Tim Duncan's teammates in 1997 included Brad Lohaus and Willie Burton (Getty Images)
The San Antonio Spurs are a different team, in 2013. For some reason it’s taken until Saturday night’s comeback 103-94 overtime win over the Memphis Grizzlies, and a commanding 3-0 lead in the Western Conference finals, to drive home the point that tells us that this team isn’t just another admirable contender amongst many.
Of course, we’ve heard that this is a “different team” before. In each of the years since the team’s 2007 NBA championship the NBA has marveled at the team’s resiliency and ability to bring in new helpers to keep the team within the league’s short list for championship hopefuls. Due to a series of imposing factors, though, this year’s model seems primed to contend for a championship in ways that the previous five outfits could not.
And a 3-0 lead in a seven game series doesn’t hurt, when it comes to admiring from afar.
San Antonio nearly handed Game 3 away on Saturday, tossing out eight first quarter turnovers on its way to an 18-point deficit that, frankly, never felt insurmountable. The Grizzlies did well to rack up the points and take advantage of Tony Parker’s (four early turnovers) early miscues, but a quick and efficient start to the second period had the Spurs locked into a three-possession game before the Grizzlies knew what hit them.
Memphis responded well, attempting to squeeze what it could out of an offense that just isn’t the same without a Zach Randolph’s ability to take over (Zach had 14 points on 14 shots in the game, a poor performance that was still his best of the series), and countering San Antonio’s comeback by playing the Spurs about even throughout the second half. Tony Allen grabbed some key defensive rebounds, Quincy Pondexter scored 15 points in 27 minutes before fouling out, and Marc Gasol (16 points on 18 shots) and Mike Conley (20 points on 21 shots) did what they could amongst the trees.
By the time both teams clanged a few potential game-winners in regulation, though, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had seen enough to know where to go. The Spurs’ overtime offensive execution was flawless, the Spurs outscored Memphis by nine in just five minutes (no small feat, considering Memphis’ conference best defense and slow pacing offensively), and San Antonio now has a 3-0 chokehold in a league that has never seen a playoff team return from down three games with four to play.
San Antonio’s spacing is too good for Memphis to contend with, and this is why the Spurs pulled away. Unlike in 2011, when San Antonio was taken down by the Grizzlies in the first round, the Spurs’ litany of cutters, passers and adept finishers just has its way against a Grizzlies defense that looked plodding when the ball was moving. Parker (26 points, five assists) recovered nicely from his early hiccups to adjust and improvise away and on the ball, while Tim Duncan added to the legend once again.
Duncan played over 44 minutes in the overtime win, scoring 26 points on 19 shots while adding ten rebounds, five assists, three turnovers, and two blocks. His presence drew both Gasol and Randolph away from the basket, and frustrated them on the inside as San Antonio used him as a screener nonpareil and target to work off of (either as a scorer, passer, screen setter, or hockey assist-creator) when the initial options didn’t work out.
A fabulous night from Manu Ginobili (19 points on nine shots, five assists off the bench) and impressive run from Tiago Splitter (5-5 shooting, 11 points) were both the by-product and partial influence for Duncan’s admirable inside-out attack.
Duncan’s work left your eyes rolling, the appropriate response when paired with the requisite shake of the head. It’s not so much that it boggles that Tim Duncan is doing this at age 37; it boggles that any man of his size can work this way full stop. Ninety-eight percent of NBA big men would kill to have a game like this against an opponent like that in a setting like Saturday night’s, and yet Tim is somehow pulling this off some 16 years after being drafted out of Wake Forest as a college senior.
This is why the Spurs are different. They’ve mixed in all the impressive hallmarks of that five year run between 2007 and now (brilliantly-scouted helpers in the rotation, ever-evolving play calling, clarity of role and function, out and out talent) into its most potent package yet.
Those other Spurs teams, in the wake of that 2007 championship, were to be admired. This team is to be feared. And it’s a win away from the NBA Finals.
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