SAN ANTONIO — Goodbye, small-market survivor. Adios, Tim , Manu and Tony . Thanks for the memories. Thanks to three guys, born on different continents, for making American players remember the rewards that come with sharing the ball, for showing how effective the sublime choreography of teamwork could still be on a basketball court.
Game 5 might be on everyone else’s mind, but I’m going the nostalgic send-off route instead.
See, Sunday night is most likely the last NBA Finals home game Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker will ever play together. The end is near for the Spurs’ three veteran stars. No one wants to admit it simply because teams coached in South Texas by Gregg Popovich have been shown to have a longer shelf life than Lazarus or Spam.
But Ginobili, 35 and struggling mightily in the series, admitted Saturday that he thinks about retirement. The earth-bound Duncan, 37, has two years left on his contract, the last at his option. And even when Parker, 31, recovers from a strained hamstring sometime this summer, he knows teams led by point guards Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, a rehabbed Russell Westbrook, and other younger, more spry players are growing up in a hurry.
If the Spurs are honest with themselves, it’s a minor miracle they got back to their first Finals since 2007. The combination of a Laker implosion, coupled with crucial injuries to Oklahoma City and Denver and Golden State still maturing, helped paved an unlikely path.
As the road comes to an end, it’s worth saluting the Spurs because they gave us more good years of sharing-and-caring basketball than even some of them imagined.
Remember Parker’s quote from the summer of 2011 to the French magazine L’Equipe?
“At the start of the season I said this was our last chance,” he said then. “Tim [Duncan] and Gino [Manu Ginobili] are getting old. It’s going to be tough to regenerate ourselves. We will always have a good team but we can no longer say that we’re playing for a championship.”
Parker always maintained his words were slightly misconstrued. Still, two years later, it’s crazy to think an aging center from the Virgin Islands, a struggling small forward from Argentina and a French point guard with a strained hamstring are suddenly locked in a best-of-three scrum with the most hyped defending NBA champions since Michael’s Incredi-Bulls.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all woke from a Finals slumber in Game 4, evening the series at two apiece — defending, running, stopping, popping, combining for 85 points in an eventual blowout.
Momentum has turned. You can feel it in LeBron’s plea to his teammates to win back-to-back games in the playoffs. This is the Spurs’ last stand, “a must win,” Duncan acknowledged Saturday. “. . . Huge pressure if we have to go back [to Miami] and win two.”
Parker was asked if he ever thought Sunday night could be the end of an NBA era.
“No,” he said.
“Just because you think you’ll get back here and this is not the last time for the Spurs?”
“No,” Parker repeated. “I don’t think about that. All I have in my mind is Game 5 and we have to win Game 5.”
That’s an understandable response. Reflection of what amazingly happened over the past decade in San Antonio will come later.
Ray Allen, 37, used to mix it up with former Spurs stopper Bruce Bowen seven years ago in the playoffs when he was in Seattle. Now he’s got 21-year-old Kawhi Leonard flailing his long limbs at him. “They don’t go away,” Allen said Saturday, “they just keep plugging guys in.”
“The two constants are Duncan and Pop,” he added. “They built great consistency. [Popovich] hasn’t compromised his tactics and philosophies on how these guys play the game the right way. No matter who’s here, they plug guys in. Being in the Finals doesn’t vindicate or validate any of that. Losing in the first round doesn’t mean he hasn’t had good teams. They still have a lot to be proud of here in San Antonio.”
Fourteen years of being a contender or a champion, 14 years of mattering in the NBA conversation, a feat Washington, Toronto or Milwaukee have to envy.
Remember the Alamo? If you cover or follow the NBA, it’s been impossible to forget since Duncan was drafted No. 1 in 1997. Every cutaway image from every televised game has that muted-yellow fort in the background where Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie met their end in 1836.
How to remember the Spurs? That’s easy. Start with the owner, Peter Holt, the heir to the Caterpillar tractor fortune, a decorated Vietnam veteran who almost drank himself to death before turning his life around, buying the basketball team and never wanting credit for his ability to hire the right person to steer the franchise.
On to the gruff-for-effect exterior of Popovich and behind-the-scenes savvy of R.C. Buford, the general manager, both of whom also want no credit for simply picking players who won’t embarrass an organization.
“It’s a total function of who those three guys are,” Popovich said. “What if they were jerks? What if they were selfish? What if one of them was, you know, unintelligent? If, if, if. But the way it works out, all three of them are highly intelligent. They all have great character. They appreciate their teammates’ success. They feel responsible to each other. That’s who they are and how they’re built. I think when you have three guys like that, you’re able to build something over time.”
It really began with the Memorial Day Miracle in 1999, the day Sean Elliott hit a 21-foot prayer to beat Portland in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, in a game the Blazers had outplayed San Antonio. From then on, the Spurs would take the series on their way to the first title to usher in the league’s post-Jordan-in-Chicago era.
Yes, the ratings could be abysmal in those Nets-Spurs Finals — in point of fact, San Antonio’s Finals ratings were on average four-million viewers less than other NBA Finals since the Bulls in 1998. Duncan’s off-the-glass mastery, his footwork, the purposely bland interviews that almost felt like a Spock mind meld, never had the cache of Kobe dunking, A.I. flying through 6-foot-11 bodies in the lane or LeBron fighting himself psychologically until he emerged with his first title.
Because they hardly won with flair or employed more than a few knuckleheads over a decade, sometimes it was as if the NBA tolerated San Antonio’s longevity and excellence more than celebrated it.
But on what could very well be their last Finals night together at home, Tim, Manu, Tony, Pop and the crew deserve only gratitude for reminding us how beautiful the game can still be if you give to the group before yourself.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.