(Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images) It’s okay Tim, you’re still the best player of the past decade…and counting
This week, my San Antonio Spurs lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers. Yes, I was thoroughly disappointed and am just now recovered enough to write a post about it…partly as therapy. I need to sort out this rollercoaster-ride of a season for myself no matter how many paragraphs it takes.
The Lakers played a great series, Kobe played like an MVP should, and the rest of the team came together extremely well.
With that said, the Spurs showed their trademark stifling defense and stayed with the younger, quicker, more talented Lakers every step of the way. They played their hearts out and left it all on the line. What it came down to was them simply not having enough in the tank. There was too much to overcome, the bulk of which had to do with the Lakers’ excellent play.
Winning back-to-back championships has always proven elusive for the Spurs, who have won all four of their championships in odd-numbered years. So the fact that they won it all last year already began stacking the odds against them.
They started off the season on a tear, coming out with an extremely sharp and focused resolve that showed they were determined to finally seize this opportunity to defend their crown. The wins churned out as they worked themselves into an early groove.
But just as they were firing on all cylinders, obstacles started cropping up. Tim Duncan hurt his knee. A few games later, Tony Parker sprained his ankle. When those two returned, Manu Ginobili strained a ligament in his hand. Before you knew it, the team’s great early-season chemistry was thrown off, the losses started piling up, and doubts from the media — and from within the team itself — built up. The role players looked lost, the “Big Three” were never quite able to find a rhythm, Bruce Bowen’s defense started to crack, and coach Greg Popovich seemed clueless at times, desperate to find a solid rotation on the roster. They were even in danger of missing the playoffs altogether — unheard of for defending champs.
But the Spurs pulled together. And when Parker went down to injury again, Manu willed the season back to life, with Duncan being the steady, under-appreciated force as always.
Although the regular season took more out of them than they would’ve liked and the chemistry was rushed and haphazard for various reasons, they entered the playoffs with some confidence and momentum.
Their first opponent was an imposing, revamped Phoenix Suns team led by Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, and a rehabilitated Big Diesel. These Suns were considered legitimate championship contenders. And they were our freakin’ FIRST ROUND match-up. But the Spurs would put together some championship-caliber execution, a dominating will, and one fantastic Tim Duncan three-pointer to dismantle the Suns yet again in a series that was as tough as any five-game series could be.
It got even harder the next round as the upstart New Orleans Hornets, led by the incredibly talented Chris Paul, hit the ground running and caught the Spurs off guard. The young Hornets had the Spurs reeling after taking the first two games in commanding, blow-out fashion (taking advantage of a flu-weakened Tim Duncan who had a 103-degree fever at one point). Everyone figured they were done. But the Spurs refused to step down to the up and coming. They regrouped and threw themselves back into the series, exchanging blow for blow and outlasting the Hornets in an impressive gut-it-out Game 7.
Next up were the Lakers, fresh off a decisive dismissal of a solid Utah Jazz team.
If I had to use one word to describe this series, it would be “exhaustion.” With only two days to prepare for the Lakers, the Spurs had to fly in directly from New Orleans. They boarded their plane right after finishing off the Hornets only to have mechanical failures force them to use the plane/runway as a hotel for the night. With a physical Game 7 and only a single night of good sleep behind them, they trudged into Staples Center for that first game and built a 20-point lead by the third quarter. Then things started crumbling. The Lakers surged, Kobe got hot, and the Spurs got tired — and inexcusably stopped executing. (It was inexcusable no matter where they slept two nights before.) Their passes missed their marks, their shots clanged, and their legs became heavy. Game 1 on the road, the best chance at gaining command of a series, slipped out of their hands.
After that, it was a steep, uphill battle. They had drained even more precious energy in a losing effort. They hadn’t even gotten a chance to recover from — let alone appreciate — the giant feat of overcoming the Hornets. The team looked drained, but the “Big Three” of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili were indeed good enough to carry them once again. Duncan’s “decline” wasn’t much of a decline at all. Parker had all his speed and quickness, with a constantly improving jumpshot. Ginobili was coming off a career-best season. These three were good enough to give them a chance to retool after another trip to the Finals.
That’s why the most crucial issue was found in Manu Ginobili’s left ankle. He injured it against the Suns in the second game of the playoffs and aggravation after aggravation of it slowly limited him. He went from being the slashing, fearless, unstoppable whirling-derby of energy to a mere spot-shooter who got an occasional layup (in other words, a Ray Allen with less shooting touch). He got by against the Hornets because they were so committed to doubling Duncan and scrambling to rotate on everyone else.
Against the Lakers, the Spurs needed more out of him. They needed his fiery leadership. They needed him to single-handedly take over games with his cold-blooded knack for coming up with the most opportune shot or pass. They needed his chaotic, unpredictable, far-from-pretty, but absolutely beautiful drives to the basket. They needed him to be Manu. But that Manu was nowhere in sight. What we got instead was a guy operating with a body that couldn’t carry his immense will and desire. There were flashes, sure, like in Game 3 when he threw in three-pointers from all over the court on his way to 30 points. Or the weak-side blocks that came out of nowhere in the closing minutes of Game 5. Or an occasional whip-around pass. But that was it. Only flashes.
When asked about his ankle repeatedly throughout the Conference Finals, Manu replied each time with, “The ankle is not an issue.”
