Spurs are champs out West as Parker continues to keep promise

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Whenever he’s had the chance, Tim Duncan has made it a point to remind Tony Parker of the promise he made after last season’s bitter Western Conference Finals loss to the Thunder. Quite simply, the Spurs’ point guard has been given a single objective this year: get the Big Fundamental his fifth ring.

On Memorial Day of 2013, 14 years after Sean Elliott’s Miracle pushed his team closer to the franchise’s first title, Parker led the Spurs back to their fifth NBA Finals berth with a dominant season-high 37-point performance in a sweep-capping 93-86 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. It’s been six years since the streets of downtown San Antonio were in gridlock over a Western Conference championship, but that familiar feeling of June basketball is back in the Alamo City.

And right now, Parker looks impossible to stop.

He darted in and out of pick and rolls from every angle on the floor, leading anyone who tried to guard him through a gauntlet of screens that left defenders no chance to keep up with the Spurs’ water bug. For a Grizzlies team already exhausted by desperation, it was a torture chamber.

It was a nightmare for Memphis, one of the league’s elite defensive groups, having to make adjustment after adjustment in an attempt to blockade the Spurs’ offensive motor. When they collapsed on him, he found the open man. When they stuck to their assignment, Parker found the lanes through and around the Grizzlies’ bigs at will on his way to the rim. It’s been clinical execution from the time Game 1 tipped a little more than a week ago, and for a limited offensive team like the one in Memphis, it felt like there was a perpetual hump that was impossible to overcome.

And make no mistake about it, the Grizzlies are a hell of a team. The Spurs were just firing on a level they were unable to match.

Parker’s 37 points — the fourth-highest single-game point total of his playoff career — came on a ridiculous 15-for-21 performance from the floor and were accompanied by six assists. He scored nearly 40 percent of his team’s points on this night, leading the way for the Spurs’ Big 3 that together will soon make their fourth Finals appearance in the last decade. On Monday night, Parker, Duncan and Manu Ginobili become the only trio of players in history to make it to the NBA’s final destination for the fourth time for a team not named the Lakers or Celtics. On top of that, it will be 14 years between Duncan’s first appearance in the Finals and his latest with the same team, a league record.

The big man pitched in with 15 points, eight rebounds and four blocks in 35 minutes, and in front of the media was business-like as usual.

“My sole focus is to just get this done, try to get another championship,” Duncan said. “I don’t care (about) records, I don’t care (about) age, I don’t care (about) any of that stuff. I just want to do what I have to do to try and win a championship.”

But the cameras caught the jubilation his teammates felt for their franchise cornerstone. Just as they had done after Game 3’s win, Spurs players couldn’t keep their hands off of Duncan. After all, they’re doing this for him, in a league far too often lacking in selflessness and humility. Patty Mills and DeJuan Blair saw only moments on the court throughout the series, yet were the first ones off the bench to embrace the big man. His teammates know he deserves their best.

Especially Parker.

The sting of the Western Conference Finals of 2012, where San Antonio took a two-game lead into Chesapeake Arena in Oklahoma City only to be capsized in four consecutive games, has been on their collective brain all season. This time around, there were no extravagant winning streaks or sure things. It’s been a grind since the end of the regular season left most pining for more than the struggles they endured down the stretch.

But Duncan had Parker’s word.

“Since last year, I promised to (Duncan) that we will go back to the Finals and get an opportunity to win the whole thing. I try to do my best, try to be aggressive every night, and I think everybody on the team really wanted to do it for him,” the point guard said. “We won the West and now there’s one more step. This is the hardest one. We know it’s going to be tough, but right now let’s enjoy it and we’ll focus on who we’re playing later.”

To a man, it’s been an all-out effort. Even for San Antonio’s Hall-of-Fame sixth man, whose struggles are becoming more commonplace than aberration, it’s been about doing all the little things the right way.

“We all try to help Tony and TD, they’ve been of course our best players. If it’s with a steal, rebound, block or whatever, we are there,” Ginobili said after the game. “This was an unbelievable series by everybody. (The Grizzlies) are a tough, hard-nosed team. We’re very proud of what we just accomplished.

“I can’t believe we are (this) close.”

And it’s easy to be surprised, especially when you look back two years to when these teams last met in the playoffs. Then, the beaten-down, overmatched Spurs fell prey to the hungry Grizzlies as the No. 1-seed was toppled by an eighth seed in one of the most shocking playoff defeats in the franchise’s history. Zach Randolph’s domination was a big reason for it at the time.

But the affectionately named Z-Bo disappeared  over the last week amidst the barrage of Spurs defenders that consumed him through the sweep. And whether it was the San Antonio game plan or Randolph’s inability to remove himself from between his own ears, the human wrecking-ball was as detrimental to his own team as he’s ever been.

