There was a time, in the not so distant past, when the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers would battle much later in the Western Conference playoffs.
Since the 2000-01 postseason, the Spurs and Lakers have battled five times in the playoffs with the Lakers coming out on top four times. Since 1999, the two teams have won nine of the 14 championships contested.
But this season has been different, not so much for the Spurs, who are more consistent than a sunrise. It has been a challenge for the Lakers.
In a preseason ripe with exorbitant expectations, the Lakers struggled immediately. Mike Brown was fired five games into the season and replaced by Mike D'Antoni.
Once the whole team was assembled, which took a while because Steve Nash was injured a lot, the group didn't mesh. Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, who along with Nash represented the reason for infinitely-high expectation, didn't seem to get along. Pau Gasol fell out of favor with D'Antoni, then fell out of the starting lineup.
Plus, all four major contributors, and future Hall of Famers - Bryant, Gasol, Howard and Nash - missed significant time with injuries.
Bryant's latest injury is the most significant. He tore his left Achilles tendon and will miss the postseason, a crushing blow for a team that not only qualified for the playoffs in the last game of the season, but actually jumped to the seventh seed.
"From where we 20 or 30 games ago, seven (seed) is pretty good, from where we were," said D'Antoni. "We should've been in that spot in the first place, it's our fault. We'll have to go into San Antonio and win one. San Antonio's a great team and it's obviously not going to be easy, but like they (Lakers) said, it hasn't been easy all year, so why would it be now."
It won't be.
You can set your watch to how consistently great the Spurs are. They owned the best record in the Western Conference though much of the season, but the Oklahoma City Thunder passed them by in the final weeks.
Not that the regular season means a hill of beans to Spurs' head coach Gregg Popovich.
"The season begins again," he said on Wednesday.
Popovich rested healthy players throughout the season, even earning his franchise a $250,000 fine when he sent Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green and Tim Duncan home on a commercial flight the day the Spurs were supposed to play the defending champion Miami Heat.
All of those benchings hopefully will keep the veteran Spurs healthy for another deep run in the postseason. Duncan has enjoyed a career renaissance and Parker was mentioned in some MVP talk before a sprained ankle in the last six weeks of the season.
The Spurs won two of three this season against the Lakers, but lost on the final Sunday of the regular season. That was the Lakers' first game without Bryant.
BACKCOURT: This would've been a heck of fight, if everyone was healthy.
With Bryant and Nash both hurt (Nash has not been ruled out of the playoffs with hip and back issues), Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake have gotten the call. Blake especially has risen to the challenge, averaging 20.3 ppg over the final three of the regular season.
Parker is just a marvel. He posted a career-high average of 20.3 ppg and the second-best assist mark at 7.6 per game. He shot an astounding 52 percent from the field, thanks in large part to his ability to still knife through the lane like a 21-year-old. Green was one of six Spurs to average double figures this season. He's a decent defender, great 3-point shooter (42 percent) and actually played the most minutes this season for San Antonio.
FRONTCOURT: The Lakers boast Howard, Gasol and Metta World Peace, who recovered from a major knee surgery in about half the anticipated recovery time. Since Bryant went down, Howard has averaged 21 ppg, 17.5 rpg and 3.5 bpg. Gasol, who's had trouble fitting in D'Antoni's system, has posted 12.5 ppg, 18 rpg and threw a triple-double in the season finale.
"Right now, they are the two guys that really have to run the ship and we have to do everything possible to make things easy for them and for them to not to have to work as much on both ends of the floor," said backup forward Antawn Jamison.
For Howard, this has been a "down" season despite leading the NBA in rebounding for the fifth time, finishing second in field-goal percentage and fifth in blocked shots. His scoring dipped to a six-season low of 17.1 ppg. Gasol has struggled, no question. All of his statistics across the board are down from seasons past.
Duncan posted his best scoring season in the last three, his best rebounding campaign in the last four and his best shot-blocking season in 10 years. He has been a delight to watch as The Big Fundamental. Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard have taken a more active role and both average double figures this season.
BENCH: So much of the Lakers bench depends on who is available. If Blake and Meeks are both starting, the reserves are thin. Jamison is dependable and Earl Clark started for a while during the season. Darius Morris is the lone guard without Nash in the lineup.
The Spurs' bench received a huge boost in the season finale when Ginobili returned from a hamstring injury to play almost 12 minutes against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
"He felt good. He felt very good, obviously his wind isn't going to be there yet, but he felt great," Popovich said of Ginobili.
Popovich has literally seven guys he feels comfortable going to on the bench and that number will be eight if the Spurs advance. Boris Diaw could be back from back surgery later in the playoffs. The number could even grow to nine if you include Tracy McGrady, who was signed on Tuesday after playing in China all season.
COACHING: Popovich is one of the greatest coaches in the history of basketball.
D'Antoni is not.
PREDICITION: A few weeks back, when the Lakers began making their ascent into the playoff mix, they were a trendy pick as a team no one wanted to play. There is still a gluttony of talent there, but without Bryant, this is a tall task.
Each season, the Spurs rely less and less on the Big Three and develop key players like this season with Leonard, Green and Splitter. The Spurs haven't made an NBA Finals since the 2006-07 postseason.
The clock is ticking and San Antonio, based on the resurgence of Duncan, could be poised right now.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICITION: SPURS in 6.