As Heat, other super teams show cracks, Spurs still rolling in playoffs

SAN ANTONIO – As Tim Duncan left the interview podium inside Quicken Loans Arena five years ago and started his walk down a corridor, LeBron James emerged on his way to deliver an NBA Finals concession speech. Duncan hugged James, and told him the NBA would soon belong to him. Duncan was grateful to have secured a fourth championship before the Cleveland Cavaliers star gobbled them for himself.

In these five years, the world has changed, and James started a movement that transformed the NBA: The pursuit of super teams. The Miami Heat, the New York Knicks and even these Los Angeles Clippers shredded their infrastructures and constructed themselves with starry, top-heavy rosters. This was the big-market championship blueprint that hustled the sport into a work stoppage, that left the two powerbrokers courtside here on Thursday night – NBA commissioner David Stern and Spurs owner Peter Holt – pushing to make that model obsolete in the post-lockout league.

Only, the Heat are undoing themselves in these playoffs. Perhaps it is the burden of those max contracts meeting the monumental expectations for victory. Suddenly, the Heat are threatening to fall apart in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Chris Bosh is down, Dwyane Wade is struggling and James is left with a burden that he never truly wanted. The Heat have little infrastructure to sustain the loss of Bosh.

Well, Duncan was partly right five years ago. Yes, LeBron has taken over the NBA, but he won’t stand between Duncan and a fifth NBA championship. Perhaps Oklahoma City will win the Western Conference finals, but make no mistake: These Spurs would absolutely take apart the Heat in the NBA Finals – with Bosh or without him.

The Spurs beat the Los Angeles Clippers 105-88 in Game 2 of this Western Conference semifinal, and it has been 36 days since San Antonio lost a basketball game. The Spurs have won 16 consecutive games – including six to start the playoffs – and they keep coming with the greatness of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, with waves upon waves of support around them. They come with a defensive scheme that’s stripped Chris Paul and Blake Griffin of everything they want to do, and an offensive system full of the complex and simple that always has the Clippers a step behind, a moment too late.

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Five years later, Duncan finds himself surrounded with an eclectic ensemble of teammates borne out of general manager R.C. Buford’s scouting acumen and coach Gregg Popovich’s genius of integrating the talent into a victorious system. Five years later, Duncan is 36 years old, and the truth is unmistakable: He’s closer to his fifth championship than James is to his first.

“It’s been successful for us,” Duncan said. “It’s worked for us. We’ve stuck with that. We’ve been blessed to have the talent that we’ve had, the guys that we’ve drafted and developed over the years – and a couple of key finds along the way …

“Yeah, it’s worked for us.”

Privately, Spurs management will be the first to confess that they let themselves get swept away in the NBA's arms race. Three years ago, they watched the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics win championships with four and five elite players, and believed they had to find a big-money fourth player to surround Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. They made the mistake of trading for Richard Jefferson and the $29 million still owed on his contract three years ago, and they paid a price for it.

“All the really good teams at that time who were paying the top-end salaries – the Lakers and Boston – didn’t just have two or three good players,” Buford told Yahoo! Sports. “They had more than that, and we tried to answer it.”

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Eventually, the Spurs moved Jefferson to the Golden State Warriors and brought back the toughest guy in the gym, Stephen Jackson. Danny Green and Gary Neal had been passed over elsewhere, discarded, and they found a place with the Spurs. Tiago Splitter emerged as the center to be groomed behind Duncan. As Popovich said, Boris Diaw has fit "seamlessly" into the Spurs. Kawhi Leonard has been the long, athletic young forward that they desperately needed, and now he starts with Diaw and Green. Ginobili shrugs, comes off the bench and still kills everyone.

The Spurs keep coming the way the Indiana Pacers have been built to do in the Eastern Conference: deep, versatile and able to attack in different ways. Oklahoma City has constructed its franchise the way the Spurs did: Superstars drafted, developed and surrounded with proper parts. That’s how you keep costs down, chemistry strong and talent deep on the bench.

As Buford said, “What happened with Pop’s approach to the season was this: We didn’t have practice time to prepare a group who hadn’t been used to playing together. But by not over-extending minutes for our top five players, that ability to develop came in game action to give us a much deeper team.

“But, listen, Pop is not doing any of this without including Tim, Tony and Manu. They had to be a part of this. This isn’t something that’s new to this season. Pop’s reduced minutes for all these guys for the last couple years. But I think there’s an appreciation there with [Duncan, Parker and Ginobili] that this can help to extend their careers.”

Five years later, Duncan takes a long look around him and sees something he understands he needs in his advancing years: Buford’s eye for talent, Popovich’s coaching genius and the fresh legs that get him where he needs to go. When Duncan misses three free throws late to lose a playoff game, you won’t hear him blaming it on how “taxing” it was to play out of position. Five years later, the stars chased each other to Miami, Los Angeles and New York, and the strangest thing happened: The Super Team still resided in San Antonio, where the Spurs' formula remained unmatched.

Yes, Tim Duncan said, it works for us.

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