In that 2011 series, the Grizzlies’ power forward lit up the Spurs for 21.5 points per game on 50 percent shooting, playing a style of basketball for which San Antonio had no answer. But over the course of the recently completed four-game sweep, Randolph’s numbers were putrid. He was stifled by silver and black jerseys every second he was on the floor while he gritted his way to 11 points a night on just 30 percent shooting.

The message was sent loud and clear from San Antonio: not this time, Z-Bo.

“There’s no magic. We didn’t come up with some new defense to guard him. We were aggressive, we did a lot of denying, a lot of pressure on the passer who was trying to deliver the ball,” Gregg Popovich said. “We fronted and three-quartered and showed a lot of looks on the post, we didn’t just stay behind (Randolph). We made it difficult for him to catch. For the most part, I thought the post defense, the foot-movement, the commitment, was fantastic.”

Last season, San Antonio cruised into the postseason with the whir of a bandsaw slicing effortlessly through any defense it faced. But to steal a term that motivated Memphis all season, it’s been a grind for the 2013 version of the Spurs. A revamped defense and a paramount placed on precise execution has taken San Antonio to where it is today, and regardless of the team they face in the NBA Finals, both aspects of the game plan will be as crucial as they’ve ever been.

Duncan was unsurprisingly stoic in front of the cameras and microphones shoved in his face as the Spurs narrative grows increasingly more interesting. He said (and didn’t say) all the right things as he realizes there’s still another step to take. And as Popovich shooed his players off the celebratory podium before the cameras even stopped rolling, you could see the piercing focus undeterred in the coach’s eyes. The job is not finished. There’s still one hurdle ahead looming larger than the rest before it.

But thanks to social media and the private access it provides to the outside world, you can see their smiles through the lens of a cellphone camera. While not satisfied to stop where they are, the Spurs are excited by what they have accomplished. The young players who have never felt this stage under their feet are all ecstatic to be standing there in a photograph with their teammate, the great Tim Duncan. And make no mistake, they’ll do anything to bring him what he covets most.

There are nine days before the Finals begin on June 6, and whether it be a Game 1 in Miami or a series-opener in San Antonio against the Indiana Pacers, the Spurs have more time than they’d like to deliberate, to game plan and to recuperate. But they’ll take a sweep over any other option, and they’ll take advantage of the period of rest that lies ahead. For Parker, it’s a chance to gear back up for what could be the test of his life.

And there’s no reason to think he won’t be ready for the platform on which he won the 2007 Finals MVP. Besides, up to this point, he has done everything needed of him to make good on a very important promise.


  • neverthehero

    A great article. I noticed already quite a few people saying that they haven’t won anything yet, (mostly twitters). I feel sorry for people who can’t enjoy moments like this. I didn’t see any outlandish celebrations. Just some fun pictures with the conference title and I guarantee you after tonight, it’s back to business. I’m personally waiting for 7 days of stories to come out. The best chance that Pop and the 3 have to win another. The ‘others’ that have a chance to have their own Kerr or Horry moments to hearld them into greatness. People like Blair that most likely won’t be on the team next year but has stayed with it with a smile and winning attitude….

  • SpurredOn

    First, it feels tremendous to avenge the 2011 series loss. That it was clinched in Memphis, sight of the ’11 elimination, in a sweep, was excellent. Perhaps the Spurs can do the same to OKC in the 2014 playoffs.

    Happy for the entire team. It’s been too long. Any of these guys can be the deciding factor in the next series. This win also keeps another fun Duncan/Kobe era streak going: the winner of Spurs-Lakers always goes to the Finals.

  • Graham

    Weird premonition, especially after tonight…..Diaw is going to be the critical piece to tear down Miami’s Defense. His passing game is tailor made for Miami’s overagressive D.

    Though if Indiana can steal this series all the better.

  • NYC

    I have no words. I have no words.
    So. Happy.

  • http://inargenti.nl René Torenstra

    If “my” Spurs weren’t in the finals, I’d root for Indiana to win their series. And I hear a lot of Spurs fans saying they would like Indiana as an opponent.
    But I want the Heat in the finals, although it would be nice if they’d have to go to game 7 in the conference finals.

    I want to beat the Heat! Also, if the Heat wouldn’t make it, we’d have to hear from the Heat bandwagon that the Heat have superior talent, etc., etc.
    I am confident that the Spurs can beat the Heat. It won’t be easy, but imagine the extra satisfaction if the Spurs do get it done!

  • The Kawhiet Storm

    I feel lucky to be old enough to remember the Hemisfair days, so special to see this group back in the finals. To put things in perspective, I had just turned 17 when the Spurs won their 1st NBA title, I will be turning 31 on June 6th. In that time I graduated high school, went to college, worked a dozen jobs, lived in San Antonio, Austin, Madison, Wisconsin, Prague the Czech Republic, Austin again. Lived under 3 different presidents, world changing events,had friends and family go fight in two wars, got married, got divorced, had people I loved leave this world and new ones enter it. The only constants in those 14 years have been the inconsistency of life and the San Antonio Spurs. It might be hyperbolic to weigh the achievements of a sports franchise against grit and grind of real every day life but sometimes when everything around us seems chaos even the smallest pebble can seem a rock to which we can cling and weather the storm of life.

