs since the San Antonio Spurs drafted him back in 1997.
Duncan has won four NBA titles since breaking into the league and the future Hall of Famer gets another crack at a fifth championship ring when the top- seeded Spurs kick off the postseason against the Utah Jazz, the eighth seed.
San Antonio will make its 15th consecutive playoff appearance -- the longest active streak in the NBA -- and hopes to avoid last year's catastrophe when the Memphis Grizzlies sent the top-seeded Spurs packing in six games. Pegged to not even make a dent in the Western Conference in 2011-12 because of age, the Spurs mirrored fine wine and rolled their way to the top of the conference, unseating the favored Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Spurs captured the top seed in the West for the seventh time in franchise history and the sixth time in the Duncan era. Since Duncan joined the Spurs, they have posted nine division titles, the most in the NBA
A pair of 11-game winning streaks during the regular season from Jan. 30-Feb. 20 and March 21-April 8, and solid coaching as usual from Gregg Popovich also contributed to the team's resurgence. Much of San Antonio's success came from playing in the Alamo City, where the Spurs went 28-5 to tie the Miami Heat for the best home mark.
Health has been a huge factor for the Spurs, who did lose guard Manu Ginobili for some time early on but he's back at full strength.
"It's great to be in that situation, but as we showed last year, someone can sneak up and take you out easily," Duncan said of being healthy at the start of the postseason. "Hopefully we get a much better effort this year and do a much better job this year, and we stay away from those injuries."
The Spurs' three main pieces of Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker will be relied on heavily, but they'll have some relief with help from Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, Danny Green, Stephen Jackson and Tiago Splitter.
Utah may seem overmatched in this first-round playoff series, but turned it on following the All-Star break to cinch up the eighth seed. The Jazz have one of the youngest rosters in the league and posted their fifth postseason berth in six years earlier this week.
"We battled through everything. Nobody expected us to be where we're at, but we're there now," said Jazz forward Paul Millsap. "We worked hard for it. Hopefully, we're going to make some noise."
Tyrone Corbin is the first head coach not named Jerry Sloan to pilot the Jazz into the playoffs. It certainly was no guarantee the Jazz would make the playoffs after struggling through the month of February, but contributions from Al Jefferson, Millsap, Gordon Hayward and Devin Harris made the difference. Jefferson led the team in scoring and rebounding, while Harris finished with a team-high in assists.
Just like San Antonio, Utah finished in the top five in points per game. The Jazz lost three of four meetings with the Spurs in the regular season and are just 5-10 in the last 15 matchups in this series. Utah has lost 23 of its last 25 at San Antonio, so it's important to take care of business in Salt Lake City when the series shifts.
POINT GUARD: Parker had a solid season even though it lasted 66 games and averaged more than 18 points and a career-high seven assists per game. He isn't as quick off the dribble as Derrick Rose or Deron Williams, but the veteran Parker can still light it up from outside and drive the lane. Parker sets the wheels in motion with finesse and will bring a bevy of playoff experience into this matchup. In 138 career appearances (130 starts) in the postseason, Parker has averages of 18.8 points, 4.9 assists and 3.1 rebounds.
Harris posted over 10 points and five assists this season, and was heavily criticized before the 2011-12 campaign for not living up to expectations. Harris turned things around after some time and was part of the Williams deal with New Jersey last season. The quick floor general recorded all of his playoff experience from his days with Dallas, playing in 38 games (21 starts) and averaging 8.3 points and 2.4 assists. Even though Harris has a pair of forwards who can score at ease, he still has a lot to learn to get on Parker's level of experience and production.
SHOOTING GUARD: Hayward has come along quite nicely for Utah ever since he was picked in the first round of the 2010 draft. Averaging more than 10 points and three assists this season, Hayward is one of Corbin's most accurate shooters and can also be deadly inside. The former Butler star scored more than 10 points over 40 times this season and the Jazz need him to step up in his postseason debut. Hayward's numbers have easily surpassed his rookie total of 5.4 points and 1.1 assists.
Green was inserted into the San Antonio starting lineup back in February, and is having a career year with more than nine points and three rebounds. Green, who was drafted by Cleveland in 2009, has spent the last two years under the tutelage of Popovich and is a big threat from three-point range. Working alongside Parker would help anyone's career and Green knows it. He only played in four postseason games a year ago against Memphis, posting a total of five points, two assists, one rebound and one steal.
CENTER: Jefferson enjoyed another strong season in his second year with the Jazz and ended the season with more than 19 points and nine rebounds. The long Jefferson is a solid defender for Corbin and will be counted on to produce in this series against a tough San Antonio frontcourt. Jefferson was previously in the playoffs back in 2004-05 with Boston and averaged 6.1 points and 6.4 boards in seven contests. It will be vital for Utah if Jefferson, a double- double threat on a nightly basis, struggles against San Antonio's bigs.
