By Matthew Shircliffe–
Two years ago in the NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs took down defending champions, the Miami Heat, and after the game, Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard went over to coach Gregg Popovich, hugged him and said, “Thank you for pushing me. This is a crazy feeling. Thank you for pushing me.”
It has been an underlying theme for the most successful franchise for the last two decades in the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs roster is willing to be pushed by their coaches and knowing this is how they have won championships, it’s an established formula and a level of trust and commitment that has worked since 1997.
However, the Spurs’ quiet, yet prestigious dynasty may have just came to an abrupt close after losing game six to the Oklahoma City Thunder, eliminating the team from playoff contention. The question can now be pondered: are the careers of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli finally over?
Often in sports, more specifically the NBA, the focus falls on the individual. Superstar talents such as Kevin Durant, Lebron James, Russell Westbrook or Steph Curry take the spotlight, and fans often forget to appreciate the most important aspect of the game, the team. I have watched the San Antonio Spurs dominate the game of basketball my whole life, playing the game the way it was meant to be played, using basic fundamental methods and moving the ball so religiously and executing their offense fluently better than anyone.
They do not have pests, or locker room cancers. They are humble. They take salary cuts, they do not care about the accolades, the money, the awards, the glamor or fame. They do not care about all-star appearances or going 73-9 in the regular season, they only care about winning NBA championships.
They have fashioned a level of humility that is rare in the world of contemporary sports. Every guy on the team is selfless and it is displayed effectively every year. It’s why they have been a viable contender every year. The unselfish play and the extraordinary defense have made the Spurs so successful, and yet, the media calls them too old and counts them out every year in April? They are not as athletic or as talented as younger, faster teams, but they are smarter and have a level of discipline that has molded them. Everyone from the general manager, R.C. Buford to Popovich and the coaching staff to every player on the roster has built the culture of the team to the highest functioning organization in sports.
The series with the Thunder crashed hard for the Spurs. In game one, the Spurs looked like NBA champions, mercilessly beating Oklahoma City down and then, the events that transpired after the win were virtually catastrophic. Missed calls in games two and five mixed with a sub-par San Antonio offense, plus a more athletic Thunder team eventually caused a slippery slope for the Spurs.
The athleticism of a flawed but determined Russell Westbrook, the unparalleled talent of Kevin Durant and the Thunder’s big men virtually destroyed an aged Tim Duncan and Lamarcus Aldridge on the glass, and a little aid from the referees blowing huge calls, helped propel the Thunder to a victory, but that was not the story of the night.
The story of the night was not whether Durant was leaving the Thunder becoming a free agent. It was not rookie head coach Billy Donovan prospering, it was not the Thunder advancing on to the conference finals. The story of last night was what could be the final time Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli sport the black and grey uniforms.
Manu Ginobli and Tim Duncan both had solid regular seasons so it will not be a total surprise if they both returned, but it was near the end during the playoffs where age and wear-and-tear finally took its toll on both of them. It happened at the same time, although Ginobli was a little more effective.
It is not certain whether or not he is hanging it up, but it just feels that this is the end for Duncan. Tim Duncan may have played his final game and no one seems to care, which actually may be the way the “Big Fundamental” prefers to exit the game.
He did not want the farewell tour and the theatrics that Kobe Bryant received, and that’s what differentiates Tim Duncan from any other athlete. The level of character and humility Duncan has demonstrated his entire career has been as consistent as his talent and his degree of winning. He was destined for greatness the first year entering the league with a meteoric rise, averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds his rookie season followed by the next season winning the Spurs their first championship in franchise history. He was the finals MVP and in two seasons, Duncan solidified himself as an elite player in the league. For nineteen seasons, he never missed the postseason. Not one time. He has consistently been in competition for a ring.
There was a moment in game six that stood out. There was a point in the game where the Spurs were attempting to cut the lead and rally for a memorable comeback. There was a pass to Tim Duncan on a fast break where he drove to the basket trailing by eleven and trying to trim the deficit to single digits. Duncan went up for the dunk and was blocked by Serge Ibaka.
Ibaka threw the ball to Westbrook and he finished the fastbreak to extend the lead to thirteen. The camera then panned to Duncan’s reaction. He felt defeated. The fact he could not elevate like he once could to finish home the jam, the fact that instead of cutting down the lead to nine, it goes back to 13.
There has never been a more heartbreaking moment for basketball fans than that look of deflation on the 40-year old Duncan. The look in Duncan’s eyes after the vicious block was surreal. The man’s career flashed before us, the MVP trophies, the five championships, the nineteen years of excellence, those days are long over, and it was devastating to watch him go through it.
If this is the end for the greatest power forward in the history of basketball and arguably the greatest sixth man of all-time, then it was an enjoyable ride to watch. In a sport with huge egos, selfishness and older veterans are looked down upon, the Spurs have managed to stay humble even with their five rings.
The Spurs prove that a team is more effective than a superstar. They proved to everyone that your age does not matter. The Spurs proved to be one of the greatest dynasties in the history of sports.