By Jeff Dengate
JUNE 3 -- It’s no dynasty, but it ain’t bad either. Since selecting Tim Duncan with the No. 1 pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, San Antonio’s success has been unparalleled by any club, as the Spurs have won more games than any other team over the last eight seasons.
Duncan’s pairing with David Robinson in 1997 set a standard for excellence the Spurs would strive to achieve every season, culminating this year in the team’s third shot at an NBA title in seven seasons. And while the two previous championship-winning teams – 1999 and 2003 – were excellent in their own rights, the current Spurs squad is possibly the best of the three to contend for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Duncan and Robinson teamed for two Spurs Championships.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
You could make the argument the 1999 Spurs team was the best of the bunch. After all, they rolled through the playoffs with a 15-2 mark, the second highest winning percentage in NBA history, en route to the franchise’s first-ever NBA Championship.
The brilliance of the second-year Duncan, who makes the game look effortless hitting his signature bank shot time and again, and 1995 NBA MVP, Robinson, proved too much for the competition during the lockout shortened season.
San Antonio barnstormed the league after a sluggish 6-8 start following the work stoppage, closing out the 50-game season on a 31-5 tear to finish with the league’s best record.
The team would remain red hot in its run to the title. For more than a month, the Spurs remained untouchable, setting an NBA record for consecutive victories in a single postseason at 12.
Buckets were about as hard to come by as wins for the competition, as the Spurs defense proved impenetrable. San Antonio lowered its own record for opponent field goal percentage (.411) set one season earlier to the ridiculously low .402 mark, which holds up today. Duncan, named to the NBA All-Defensive first team to go along with All-NBA first team honors during the season, was just warming up for the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player honors he would claim after dispatching the Knicks in five games.
New York received an early warning of things to come when Duncan tallied 19 points and 10 boards by halftime of Game 1 in their championship series.
"He's probably a little young to be a legend yet," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said following the opening victory. "I'm willing to call him that if you want – if he's going to do it every night."
Do it every night, he would, as Duncan proved equally reliable throughout the series, getting a helping hand from an aging David Robinson, who gracefully accepted his role in deferring to his younger counterpart. The Spurs twin towers were an intimidating force, combining for nine blocks in Game 2, then out-rebounding the entire Knicks team 35-34 two games later.
By the time Avery Johnson was knocking down an 18-foot baseline jumper to seal the club’s first NBA Championship, Duncan’s dominance was chiseled into the Finals history tablets. It read: 27.4 ppg, 14.0 rpg, 2.2 blk., 2.4 apg and 1 MVP.
Four years later, Duncan, Robinson and Co. earned a return trip to The Finals, having dispatched the Suns, Lakers and Mavericks in six games apiece.
While the experience of Duncan, then two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, and Robinson, looking all of his 37 years, was instrumental in the Spurs championship aspirations, the club was bolstered by the addition of several young international sensations.
Second-year point guard Tony Parker, a product of France, started all 82 games at the point, while rookie Manu Ginobili, a native of Argentina, quickly became a fan favorite with his seemingly out-of-control, slashing style of play.
Strengthened by the stifling defense of stopper Bruce Bowen, the young Spurs team again finished the season with the league’s top mark, accumulating 41 wins over the final 50 contests – 18 in the last 20.
Tim Duncan continued his customary dominant routine, averaging 24.7 points, 15.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 3.29 blocks in the postseason, but how would untested playoff performers Parker and Ginobili handle the nearly two month journey to The Finals?
In 2003, Parker sped past Kidd to get in the lane against the Nets.
Jed Jacobsohn/NBAE/Getty Images
Parker, in particular, felt the pressure during The Finals plying his trade opposite Jason Kidd
, the player who reportedly would be courted during the impending offseason to assume point guard duties for the Spurs. Downplaying the situation when asked off the court, Parker routinely showed poise on the court uncharacteristic of a player who was only two years old when then-teammate Kevin Willis
began his NBA career with the Atlanta Hawks.
Parker was not only up for the task of shadowing one of the league’s elite playmakers, but outplayed Kidd early in the series. Parker put his speed and offensive skills on display, getting past Kidd, seemingly at will, to work his way into the lane against the Nets.
