2009-10: A Season To Build On
Feet anchored to the floor, Manu Ginobili delivered a jaw-dropping moment on Halloween night. He knocked down a flying bat -- a swat that became a YouTube sensation with more than one million views.
Body high in the air, Ginobili delivered another show-stopper on Feb. 24. With his left hand a foot above the rim, he rejected a soaring Kevin Durant dunk attempt -- a swat some call the block of the year.
Those two snapshots are telling. In the first, Ginobili, like the Spurs, remained grounded for the first half of the season. They won some games but without much lift from their Argentine wonder. In the second, Ginobili went Air Jordan, carrying the post-All-Star break Spurs to familiar heights.
In one grueling two week stretch, San Antonio gelled around Ginobili to beat the Thunder, the Cavs, the Celtics and the Lakers. By the end of the regular season, the Spurs had notched their 11th consecutive 50-win season, and Ginobili had re-established himself as an elite player.
Those were two positives San Antonio took away from the season. There were others. The improvement of George Hill. The emergence of DeJuan Blair. The first-round playoff victory over the second-seeded Mavs. It was enough for Coach Gregg Popovich to conclude, "I feel good about the year. I feel good about our guys. Now we'll get to work and see what we can do to make the team better."
Pop knows his players didn't like ending the season in the second round. "I think all the guys are disappointed," he said. But fans know they exited the postseason as few teams do. With their captain checking on Steve Nash -- his eye swollen shut -- to make sure he was okay. With their point guard saying he was happy for the Suns. With their coach applauding the class and grit of Nash. With their Admiral -- David Robinson -- congratulating Alvin Gentry, and walking him off the court with a smile and a warm embrace. In one revealing display after another, the Spurs said goodbye with grace.
"How can you not love a team that does that," one fan asked me after the Phoenix series. "Those guys set the standard."
The standard set on the court isn't bad, either. With four championships in the Tim Duncan era, the Spurs have a hungry fan base that reaches around the world. I've heard from some in the Philippines, The Netherlands, Mexico, Argentina. A friend once bumped into a fan wearing Silver and Black in Saudi Arabia. If they're not screaming Go Spurs Go, they're yelling for another title.
Expectations are impossibly high. As Pop put it, "Everyone wants to win a championship but it's basically a ridiculous notion to think it's going to happen every year."
With Ginobili recovering from an ankle injury that caused him to miss the 2009 playoffs, the Spurs began this season on one good foot. Then Tony Parker sprained his left ankle, suffered a left hip flexor, developed plantar fasciitis in his left foot and broke his hand -- injuries that hampered him throughout the season. With Parker missing 26 games, the Spurs did not get to see the player who earned All-NBA Third Team honors in 2008-09. In short, San Antonio played a big chunk of the season with a Big Three minus Two. Throw in new faces -- Blair, Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, Keith Bogans -- and it's no wonder the Spurs struggled to find a rhythm. In all his years in San Antonio, Pop would say, he'd never had a team take so long to gel.
But when it did ... San Antonio played as well as anyone. "We leave with a lot of positives going into the summer and next season," Pop said.
The return of Ginobili to All-Star form topped the list. If he wasn't rejecting Durant at 11 feet, he was blocking Kevin Garnett at the rim and sparking a debate: Which stop was better? If Ginobili wasn't shredding Minnesota with 14 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds and three steals -- and refusing to re-enter to notch his first triple-double -- he was outplaying LeBron James at home. Over the second half of the season, no one performed better than the new father of twin Ginobilis.
Then there was Manu's backcourt mate. When Tony Parker went down, George Hill sprang to life. He may not have been voted the league's Most Improved, but the Mavs didn't notice. Hill torched them for 29 points in Game 4, lifting the Spurs to a commanding 3-1 lead.
The kid from Pitt? Blair proved to be a second round steal. He muscled rebounds, showed he could score and dominated the rookie challenge. For good measure, he replaced Duncan in the final regular season game and dropped a double-double on Dallas: 28 points, 21 rebounds.
"It will be very important for them (Blair and Hill) to continue to grow," said Spurs general manager R.C. Buford.
If Hill raises his game another level, The Big Three could become The Big Four. Hill's improvement from his rookie season underscores a historical trend: new Spurs tend to play much better in their second season with the team. That bodes well for Blair, Jefferson and McDyess.
But the big key for next season is a healthy Big Three. That hasn't happened in a while.
Imagine an injury-free core. Imagine improvement from Hill, Blair, Jefferson and McDyess. Imagine a nice addition or two in the off-season. That may be a lot to hope for. But the Spurs have a history. A history that should make fans smile -- and maybe give them a Ginobili-like lift.