MEMPHIS, Tenn. – They had stood in that losing locker room in Oklahoma City a year ago, and Tony Parker made Tim Duncan a promise that would carry these San Antonio Spurs all the way to Monday night. I'll get you back to the NBA Finals, Parker vowed. We aren't done. You aren't done.
It was late Monday, and Parker's eyes looked like they might well with tears as he recalled that moment. He had a 2013 Western Conference champions hat atop his head, having made good on his promise to send Duncan and the Spurs back to the Finals with a stirring 37-point performance in a 93-86 victory that completed a four-game sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Duncan "remembered [the promise] and reminds me every time we passed a playoff round," Parker told Yahoo! Sports. "He said, 'We're going to ride you to the end.'
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"Timmy means a lot to me. I learned so much from him. From the first day I arrived in San Antonio he's always had my back. He's a very good friend, very close to me on the court and off the court.
"Our first championship we were riding him. He was our franchise. I feel very blessed because now it's my turn to try to bring this team to the end. If I can do that for him, it would be … unbelievable."
The Spurs are returning to the Finals for the first time in six years. They've won the championship in each of their four previous visits (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007), the last three with Parker as their starting point guard. Parker won his first title at 21 and his last at 25 when he was named the Finals MVP after the Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"In 2007, we won our third one in five years, and you think it's going to keep coming," Parker said. "And I'm 25, and six years go by and every year it gets tougher."
The Spurs were stuck in a six-year Finals drought that included last year's difficult loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West finals. The Spurs led that series 2-0 before losing the next four games. Afterward, Parker told Duncan that he would get him back to the Finals before the end of his career. At 37 years old, Duncan will now get a shot at winning his fifth championship.
"He's amazing and he's evolved so much over the past couple of years," Duncan said of Parker. "To get back to this point with him at the helm, I'm just going to do everything I can to get these four games in and try to win four more for both of us. Obviously, he's carrying the load and he said he was going to get me back here. It's a lot of fun to be back here."
[Slideshow: Spurs sweep Grizzlies to reach NBA Finals]
The Spurs find this Finals trip especially sweet, given that they have long been considered too old to challenge for another title. The season began with all eyes on the Los Angeles Lakers after they acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to help Kobe Bryant in his championship chase. Kevin Durant and the Thunder were the defending West champions, and the Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers were also expected to pass the Spurs among the conference's elite. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich even said that if he'd been a fan looking at the Spurs, he also probably would have thought their run was over.
After entering the playoffs with the West's No. 2 seed, the Spurs have gone 12-2, sweeping the Lakers, beating the Golden State Warriors in six games and now sweeping the Grizzlies. Suddenly, all that talk about Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili being too old has been replaced by respect.
"It already feels pretty good," Popovich said. "You don't expect that to happen maybe this late in the game with the same group. It's tough to do, to maintain something that long. But it just shows the character of those three guys and their ability to play with whomever else is brought around them. They deserve a lot of credit for that."
Duncan gave Spurs owner Peter Holt credit for sticking with himself, Parker and Ginobili for all these years and resisting change. Duncan joined the Spurs in 1997, Parker in 2001 and Ginobili in 2002. Popovich began coaching the Spurs the season before Duncan arrived. He and general manager R.C. Buford have worked in the team's front office since 1994.
"I know it's rare what we have," Duncan said. "It's rare for the confidence that they have in Pop and the front office. It's rare for us to be playing together for so long. There is a lot of rare air here."
The Spurs will now get some rare rest. The Finals won't start until June 6. In the meantime, the Spurs will wait to see if they'll face either the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers.
"This was an incredibly physical series for our bigs," Duncan said. "So we're going to use the rest wisely and get our legs back underneath us and be as fresh as possible and as healthy as possible starting that first game."
With Parker helping lead the way, Duncan now has an opportunity to add another accomplishment to his already remarkable career. A fifth title would put Duncan in the same championship company as Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and George Mikan.
"I'm excited to be here," Duncan said. "It's a really great feeling. I don't know how else to explain it. It's been a really long time. It's fun to know that I'm going back to the Finals."
Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• San Antonio earns revenge against Memphis on its way to the NBA Finals
• Tony Parker says Memphis restaurant reservation story a hoax
• Tim Duncan has Spurs one win away from NBA Finals