If things ended well, they wouldn't end.
This may be hard to believe considering how many years the Spurs spent tormenting Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns, but San Antonio's Game 4 loss to the Grizzlies really bummed me out. It's not like I ever hated the Spurs. Well, okay, in 2006-07, when Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the scorer's table
and precipitated the Game 5 suspensions of Amare "I hadn't added the apostrophe yet" Stoudemire and Boris Diaw...that year I hated the Spurs. Between the mad floppery of Manu Ginobili
, the rampant Duncan faces
, and the many crimes against humanity committed by Bruce Bowen
, the Spurs (for a time) began to embody a quality I hate in certain NBA teams: The willingness to do anything, be it bending rules (such as flopping or whining to the officials) or taking cheap shots (see the collected works of Bowen and Horry), to win.
Still, for the most part, the Duncan era teams actually represented much of what I love about basketball. The Spurs (usually) were a model of character and consistency. San Antonio played basketball the right way: Emotionally, intellectually and physically. Based in no small part on the demands of coach Gregg Popovich, the Spurs stressed the fundamentals of sports and life, focusing on loyalty and teamwork above all else. Management sought out smart players and built nothing but success on a strong foundation. That foundation being Tim Duncan.
The Spurs won their fourth NBA title in 2007...and haven't been back to the Finals since. There were mitigating circumstances, of course, specifically injuries to Ginobili in 2008 and 2009. But last season, when a reasonably healthy and restocked San Antonio team stumbled (by their standards) through the regular season and then got swept by (of all teams) the Suns in the Western Conference Semis, the Duncan era seemed essentially (if not officially) over.
Then something unexpected happened.
With the professional basketball world focused on the Celtics, Bulls, Heat and Lakers, the Spurs came tearing out of the gates. They got off to the best start in franchise history and had a stranglehold on the league's best record for most of the season. Popovich finally relented and let his players go all out to earn the top seed in the Western Conference. They got it. The Spurs finished the 2010-11 campaign with 61 wins and homecourt advantage in every series barring a matchup with Chicago in the NBA Finals.
But we can all admit something was wrong, can't we? The Duncan era champions (and championship contenders) were characterized by relentless defense, near-flawless execution and a grind-it-out style of play that wore down their opponents. This is why San Antonio served as the perfect foil for the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. And they proved to many people, beyond any shadow of doubt, that offense wins MVPs and regular season win-loss titles, but defense wins championships.
That's why it came as such as shock when this year's Spurs team became
a sort of zero-calorie version of the SSoL Suns. Instead of slowing the game down, they sped it up, finishing 8th in fast break points per game (15.2). They became one of the league's best offensive teams, ranking 6th in PPG (103.7) and 2nd in Offensive Rating (111.8). On defense, they were adequate but no longer elite, finishing 11th in Defensive Rating (105.6).
Now, remember that 2006-07 Suns team I mentioned? You know, the one that may have been one bush-league move by Big Shot Rob from overcoming the Spurs and possibly going all the way to the NBA Finals? That Phoenix squad won 61 games. They finished 1st in PPG (110.2), 1st in Offensive Rating (113.9) and 13th in Defensive Rating (106.4). But the Spurs slowed them down, beat them up, and sent them home early.
History is repeating itself. Somehow, in some way, the Grizzlies have metamorphosed into the Spurs and the Spurs have transformed into the Suns. Last night, Memphis slowed the pace down to a near halt (87.4) and gradually pounded San Antonio into meek submission. The
sprint-and-score Spurs finished with an Offensive Rating of 98.4. The Grizzlies had an O-Rating of 119.1.
You know what else is wrong with the Spurs? Tim Duncan. Oh, I saw his decline coming and watched it happening, noting it (some would say harping on it) repeatedly on this blog. Some people called me (and people who agreed with me) a naysayer. They pointed to advanced metrics. After all, they reasoned, Duncan's PER, eFG%, TS%, rebounding percentages and Wins Shares weren't all that far off his career numbers. He was still just as (or almost as) efficient...just playing fewer minutes. Staying fresh. Saving himself for the playoffs.
Still, he had quite a few un-Duncan-like performances this season. Out of the 76 games he played, Duncan scored in single figures 21 times. By comparison, that happened only seven times in 78 games the previous season and only four times in 75 games the season before that. Timmy had not one but two games against the Lakers in which he finished with a mere 2 points on 1-for-7 shooting. He had another game against L.A. in which he managed only 8 points on 3-for-12 from the field. He had a 5-point game (on 2-for-9 shooting) against the hapless Wizards. He had a 3-for-7 outing against the Clippers and a 2-for-10 night versus the Hornets. There was a 5-for-14 night against the defenseless Knicks and...I could go on, but you must see my point.
Duncan's bad nights were becoming more frequent and more, well, bawful.
Here's where we have to talk about hard realities. During his career, Duncan has logged 37,733 minutes in 1,053 regular season games. On top of that, he has put in an additional 6,877 minutes in 174 playoff games. He has carried a franchise on his back for 13 long seasons. That takes a serious toll.