    People make so much of how the Grizzlies reflect the character of the city of memphis but I don’t think any franchise embodies the spirit of their town more than the Spurs. San Antonio has grown so much in the last 14 years but the city still feels the same in the best sense of the word. Unlike Austin and Dallas and Houston the city has an identity that does not dilute or waver despite the city’s growth, expansion or success. When I left San Antonio for college in 2000 I couldn’t wait to go out and see what else there. now as a 31 year old man I cannot wait for the days I make that trip down I 35 and remember what is like to feel at Home. Our Spurs, and yes they are OUR Spurs, are an immeasurably large part of that. That and the TexMex food.

  • funktron

    We are all just so blessed and lucky to be fans of a team like this one. I would love and follow my team regardless, but the fact that they are so unselfish, so committed to reach other, so dedicated to playing the game the right way and so humble in victory or defeat – it is truly special. This run, whether it ends in a title or not, has been so so so much fun.

  • exocast33

    I’m a Spurs fan in Florida, and you are 100% correct. People already question whether or not Spurs would be in Finals if Westbrook, Kobe or even Steph Curry weren’t injured. Gotta beat the best – to be the best. I started watching the Spurs when my infant son was in the hospital in 2007 — finally I had found a team that played the brand of team ball that loved. My son is 7 years old now, and I want to see the Spurs win one more.

  • td4life

    I’m worried about the rust factor. Spurs didn’t look great in the first 2 games vs GSW after the rest they got following the first round sweep. Miami has been vulnerable in their Game 1s and I’d rather them not be too warmed up going into the Finals. As much as I’m rooting for Indy to give them a good fight, it seems like the teams that just got out of a long series have had an edge (including the Spurs who killed Memphis in game one following a competitive six games vs the Warriors).

    Miami is a different beast, unlike anything our guys have faced thus far.

    During this rest period, our guys better tune up their distance shooting. For real! IF our guys come out on fire, they have a real chance to steal the first game. I hope Chip is working with everybody, and the coaches are running the hell out of some good shooting drills this week! This has to be a TOP PRIORITY, along instilling a defensive scheme that defends the arc and scouts each of their 3-point threats to a man. The Spurs CANNOT let Allen, Battier, Miller, Chalmers, Lewis and Bosh get hot from outside in this series. Absolutely cannot.

  • camnpat

    I hear ya and I agree with the concern. But it is a double edge sword: on one hand the 8 days of rest can cause rust, but on the other one it gives a chance for everyone to recoup from all the injuries and bruises that the team had and accumulated over the last 3 series. In the end, a rusty team may not shoot the best but a healthy, rejuvenated team can maintain high defensive intensity just as well.

  • junierizzle

    I don’t care if they beat Indiana, a championship is a championship. All people would remember is 5 rings for Duncan. It doesn’t matter who got hurt. No one cared that Manu was playing with a broken arm in 2011 against Memphis. All they remember is the Grizz killing us inside.

  • gloomis99

    If this was last year’s Heat I’d like our chances but with the addition of Allen and Anderson, if Wade shows up at all we are in real trouble. That said, I much prefer to see them then Indiana. Miami, the me me me team, the me me me city versus a team that leads the league in assists that epitomizes team ball and franchise management. Leonard and Green are going to have to be more aggressive offensively w/o dribbling too much against Lebron and Wade. Splitter will have to stay out of foul trouble to mitigate Duncan’s minutes and Manu, oh Manu, will have to play under control as backup point guard. I can sacrifice brilliant for the sake of consistent. Win or lose, I hope we push them to the brink.

    And if it’s Indiana. Then yeahhhhh buddy.

  • thomas pickles

    just dropping in to say thanks for the consistently great articles, matthew. you’ve been a great addition to this blog.

  • STIJL

    WOW! One of the best articles I’ve read. If a lump in somebody’s throat was what was intended, you accomplished the task.

  • STIJL

    If Miami (or Indy) plays “overagressive D”, I believe it will help Parker keep his promise. The most improved part of his game that I haven’t seen anybody comment upon is Tony’s much improved court awareness. Taking what the other team gives him and dismantling what’s thrown his way.

  • STIJL

    Following up on a Ginobili comment that might have come off sour. It’s not that Manu isn’t going to give all he has. He always does. But the fact remains, he hasn’t been able to consecutively play as the Manu of old because of the wear and tear his tenure in this league and the Euro league before.

    What I’d like to see (pray) is that when those in between games when Ginobili cannot perform as we fondly remember, others on the team can step up to the plate and help Manu as well in this historic series for the Spurs.

    As deserving as Duncan is in the team being excited and focused to winning one more championship for him….Ginobili deserves that promise as well.

    Do it for Duncan. Do it for Ginobili. Do it for old time sake. And as a team…Just Do It.

  • Matthew R Tynan

    Very nice of you to say…thanks!

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