In fact, it was the biggest issue of all. In many ways, this series cemented his status as my favorite player. Anyone could see he was hurting and wasn’t half his normal self. He went out there every game and gave the team everything he could muster out of 1.5 legs. And after each inevitable failure, he would face the reporters and talk about how he needed to step up, how he didn’t come up with what was needed — never once putting blame on his injuries (which included getting an entire fingernail torn off his shooting hand). As a huge Manu fan, it was painful, and damn near heartbreaking, to watch.
And Manu’s personal struggle was reflected in the rest of the team.
Age finally caught up with the role players. Robert Horry, for all his “playoff clutch,” was rarely more than just “old.” Brent Barry made all the jumpshots, passes, and cuts his 36-year-old body can make, almost winning us a couple games. Kurt Thomas stepped up when called upon. (Perhaps Coach Pop should have called upon him sooner and more often.)
Bruce Bowen played the most magnificent defense one can play on Kobe, making him work his ass off for every point he got, while remarkably keeping him off the free-throw line. But Bowen’s defense couldn’t make baskets for the Spurs…
Even Tony Parker’s young legs, which matched step-for-step the relentless Chris Paul just a week earlier, seemed weighted and tired for stretches. Without shooters making open shots and Ginobili unable to do much, Parker found it much tougher to get into the paint or score when the team really needed him to.
Tim Duncan, the quiet, dominant foundation of the Spurs, saw everything falling apart around him and tried to put the team on his back. He snatched rebounds, fought through double and triple teams, and played just as hard, if not harder, on the defensive end. He did absolutely everything he could do.
This year, these Spurs clawed, dug down, and overcame. All season long. They clawed through a tumultuous regular season in which there was very real danger of dropping out of the playoffs — where they had to fight to just keep the season alive. They overcame two playoff opponents that were every bit as capable of winning it all as anyone else. They overcame the 103 degree fever that hit Tim Duncan against the Hornets.
And after a seven game comeback series against those Hornets and an already-hobbled Manu Ginobili being hobbled beyond repair…it was just too much.
But they fought anyway. They didn’t make excuses. No complaints about calls or non-calls (unlike a certain Phil Jackson). Not even a complaint about their damned plane breaking down and being forced to use it as a hotel room. I’m not even sure if we’ll ever find out from the team or staff just how badly injured Ginobili really was.
Coach Pop came up with all the right defensive schemes and adjustments against Phil Jackson. The players did all they could to execute those plans, and came close to getting it done. They just ran out of gas.
Unlike the first repeat attempt in 2000, when Duncan went down for the season two games before the playoffs; or in 2004, when Derek Fisher drained the “.4” shot; or 2006, the year of the Manu three-pointer/foul combo; this time, they simply weren’t good enough after all the cards were dealt.
But with so much looming in front of them, the Spurs never quit. They kept at it. They had to have known how futile it was, how tired they were, that Manu’s ankle wasn’t getting any better. But they dug down deeper, running on fumes, and gave it everything they had until the VERY end. Contrary to what commercials will tell you, that doesn’t happen often enough in sports (see: Kobe Bryant, Game 7 vs. Phoenix in 2006).
As a fan, you can’t ask for anything more than that. I think that’s why this one’s a bit easier to take than any of the other playoff exits. I’m as proud of them as I can be without them winning a championship…maybe even prouder.
But while many Spurs and basketball fans took it as a loss, the rest of the sports world seemed to rejoice.
The Spurs, statistically the most dominant team in any of the four major sports in the U.S. for the past 11 years, have also been one of the most hated, neglected, discredited, and/or just ignored successful franchises ever. It’s actually ridiculous how little recognition they get. Much of it has to do with the fact that they don’t offer highlight-reel dunks (outside of Manu), scream-fueled chest pounding, or grandiose sound-bites (although Brent Barry quotes are awesome). They don’t even offer the occasional arrest or drug possession. Execution, consistency, class, and wins are all the Spurs have provided the sports world, from the front-office to the players. Apparently that’s not enough for the mainstream fans and media.
After years of giving them minimal token-recognition, the media chooses this year to finally give them the respect they deserve…only for the purpose of announcing the end of their “reign.” Since when did so many people start admitting it is a “reign” or an “era”? I think I heard them referred to as “The Team of the Decade” for the first time this decade. Everyone is calling this the end of the Spurs, not really as a celebration, but as a relief. “Oh they were great, but thank God they’re finally gone. Now we could glory in Lakers-Celtics again.”
But are they gone? For a bunch of old guys and has-beens, the Spurs had a very good shot at winning 3 out of the 4 games they lost to the Lakers. They matched blow-out wins. Really, one could argue that the series was one Manu Ginobili ankle away from being a 4-1 victory for the Spurs. Then what would the media be saying?
Don’t worry, as much as people may hate them, the Spurs aren’t going anywhere any time soon. As they’ve done before, they’ll find the right pieces to fit around the Big Three, who are still in their prime. (They have no choice since half the bench is retiring.) Ginobili’s ankle will heal. Duncan will bring his consistent, rock-solid dominance. Tony Parker will get even better. They’ll be back at it, driving down ratings and pleasing basketball purists everywhere.
As Tim Duncan put it, “We just got to gear it up and go to next year.”
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