May 28 2013 3:58PM

Spurs' Sweet 16

D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images

Imagine what it must be like to be a San Antonio Spurs fan in the Tim Duncan Era, a space in NBA time that has spanned 16 seasons from 1997-98 through 2012-13.

The Spurs have had 16 seasons of winning regular-season basketball that no NBA team has ever known (.703).

The Spurs have had 16 seasons of amazing 50-plus winning basketball, when you adjust for lockouts, that averages out to 57.7 victories per season (again when you adjust for the two lockouts during that span).

The Spurs have made eight Western Conference Finals appearances.

And with San Antonio's 93-86 win Monday, capping a four-game sweep over the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs now make their fifth trip to the Finals in search of their fifth NBA championship.

It has been a sweet 16, indeed.

So much so, that I thought I'd look at the 16 reasons why this Spurs' franchise has returned to the Finals yet again.

16. HEAD COACH GREGG POPOVICH He thought outside the box. Shoot, Pop thinks so far outside the box that he has changed the game of basketball in ways that none of his 29 peers even realize yet. Who else in NBA history rests their top five minutemen 51 percent of their team's playing time the last two seasons? Who else knows that rest actually makes his team better, not only in the playoffs, where these good, old Spurs returned to the conference finals both seasons, but in the regular season too, where San Antonio has ruled the West for the better part of those two years. Who else fills up a roster of nine players from countries outside America? Who else builds a history-making powerhouse with a No. 1 pick, Tim Duncan, surrounded by a team of non-lottery cast-offs from other teams (note: April 2013 acquisition Tracy McGrady was actually a lottery pick, but the 34 year old was only recently added to this bunch). Pop is universally recognized as a coaching genius, but his true genius is making himself inimitable. He plays grandmaster chess, while his peers play checkers and tic-tac-toe. Pop's motion multiple-screen offense is levels beyond anything anyone else is doing, while his shading-help-out-smothering-zone defense in the playoffs has already taken out the game's best shooters and game's best big men. It is little wonder that his winning partnership with Duncan in this historical time puts his name up there with Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and John Kundla. That is why it is no surprise that those closest to Popovich--like GM R.C. Buford and top assistant Mike Budenholzer--are now two of the most sought-after men in NBA headhunting circles. It is because of one thing: They know Pop. And in NBA currency, that knowledge is priceless.

15. ARON BAYNES (#16)
Do you want to know how much a 15th man is valued in San Antonio. Starting big man Tiago Splitter goes down with an ankle injury in Game 3 of the Spurs' first-round series with the Los Angeles Lakers and Baynes, the March 2013 acquisition from Australia, is called into immediate action and plays 5 minutes guarding Lakers' All-NBA center Dwight Howard, grabbing three rebounds and posting a +7 plus-minus score. In Game 4, the Spurs' 15th man is the team's starting center opposite Howard. The 6-11, 260-pound Aussie plays 16 minutes, posts a +15 plus-minus score, frustrates Howard by outmuscling him when the Laker tries to post up, which ultimately leads to a third-quarter ejection. With Howard out the game, Baynes too sits the rest of the game out, having played much bigger than the 6 points and the 2 rebounds that shows up on the final box score.

14. NANDO DE COLO (#25)
De Colo raised a little stank that barely registered a blip on the radar scale, when he complained to a French newspaper that he didn't understand why his playing time got cut off in the playoffs. Probably not the best timing, especially considering Stephen Jackson was waived in April after similar sentiments, but it's understandable, considering the combo guard has only played 3 playoff games for a total of 9 minutes after averaging 12.8 minutes per game in 72 contests this season. But such is life on the rare championship-contending team that has started 13 different players this year.

13. TRACY McGRADY (not pictured)
T-Mac is the X-factor, who right now is just enjoying the ride to the NBA Finals. The probable Hall-of-Famer who was annually ridiculed for not being able to lead his team to a playoff-series victory is now himself being led to series win after series win after series win. His is the Big 3's sounding board, always sitting next to them on the bench. He is the fan's favorite human victory cigar, lighting up end-of-game fourth quarters when the Spurs amass 20-plus point leads. When you see T-Mac closing blowouts out, you can tell he still has moments of that All-Star magic in his fingertips. Will his No. 1 be called in the Finals? Only Pop knows.