In Game 3 of those NBA Finals, Parker exploded for 19 points in the second half, stepping back to hit four three-pointers, to outscore Kidd 26-12 as the Spurs captured an 84-79 win in New Jersey.
Ginobili played an equally important role in the final minutes of the same game. After Parker missed a free throw and the Nets wrested control of the rebound, Ginobili stripped Lucious Harris which later led to Parker finding Ginobili for a baseline runner to put the Spurs up by five with 43 seconds remaining.
“They are young,” Kidd said of Parker and Ginobili following the Spurs victory, “so they have handled themselves quite well, from the first round against Phoenix and then the Lakers and Dallas. They have seen it all and done a great job of keeping their composure.”
While not much of an offensive factor in the playoffs, defensive specialist Bruce Bowen had something of a coming-out party during the 2003 season. The undrafted role player from Cal State Fullerton led the league in three-point shooting percentage (.441) in addition to being named to the NBA All-Defensive second team for a third straight season.
This year’s team is likely the best of the three Spurs squads because of the return of those three contributors, seeking a second championship ring, and Duncan, who chases a third. Ginobili, Parker and Bowen have each become more mature and assumed greater roles on the Spurs team, relieving Duncan of the burden of carrying the team.
Duncan no longer must be the player who does it all for the Spurs. Look no further than the end of the 2004-05 regular season, when Duncan missed considerable time because of a sprained ankle, and these playoffs, where he is slowed by, not one but two, bum ankles.
During the regular season, Duncan’s numbers were down across the board, even though the Spurs, as a team, averaged their second-highest points per game total during his NBA tenure. When he went down with a sprained ankle in the middle of March, the team initially stumbled before recovering to go 8-4 in his absence.
With Duncan partially recovered, but still gimpy, much help has come by way of Manu Ginobili.
After capturing a gold medal at the Athens 2004 Summer Olympics, Ginobili emerged this season as a credible threat, earning his first NBA All-Star selection and turning in career-best numbers in nearly every statistical category. His production usually increases as the playoffs roll around, however, this year his numbers have swelled to dizzying highs. During these playoffs, Ginobili is averaging 21.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists, all up significantly from his career averages.
Parker and Bowen are also contributing to the Spurs success. Parker takes care of the ball and finds his way into the paint more than opposing centers, while Bowen has gotten a reputation as a dirty player – usually those complaints reverberating from those stars locked down by the pesky defender.
Need a big shot? Call Horry, as the Lakers did in 2002.
Harry How/Getty Images/NBAE
Like the two Steves, Kerr and Smith, of 2003, two players capable of hitting any big shot that presents itself are on this squad in case Pop calls either of their names.
Robert Horry – “Big Shot Bob” –, who has never met a pressure-packed shot he wasn’t willing to hoist, has created his legacy by toeing the three-point line each May to crush the hopes and dreams of opposing fans. Need an example? How about 1997, when Horry suited up for the Lakers against Utah and set an NBA record, hitting seven threes without a single misfire? Or 2002, when Horry sealed Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals against the Kings on a buzzer-beater after the ball took a lucky hop in his direction.
After draining the shot, Horry said, “I was like, ‘If I don't get it off in time, we lose. If I do, it’s money.’ I was just worried about getting my form and getting my money shot down.”
If you’re the Heat or Pistons advancing to The Finals next week and the game is on the line, you’d better hope Horry is on the bench and not going for broke.
Equally dangerous as Horry, Brent Barry is endowed with the gift of the long ball, despite being mired in a season-long shooting slump since joining the Spurs last summer. A career-.402 shooter from behind the arc, Barry came alive in the Conference Finals against Phoenix, hitting 55.0 percent of his triples, including a 5-for-8 performance in Game 1, when he came off the bench for 21 points.
With Nazr Mohammed providing over 20 quality minutes per night to round out a more dangerous starting five than the two previous Spurs championship teams, the Spurs are poised to add a third Larry O’Brien trophy to their collection.
After the Spurs eliminated the Suns in five games, coach Popovich was asked the key to his team making its third Finals appearance in seven years.
"(Former star) David Robinson and Tim Duncan," Pop replied. "You don’t have to say anything else."
Maybe he’ll add a few more names to the list if the 2005 Spurs win him a piece of jewelry.