San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has a saying for these moments: We will or we won’t. So Pop threw up his hands again this week and shrugged his shoulders. The Spurs know there’s no replacing Manu Ginobili. They’ll pledge to play hard and smart, and they’ll try to control whatever else they can control. In the end, they’ll win or they won’t. No matter what happens, they’ll come back next season and try to do it again.
But deep down, the Spurs know something else: At some point, there won’t be a next season. Not for Tim Duncan. If the past few months have proven anything, it’s that the clock has finally begun to tick for the Spurs and their greatest player.
For all the concern about Ginobili’s ankles, the Spurs’ success in these playoffs was always hinged to Duncan’s health. For weeks, Duncan has told friends how much his knees have bothered him, and that’s telling for one reason: He never complains about his injuries.
Duncan's production picked up over the past week, but Wednesday brought further evidence of how much he's labored. Though the Spurs had stopped using Duncan in both games of back-to-backs, Popovich relented after Duncan played well Tuesday in Oklahoma City. The move was a mistake. Duncan offered little, scoring just four points as the Spurs wasted a 19-point lead and lost to Portland.
"I don't want a hero," Popovich told Duncan after he finally pulled him off the court. "We need you healthy."
The Spurs think they can still be a tough out in the playoffs without Ginobili – but only if Duncan is effective.
“That,” one Spurs official cautioned, “is the big question.”
The Spurs have always understood the fragility of success. To win championships, you need to be good, but you also need to be healthy and lucky. Too often this season, they haven’t been all three. Even with Ginobili and Duncan at full speed, the Spurs’ hopes of beating the Los Angeles Lakers were fleeting. The Lakers are that good and they figure to get better after Andrew Bynum returns.
Trailing by a point after the first quarter of Sunday’s game in Cleveland, Popovich was asked by an ABC sideline reporter what the Spurs needed to do next.
“We have to be as good as the Lakers,” he said, “and we’re not.”
But with Duncan and Ginobili both healthy? With Tony Parker enjoying the best season of his career? The Spurs would have entered their series against the Lakers with a chance, a small chance, but still the best one the West could offer against the conference’s reigning champs. A year ago, Ginobili entered the West finals on a bad left ankle, and the Spurs pointed to his ineffectiveness as one reason why the Lakers overwhelmed them so easily.
Now? A stress fracture in Ginobili’s right ankle is expected to sideline him through the end of the playoffs. Though Ginobili complained of stiffness during Sunday’s loss to the Cavs, he told the medical staff he was feeling fine the following morning when he went in for tests. The results dazed him and his teammates.
The Spurs know they can't replace Ginobili's fire. Unlike any player in the franchise’s history, he thrives on pressure. On Wednesday, the Spurs signed Marcus Williams for help. They needed Reggie Miller.
Most frustrating for the Spurs: Ginobili’s injury likely eliminates another opportunity for Duncan to win his fifth championship. As much as the Spurs would prefer to not look into the future, Duncan won’t be around forever.
Popovich has said he’ll retire 30 seconds after Duncan, and there’s probably as much truth in that as humor. Parker has jokingly asked Duncan to give him enough advance warning of his retirement, so he, too, can clear out. Even some of the team’s longtime business employees plan to leave when Duncan does.
When Duncan considered signing with the Orlando Magic nine years ago, former Spurs forward Sean Elliott pointed to one of his teammate’s SUVs to explain what awaited the franchise should Duncan not stay.
“See that Suburban over there,” Elliott said. “Drive it to the Mexico border and leave it there for three days. Then go back and see how much has been stripped.
“That’s what this team will look like if Tim Duncan leaves. There might be a window switch left.”
Duncan now will leave behind at least four championships, along with the window switch. He recently told legendary Boston Celtics center Bill Russell he wants a fifth title before retiring; he’ll have three years left on his contract after this season to chase one. But with Duncan, the Spurs are forever in win-now mode. That’s one reason they considered taking on Vince Carter’s burdensome contract at the trade deadline and why they also tried to make a three-for-one deal for Marcus Camby. If Duncan needs help, the Spurs will try to get it for him, future be damned.
The Spurs built their championship rosters by plugging in experienced role players around their three stars. Duncan, however, is the one who makes it all work. So when he struggles as he did the past two months, it doesn’t matter whether Ginobili is in the lineup, the Spurs are also going to struggle.
This fall, Duncan looked as fresh as he has in years. He spent the summer throwing truck tires and boxing, and reported to training camp lean and hungry. Popovich encouraged him to show more confidence in his jump shot to also reduce the pounding he would take in the post. Few big men played better during the season’s first half.
Eventually, however, the aching in Duncan’s knees slowed him. This is what comes from the wear and tear of 12 NBA seasons, from enduring all those postseason battles. Already, Duncan has played in 155 playoff games, essentially adding another two full seasons to his career.
Larry Bird recently told the Boston Herald that Kevin Garnett’s injury troubles this season were inevitable for someone who had played so hard for so long. The same holds true for Duncan.
“It’s gonna catch up with you sooner or later,” Bird said.
The Spurs don’t have time to worry about that. The playoffs start next week and they won’t have Ginobili. They’ll need to lean on Duncan as they always have, and they’ll hope he feels as good in April as he did in November. As Popovich likes to say: They’ll win or they won’t.
And if they don’t?
For now, there’s always next season.
- Tim Duncan