Duncan, Spurs take one step closer to NBA Finals
A month and a half ago the Spurs were plodding to the finish line, plagued by an injury situation that had rotations out of whack and players fatigued as they waited for the troops to return. A 10-10 record to finish the regular season had built up a cloud of doubt surrounding the team’s 16th consecutive playoff run. Now, they find themselves on the precipice of Tim Duncan’s fifth NBA Finals appearance. It reteaches us a lesson we’ll certainly forget again, that what we see late in the 82-game marathon is often an illusion.
There was tangible evidence to the contrary line of thinking, though. San Antonio lost Tony Parker in early March, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw in the final weeks of the season, and Stephen Jackson was shockingly waived by the team with less than a week left before the playoffs began. The roster was skimpy, and execution on both sides of the ball crumbled without several of its best players out on the court. In a Western Conference stacked with youth and crazy talent, doubting the Spurs was an understandable sentiment to hold.
Even Gregg Popovich shared some semblance of it. He said prior to San Antonio’s first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers that this was the most uncomfortable he’d ever been heading into the postseason, that he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to get. The “flip the switch” mentality is a dangerous one Pop and the players had no interest wrestling.
But in the locker room things were a little different. Perhaps a little more forthcoming. Whether it’s the supreme confidence that comes with the package of being a professional athlete or just plain old honesty, the Spurs themselves were just ready for the postseason to start. They were counting the days until until that second season began, meanwhile just biding their time and recuperating.
So as San Antonio walked off the court after Game 3 with a 103-92 win and a 3-0 series lead, it did so while collectively embracing its captain, knowing full well Tim Duncan’s fifth trip to the Finals now seems inevitable. The 37-year-old’s 24 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocks in 44 minutes of court time supplied more evidence of the big man’s imperviousness to Father Time’s unblemished record. While it’s true, one day the end of the line will arrive, Duncan is showing the patriarch of the body’s clock that it’s going to at least take overtime to bring him down. Which is appropriate.
The Spurs scored 18 points in the extra frame against the Grizzlies this time, exceeding their total first-quarter output by five points and improving their postseason overtime record to 3-1 (five overtime periods in four such games). And speaking of the number 18, it was the point-margin of the largest deficit they faced all night, but once, it didn’t matter.
The Spurs now have three 18-point comeback victories over the last two postseasons, as many as the rest of the NBA has combined during that timeframe.
So we digress, back to the time of Pop’s uncertainty, to when these players weren’t keen on flipping any switches, and even to now, when Manu Ginobili is keeping a cool head above the excitement of what’s next.
“I still don’t know how we won Game 3,” he said.
Yes you do, Manu. It’s because your team is better than Memphis, better than most anyone outside of your own locker room was led to believe. Many picked the Lakers a month ago, and the Warriors and Grizzlies bandwagons became crowded soon thereafter. But now the Spurs stand 11-2 in the playoffs, just one win away from the ultimate NBA destination. You know how you won Game 3, Manu, because you’ve done this before.
It’s been a while since San Antonio has been this close, however, since they could taste the Finals this poignantly. The Grizzlies are wounded, and a Spurs team that has dispatched so many along the way during the Duncan era smells blood. Parker said to the media present in Memphis, “…we don’t want to give them hope.”
Hope is not an easy thing to attain when there is no historical precedent upon which you can base your wishes. Memphis struggles mightily to score at times, and now is faced with the proposition of winning four straight against a San Antonio team that’s elite on both sides of the ball. Not even the early barrage was enough to propel the Grizzlies to their first series win, even in the comforts of the uncomfortable-sounding ‘Grindhouse.’
The road Memphis is about to travel has been worn down by its predecessors, but none of them have reached the finish line. Of the 107 teams that have faced a 3-0 series deficit in the NBA postseason, not a one has fully recovered, and only a few have even sniffed a Game 7. To say their chances are slim would likely be an understatement.
So as San Antonio mobbed its franchise cornerstone after the game, it wasn’t because they’re doing this all for him. They’re doing all of this because of him. For 16 years Duncan has been the load-bearing wall, the silent support beam that has carried the Spurs the whole way through without any credit requirements. He’s had his share of wonderful teammates, the most crucial of which are still alongside him, but it’s been his presence that’s allowed the rest of the pieces to flourish. Whether it was the unpredictable Ginobili or the youthful Parker, Tim’s steadiness has been the factor that’s allowed those two to do what they do so well.
And here he is, just as important to his team in 2013 as he was in 1999. Most things change with time, but Tim Duncan does not fit in the ‘most things’ category. His career finale will inevitably come, and it might just be here before you know it. Enjoy every second of this, because when the big man does decide to hang ’em up, it’ll be as unceremonious and unassuming as every minute of his career has been. It’s just the way he is.
But for now, the Spurs are just one win away from giving Duncan the same opportunity he afforded David Robinson: a chance to go out on top. If he so chooses, that is.