Blair has a big body down low at 6-7, 270 pounds. Along with Duncan and Splitter, Blair will have a tremendous responsibility in shutting down Jefferson and Millsap, and that won't be an easy task. Blair doesn't burn down the house with numbers, but his work ethic and hustle is what Popovich likes from his young center. Blair played in just four postseason games last season and 14 total over the previous two years, posting averages of 3.9 points and 3.7 rebounds.
SMALL FORWARD: With all of the talk about San Antonio's age and being long in the tooth, Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard has ignited some youth back into the starting lineup. Leonard averaged more than seven points and five rebounds during his rookie season, and is one of five rookies to post four or more double-doubles this season. Leonard, who made his first start Jan. 11 vs. Houston, has helped the Spurs to more than 30 wins when inserted into the starting lineup. If he keeps it up the Spurs will be in decent shape for the future. Leonard did have trouble with a calf strain, but is healthy.
DeMarre Carroll has been starting the last few weeks for the Jazz and is expected to remain in the opening lineup when the playoffs commence. With no prior postseason experience, the Jazz are going to look raw in this position for at least the first two tests against the Spurs. At 6-8 and weighing in around 210 pounds, Carroll is not much of a scoring threat, but his presence inside will help slow down San Antonio's attack.
POWER FORWARD: Duncan is one of the greatest forwards to play the game. He is also one of just a few players to rank among the top 30 on the NBA's all-time scoring, rebounding and blocks list, joining the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes and Hakeem Olajuwon. A slick shooter from the elbow and one of very few to use the glass, Duncan brings a plethora of postseason experience into this series. In 176 playoff games -- all starts -- he is averaging 22.7 points and 12.4 rebounds. Duncan and Popovich are one of the best player-coach combinations with more than 700 victories.
Millsap is Utah's other dangerous big man and second-leading scorer behind Jefferson. Millsap is one of the best in the league at his position in shooting percentage, and can create his own shot. He definitely steps up his game with other All-Star forwards as evidenced by his more than 20 points and nine rebounds against the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and Dirk Nowitzki. A solid defender in steals and blocks, the long-armed Millsap is also among the team leaders in dunks, so getting to the rim is usually not an issue. Some say he is undersized for a power forward at 6-8, 245 pounds, but check the stats.
BENCH: San Antonio's bench is arguably the best in the NBA and Ginobili is the cause for that. With reserves that average about 40 points per game, the Spurs can usually exhale when their starters need a rest. And the numbers have skyrocketed to more than 50 ppg this month. Ginobili has also started this season, but does plenty of damage off the pine and leads the reserves in ppg. In 122 career playoff games (47 starts) he is averaging 16.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 steals. Matt Bonner, veteran Stephen Jackson, Neal and Splitter are Popovich's other top options to go to. Jackson has played in 58 postseason games -- all starts -- and owns averages of 15.3 points and 4.1 rebounds.
Corbin will have to rely heavily on his starters since his bench production isn't that great. Derrick Favors is a nice prospect down low to spell Jefferson or Millsap, and Josh Howard can play both the guard and forward position. Center Enes Kanter is no match for either Blair or Splitter, while guard Jamaal Tinsley can run the floor when Harris needs a rest. Tinsley has some playoff experience, having played 37 games (36 starts) from his days with Indiana. He owns averages of 7.5 points and 5.3 assists in the postseason.
COACHING: Like an elephant and an ant on opposite ends of a see-saw, that's where the coaching aspect lines up in this matchup. Popovich is a master of the chalkboard and last year's first-round exit was an aberration. The longest tenured coach with the same team in all four major professional sports, Popovich has a winning percentage of more than .600 and more than 800 victories with the Spurs. He is the only active coach with multiple NBA titles and his 108 playoff wins rank third in league history behind Phil Jackson and Pat Riley. The 2003 Coach of the Year has a playoff career winning percentage of .597 (108-73) -- the eighth best in NBA annals.
Corbin is wet behind the years when it comes to coaching in the playoffs and may learn something from Popovich when this series is over in five games or less. However, Corbin did get the Jazz back into the postseason after a one- year layoff and his players have bought into the system. The Jazz are a talented bunch, but not ready to take the next step. Stranger things have happened when a No. 1 seed meets the eighth, but not this year.
PREDICTION: Yes, the Spurs were ousted in six games against Memphis last year as the No. 1 seed in the West, but they have surprised too many this season to lay another stinker. The Jazz will bring some bite to the postseason simply because they're excited to be there, and that will equate to one win in the series at best. With Duncan's career winding down and both Parker and Ginobili growing old as well, the Spurs are actually a favorite to bring home their fifth NBA title. Now would be an ideal time to do it since San Antonio doesn't appear to have a strong nucleus of young talent.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: SPURS in 5