12. PATTY MILLS (#8)
If Mills is not going to hear his number called in these playoffs--he has played 17 postseason minutes after registering 656 regular-season minutes--the Australian point guard is not going to throw in the towel. If anything, Patty Mills a.k.a. Pat Stacks is on his way to becoming the NBA's greatest sideline sidekick, waving the white towel in exultation in ways M.L. Carr never knew imaginable. Check out Patty Mills a.k.a. Pat Stacks and The Art of the Towel Wave, as he displays The Ninja, The Chopper, Smoke Alarm and (my favorite) The Zorro, among others. All this from the leading scorer of the 2012 Olympics. Pretty impressive attitude on display here.

11. DeJUAN BLAIR (#45)
Speaking of impressive attitudes, Blair has had to come a long ways to get a grip on the reality that Splitter is now the starting big alongside Duncan. But you can tell, that the Spurs four-year power forward has battled through his pride and become a valuable member of this team as a supersub whenever his name is called in these 2013 NBA Playoffs. Mind you, this is a man who started 166 regular-season games in his four years in San Antonio. But now as a sub, Blair has been positively superb in 59 postseason minutes, scoring 36 points on .702 true shooting percentage, while grabbing 16 rebounds. Not only that, but he also posted the best Spurs celebration photos on Instagram.

10. CORY JOSEPH (#5)
Canada-born-and-raised Joseph is a typical Spurs' success story. In the regular season, the second-year point guard played 28 games with the Spurs, 28 games with San Antonio's D-League affiliate Austin Toros and collected a bunch of DNP-CDs in 20-something other games. Then in these 2013 NBA Playoffs, Pop elevated the fourth-string point guard to second-string status, playing Joseph 10.6 minutes per game in all 14 postseason contests. Joseph responded with great defense for a 21 year old, in addition to pretty good offensive backup play (he has a 13.84 playoff Player Efficiency Rating).

9. BORIS DIAW (#33)
Diaw's D was huge in the Memphis Grizzlies series, spotting Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter valuable rest time after tag-team wrestling Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. It has been all the merrier too, considering the Spurs did not have Diaw in the four-game series against the Lakers, with Diaw still recovering from a back injury. But with the versatile French big man logging an effective 178 minutes in the 10 games since, San Antonio knows they are as healthy as they could hope for going into the Finals.

8. GARY NEAL: Neal was a Godsend during the regular season, ignoring his own injuries to plug in major minutes gaps, while various Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili missed games with mid-season injuries. Consequently, Neal's own shooting numbers have suffered. He dropped in the regular season to a 36-percent trey shooter after making 42 percent on his three-pointers the previous two seasons. In the playoffs, his true shooting percentage numbers have dropped to .468, only a year after posting a .598 postseason TSP. So if anyone can use the 10-day rest, it is Neal, who finally gets a well-deserved break after playing hurt for Ginobili and Parker all season long.

7. MATT BONNER (#15)
It was fun watching Bonner wrestle with the Lakers and win, not only with strong defense, but with his three-point shots popping 6-of-8 down. He has been able to carry that three-point proficiency throughout the three rounds of the playoffs, nailing treys at an incredible 50 percent clip. To show how far the former third-stringer with a 2007 NBA championship ring has come, Bonner's .610 playoff true shooting percentage is more in line with his regular-season numbers (.609), which is much better than the disparity he has had in those two departments in past postseasons (.586 and .506). Yessiree! Red Mamba is now playoff proven.

In these playoffs, Green has become the three-point popper and the three-point stopper, with his defense on Stephen Curry drawing as many raves as his 43-percent popping trey percentage in both the postseason and regular season. Green's shading defense has proven masterful no matter who he matches up on, and his ability to get off threes quickly and in any situation--dribble pull-ups, off screens, step backs, you name it--is just making the Spurs' offense more versatile as the season goes along.

5. TIAGO SPLITTER (#22)Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that was truly seen when the Spurs big who led the team in games played (81) suffered his first injury of the season and missed two playoff games and was limited in the next three contests, playing a combined 48 minutes. By that point, the Spurs were tied with the Golden State Warriors 2-2 in their second-round series. Thankfully, Splitter was able to get back to his normal minute allotments in Games 5 and 6, while the Spurs got their team mojo back as well, blasting Golden State by 18 and 12 points in those series-clinching contests. The Spurs don't sweep the Grizzlies without Splitter fighting off Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and will prove to be invaluable in the Finals as well, whether he's matched up against the Heat or Pacer bigs.

