SAN ANTONIO – For several years now, we’ve seen the end coming for the San Antonio Spurs. They had an all-time great nucleus — Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker – but it was old. It was too old last year when they won their fifth NBA Championship. Surely it’s too old now.
Except that it isn’t.
Just when they should be tiring out, in the final week of the NBA grind, the Spurs are sharper, not older. In the space of four days this week they routed Golden State at home, Oklahoma City on the road, then Houston at home. The 110-98 downing of the previously ascending Rockets was the Spurs’ ninth win in a row, all by double digits.
The one that stands out is 107-92 over Golden State, the Western Conference top seed. The Spurs now are confident they can prevail over the trendy young Warriors in the postseason. Ginobili points out the advantage of age: “The playoffs are an area where they do not have much experience.”
Until they heated up in mid-March, the Spurs were lackluster. The turnaround came after a loss to the moribund New York Knicks prompted coach Gregg Popovich to lash out at his players, privately and publicly, for a “pathetic performance.”
The Spurs responded to the passionate outburst of Pop by winning 12 of 13. Ginobili said the team had struggled to redefine itself, as younger players merged more prominently into the rotation. “It’s a little late in the season,” he shrugs. “But it came.”
Increasingly the Spurs lean on 23-year-old Kawhi Leonard, MVP of last year’s Finals. His 6-7 frame is wrapped and stacked in muscle. He’s the one player in the league who matches up physically to LeBron James.
Since the All-Star break Leonard is averaging 18 points, 52% field goal accuracy, 7 rebounds, 2.5 steals, 3 assists. But the full effect of his stifling man to man defense is not conveyed by stats or analytics.
In the third period of Sunday’s game against Golden State, Popovich attached Leonard a/k/a “The Claw” to MVP-to-be Steph Curry. Leonard shut Curry down, stole the ball on him four times. Warriors coach Steve Kerr declared afterward that Leonard “was the best player on the floor.”
Long and strong enough to halt LeBron, as he did in last year’s Finals, Leonard is quick enough to pick Steph’s pocket. He has to be NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Not that Duncan, Old Man River Walk, has eroded so terribly. His shooting accuracy, 50.3%, is the best it’s been in five years. About to turn 39, he’s averaging 13.7 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 3.0 assists per game.
Parker, 32, is slowed by a strained Achilles. He rallied for 27 points against Houston, but he said the Spurs have made their transition, that from now on “it’s going to be Kawhi’s team.”
Ginobili at 37 retains most of his pep, his numbers dropping marginally. He’s averaging 10.7 ppg, 4.3 assists, 3.0 rebounds, hitting 34% of his 3-point shots. But like Parker, he’s pushing the transition, as he mentors his successors at swing guard, Cory Joseph and Marco Belinelli.
This team is all-team all the time. Duncan quietly detests talking to media because he hates to draw attention to himself. He’s tutoring 6-10, 255-pound Australian Aron Baynes (12 rebounds against the Rockets), who Skip Bayless calls “The White Shaquille O’Neal.”
The Spurs all buy into being interchangeable parts in The Popovich Machine. Parker calls it “getting over yourself.”
It’s not as easy as they make it look. Ginobili recently told the Argentine sports newspaper, Canchallena: “I do not feel well. Every day, every game, I have to do a lot of things to get to the stadium.”
Those comments caused speculation that this is his last season. Of course, we were saying that four and five years ago.