You know what else takes a toll? Being an old school big man in a little (or smaller) man's game. David Stern has successfully legislated into existence an NBA in which perimeter players like Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, et al. really can't be touched, relatively speaking. But big men are still allowed to push and shove. And let me be clear: The pounding that perimeter players absorb during their forays to the hoop is nothing -- I repeat nothing
-- compared to the constant beating big men take on a nightly basis. Duncan rarely gets a play off from being grabbed, held and knocked around, and (in all fairness) dishing out the same punishment to his defender (or defenders).
As Kevin McHale once put it, being a big man means always having "an elbow in your back and a knee up your ass."
To be a big man is to be under constant assault. It wears people down. Take Karl Malone. During his prime, there wasn't a more physical or more physically imposing player than the Mailman. But as his career moved painfully toward its ragged close, Malone became increasingly weary of being Utah's only true big man. It changed his game. For most of his 19 seasons, Malone loved to mix it up. Then, almost overnight, he didn't anymore. Karl started taking fadeaway jumpers instead of muscling his way to the hoop. He openly pined for help, rejoicing when "big man" Donyell Marshall was traded to the Jazz in August of 2000. (Sadly, Marshall turned out to be a small man dressed in big boy clothes.)
I can't find the quote, but during his final years in Utah, Malone said something to the effect of: "I dream about being able to throw the ball to somebody down low and say, 'Go ahead, big fella, you take it this time.'" Malone never got the help he wanted. He got Greg Ostertag. Which makes his final, desperate (and ultimately failed) run for a title with the Lakers kind of understandable, even if it still makes me throw up in my mouth a little.
Still, it was hard (at the time) to clearly mark Malone's decline because, as with Duncan now, his numbers remained fairly stable and the Jazz continued cranking out 50-win seasons with the regularity of an atomic clock. But if you looked closer, you would have seen (as I did) Malone being outclassed and overwhelmed by younger power forwards like Duncan.
The first sign of trouble came during the 1998-99 season, when the Jazz were one year removed from a Finals appearance and favored (by some) to finally win that elusive championship, thanks to the second retirement of Michael Jordan. Only Malone -- who was named MVP of the league that season by the way -- struggled mightily in the first round against an up-and-coming Kings team. In the second round, he finally succumbed to the persistent defense of Briant Grant, scoring only 8 points on 3-for-16 shooting as the Blazers eliminated the Jazz in Game 6.
The following years brought more of the same. In 2000, the Blazers again bumped the Jazz in round two as Malone went 11-for-25 in a Game 5 elimination. In 2001, the Jazz got upset in the first round by the Dallas Mavericks, and Malone went 9-for-28 in the fifth and final game in Utah. (In all fairness to Karl, Dirk Nowitzki went 3-for-11 and grabbed only 4 rebounds in that game.) By the time the favored Kings took out the underdog Jazz in the first round of the 2002 playoffs -- Malone went 7-for-20 and made only one trip to the foul line in the finale -- it was painfully (even awkwardly) clear that Utah's time had passed. It was even more clear that making the 1998 Finals had been the team's zenith and everything after that was a (somewhat sad) sunset.
And here we are again. Watching Duncan relive the closing act of Malone's career. Younger players like Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are now outclassing and overpowering Duncan. Did you ever, in a bajillion years, think you'd read a line like that in any human language? Or that it would be true?
The Grizzlies' big men didn't have a statistically dominant game last night -- they combined for 20 points and 18 rebounds -- but poor Timmy looked spent. He would finish with only 6 points (3-for-7) and 7 rebounds in 29 minutes. This was supposed to be Duncan's time. He averaged a career-low 28.4 minutes per game specifically for this moment...so he could be fresh and ready for the rigors of the postseason.
Yet, last night at least, he looked like a man with nothing (or very little) left. And, just like when Malone was getting worked over by the Grants and Duncans and Webbers of the world, something hit me with absolute clarity...
...2007 was Duncan's, and San Antonio's, zenith.
It's over. It's really and truly over. We never felt totally safe counting the Spurs out because Duncan and the team had been too good for too long. Look! They keep winning 50 games a season! Look! Duncan's numbers are still on par with his prime! They still look and act like the Spurs. They must still be the Spurs.
No. No, they aren't.
I'm sad. Really and truly sad. It feels like something is passing away. I am a fan of NBA basketball. Over the last decade-plus, I have followed the Association as closely as almost anybody. Duncan and the Spurs -- sometimes heroes, sometimes villains -- have defined (or helped define) a full third of my life on this planet. Now they're fading away. Not only that, I realize now they have been fading right before my eyes. For years.
If you read through the archives, I've actually been saying this for the past two or three years. But now I feel it. I feel it in my bones.
Almost 10 years ago, I had this experience with Malone and the Jazz. It hurt and, in many ways, I was never quite the same. My heroes were exposed as mere mortals and my own mortality was revealed in that truth. Last night, Zach Randolph and the Grizzlies dealt another blow to how I perceive the world and my own mortality.
It doesn't feel good.
But it feels like the truth. And we all have to face it some day. Even basketball legends like Tim Duncan.
Thanks for the memories, San Antonio Spurs. Thanks for everything.
Labels: San Antonio Spurs