You could make a case that Kawhi Leonard has already become the hypothetical Face of the Spurs that Pop prophesied about last summer. In these playoffs, Leonard has played as much and nearly as efficiently as Tony Parker and Tim Duncan and has had as big a plus-minus impact on the score as Manu Ginobili. His defense against Klay Thompson was game-changing, while his team rebounding around Zach Randolph was game-saving. All the while, his offense was deadly and always at the ready in these 2013 NBA Playoffs, shooting 42 percent on threes and 62 percent on 2's. He is only 21, but he is playing so well #21 himself is probably ready to adopt him into the Big 3. Call them the Fantastic Four now, why don't you?

Don't listen to the ESPN "NBA Countdown" crew. They have been knocking Ginobili's playoff performance, not realizing his efficiency and plus-minus numbers have been off the charts. Yes, it is unconventional. After all, if Manu were conventional, he would not be Manu. But his game has been spectacular in the Lakers, Warriors and yes, the Grizzlies series. It is true his shots is off. His true shooting percentage--and more specifically--three-point percentage numbers are down, .516 and .324, respectively. But his playmaking, rebounding and defense have been All-Star level, like they have been all season. Now that he is healthy, the Spurs' second-string unit is as strong as it has ever been. That is why San Antonio has won six straight games against Memphis and Golden State. With Ginobili back in the lineup playing starters' minutes in his sixth-man role, the Spurs' combo guard is showing the world why he is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, even at age 35. Remember, this three-time champ from Argentina was the first to beat a professional USA Basketball squad back in 2002, led his country to the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics, while in between and after, was the clutch performer on the 2003, 2005 and 2007 NBA championship teams that led to Ginobili and Parker laying their claim as the best backcourt in NBA history. Eleven years together, they still add lore to legacy.

I think it is safe to say Tony Parker has wrestled the mythical NBA's best point guard trophy away from Chris Paul and has elevated his name and game to the same sentence that types the names LeBron James and Kevin Durant on the top of all MVP candidacy lists. I mean, the point guard from France just went through Mike Conley, Stephen Curry and Steve Nash like a knife goes through butter, and you can imagine he's already got Mario Chalmers' legs shaking like jello, not to mention on the other side, George Hill having Spurs practice flashbacks. Yes, indeed. the 31-year-old Parker just added yet another paragraph to his future Hall-of-Fame induction speech that already includes such caveats as three-time NBA champion, 2007 Finals MVP, three-time All-NBA pick and five-time All-Star. Parker is the Bugatti that makes the Spurs' offense run so fluidly, fancy-free and efficiently. When people talk about The System that Pop runs, the multiple-screen offense, the attack that comes so fast and furious, they are really speaking of an offense generated by Parker. He is the only one who has the keys, knowledge and game to fuel such a high-octane offense for 40-plus minutes a night.

1. TIM DUNCAN (#21)
If the Spurs win their fifth NBA championship in this Duncan Era, The Big Fundamental undoubtedly gets his stoic stone-face stare chiseled on the fourth face of NBA Mount Rushmore, right alongside Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Nobody besides Jordan has won more Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP awards than Duncan (three) and only Jordan and Abdul-Jabbar have collected as many elite pieces of NBA-bequeathed hardware (33) as Duncan, who has 3 Finals MVPs, 2 MVPs, 14 All-NBA awards and an NBA-record 14 All-Defense honors (note: Russell also would have 33-plus elite pieces of league hardware had the NBA given out Finals MVP and All-Defense awards before the 1968-69 season). That said, if anyone took the baton from Jordan following the Chicago Bulls' 1998 NBA championship season, it was Duncan, whose Spurs won the 1999 NBA championship when the 22-year-old Virgin Islands product teamed up with Hall of Famer David Robinson. When you look back, Duncan entered the League in 1997-98 as a first-team All-NBA selection alongside Jordan, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal and Gary Payton. And 16 seasons later, at age 37, he was honored on the 2012-13 first-team All-NBA squad again, for the 10th occasion, this time alongside LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant. It is a most unique generation jump--winning a championship right after Jordan in the '90s, trading titles with Shaq and Kobe in the '00s, while chasing LeBron for yet another in the '10s. This is truly, time-traveling historic. Duncan has become the old Hank Aaron of basketball, chasing the Babe Ruths of his game. Or perhaps a better comparison for Duncan would be the NBA's Tom Brady for how he has made his organization consistently super. In a game where offense is appreciated, Duncan was the best big man of the past 16 years. And in a game where defense is the under-appreciated other half of the game, Duncan has been the best of his generation. Now Duncan will play in his fifth NBA Finals, where he averages 22.7 points, 14.4 rebounds and 3.0 blocks in 42.0 minutes per game, while his Spurs have gone 16-6 in four Finals. Appreciate that!