Posted Jun 7 2012 8:36PM
OKLAHOMA CITY -- A year ago the top-ranked Spurs limped out of Memphis as a stunned loser to the Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs.
The operative word was limp. The bad ankle on Tim Duncan and the broken bone in Manu Ginobili's elbow could give them a reasonable explanation, in the land of Elvis, for checking into Heartbreak Hotel. That one was nothing but a hound dog.
The Spurs came into the Western Conference finals this season with a roster that was both healthy and deep and feeling quite good about adding more gold to the franchise collection of baubles. When the Spurs constructed a 2-0 lead and built their historic win streak to a practically skyscraping 20 games, "I thought this was our time to get back to The Finals and push for another championship," Tim Duncan said shortly before midnight on Wednesday.
It might have been, except for a few things.
The Thunder are faster and stronger and quicker. And, oh yes, younger.
That last one might finally signal the time when the Spurs can no longer push back against the calendar.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are 23, James Harden and Serge Ibaka are both 22 and that means the spike-through-the-skull noise level and the jubilant, high-voltage celebrations inside Chesapeake Energy Arena could be an NBA fixture for a decade.
Coach Gregg Popovich chose to label San Antonio's run as "a wonderful season" and suggested that "this group might have overachieved."
The Spurs tied the Bulls for the best regular-season record in the league, running down OKC from behind in the process. San Antonio had home-court advantage clinched for every round of the playoffs once the Bulls' Derrick Rose crumpled to the floor.
But the hard truth is that this was likely the last best chance for the Spurs to link a championship era that began with Duncan in the last millennium (1999) with an exclamation point finish more than a decade later. They have not raised a banner since 2007. This was the first season since then that the vagaries of age and injury had allowed them to be fully upright in the postseason. At least until the Thunder knocked them down.
Unlike the 20-point thumping they took on this same court in Game 3 or the often timid effort that put them behind the 8-ball in Game 5, the Spurs did put up a struggle in what could be their swansong. Tony Parker went back to attacking the basket, the shooters went back to knocking down the rainbows that made them the best 3-point shooting team in the league and the Spurs built an 18-point second-quarter lead that was still 15 at the break.
It was gone in the blink of an eye and a constantly widening talent gap that is plain to see even through those nerdy glasses without lenses that Durant and Westbrook like to wear.
According to Stephen Jackson, the Spurs played the third quarter "in quicksand." Meanwhile the Thunder were practically dancing on air. The Spurs worked for shots; the Thunder waltzed. And that was the theme of the former dynaty's demise.
All through the series the Thunder got timely contributions from their "others," an offensive explosion and rugged defense from Thabo Sefolosha, the perfect 11-for-11 night by Ibaka, Daequan Cook's four clutch pinch-hit minutes in Game 5 and the venerable Derek Fisher's key jumpers in the clincher. At the same time the Spurs' long and deep bench continued to shrink until the only one Popovich could grasp at the finish was Jackson.
"Timmy is 36 and I will soon be 35," Ginobili said on the final day of the Spurs' season -- and perhaps their run. "So we know the window is closing."
Forget the back-to-back sweeps of the Jazz and Clippers in the first two rounds. Going out by losing four straight in a reverse sweep and blowing the largest halftime playoff lead in franchise history in the finale says the Spurs might be lucky to slide a razor through that window crack next October.
This was a season that the defending champion Mavericks kissed off in order to set themselves up for free agency this summer. Memphis will be better if the Grizzlies can keep Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay healthy for a full season. The Clippers will improve with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin getting a full training camp together. George Karl has the Nuggets surging. The Lakers and Kobe will still be the Lakers and Kobe. And then there's the precocious Thunder, who could be flexing their champions' muscles in two weeks if they leapfrog either the Celtics or Heat.
That's what's especially galling to the Spurs, knowing that a trip to The Finals would have delivered all of the flaws and opportunities presented by flawed teams from Boston or Miami.
How many times can Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford beat the bushes to drum up supplementary talent such as Gary Neal or Danny Green or Boris Diaw or Jackson to give Duncan, Ginobili and Parker one more chance? How many times can the big three avoid ankles and elbows and knees that break down before the playoffs even begin?
How do the Spurs replicate the lightning-in-a-bottle good fortune of winning Hall of Famer Duncan in the 1997 Draft lottery that has produced 15 years of stability and elite contender status for the small-market franchise?
On a night when the painful realization of what lies ahead had to run deep, Popovich chose the Novocain of praising OKC for running the table against Dallas, L.A. and San Antonio, the teams that had ruled the Western Conference for the past 13 seasons.
"I think it's pretty cool for them," he said.
However, when Parker was asked what went so horribly and suddenly wrong for the Spurs, he shrugged and replied, "It might be too early."
It might already be too late.
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