SAN ANTONIO – Tim Duncan handed Stephen Jackson the ball, and suddenly it was 2003 all over again. Jackson raising up from 25 feet. Duncan's eyes growing you're-not-really-going-to-shoot-that wide. The 3-pointer sliding through the net. Duncan patting Jackson on the head, the roar of the AT&T Center falling upon all these San Antonio Spurs, another tense late-May playoff battle turning in their direction.
The Spurs rallied to take Game 1 of the Western Conference finals from the Oklahoma City Thunder, needing just three minutes to erase a nine-point deficit in the final quarter. It was their 19th straight victory, tying the NBA record for the longest winning streak extended in the postseason, and, no, Duncan didn't expect this. Truth be told, he wondered, at times, like everyone else. After all those playoff wars won and lost, wouldn't the Spurs finally dismantle themselves and try something new?
"I heard we were dead," Duncan said.
Duncan laughed. He was sitting at the Spurs' practice facility, two days before the start of these conference finals. Gregg Popovich walked past and chided him for sharing a private moment with a reporter. Across Duncan's 15 NBA seasons, the only coach he's known is Popovich. The Spurs' All-Star guards – Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – have played with Duncan for 11 and 10 seasons, respectively. This isn't normal. Not in today's pack-for-South-Beach NBA.
So, yes, Duncan wondered. He wondered whether Ginobili would eventually want a bigger role. He wondered whether Parker, in what Duncan likes to call "his Hollywood years," wanted a bigger market. And he wondered whether his own body would allow him to keep playing at the level he needed.
"But we've all found a home here in San Antonio," Duncan said, "and we all love it here."
They've stayed for one simple reason: "It works," Duncan said. "There's no two ways about it. If something doesn't work, you break it up and you do something else. We've all accepted our roles, we've evolved over the years and we've all been happy with it because we believe."
They believe because Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford have given them reason to believe. As the league changed, Popovich adapted. The Spurs don't defend the way they did when they won four championships, but they score better. Buford gave Popovich a roster to fit, surrounding the Spurs' Big Three with young legs and sure shots. Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter arrived from Europe last season, and there they were Sunday, helping start the comeback in the fourth quarter.
Popovich has long valued toughness over talent, and the Spurs heard as much when he scolded them in a second-half huddle. "I want some nasty," Popovich barked.
Jackson's ears naturally perked up. " 'Nasty' is my middle name," he said. "Stephen 'Nasty' Jackson."
Jackson won a championship with the Spurs in 2003, left a month later and Duncan and Popovich have missed him ever since. He shouldn't be here now, but the Spurs landed him at the trade deadline while cleaning up one of their few mistakes. They'd given Richard Jefferson a four-year, $39 million extension two summers ago that was regrettable the moment the ink dried on the contract. When Golden State acquired Jackson in the Andrew Bogut trade 10 weeks ago, Buford immediately called Warriors general manager Larry Riley.
"Pop," Buford told Riley, "still thinks he can coach Jack."
Jackson had already worn out the Warriors with his tempestuousness two seasons earlier. They had no use for him now. They took the Spurs' first-round pick and Jefferson and sent them Jackson, who couldn't have been happier to hear he was returning to San Antonio.
"I lost my mind," he said. "My hair fell out and grew back in like 30 minutes."
Jackson's contract is a year shorter than Jefferson's, but the trade benefited the Spurs on the court as much as it did financially. Moving Jefferson freed minutes for rookie Kawhi Leonard. Popovich could pull Jackson or leave him sitting and not worry about wrecking Jackson's confidence the way he did with Jefferson. Jackson comes back the next day, the next quarter, ready to fight again, just as he did Sunday.
Jackson took over the assignment of guarding Kevin Durant for much of the final quarter, lining up alongside Ginobili, Duncan and Parker as the Spurs surged past the Thunder. Had anything changed from all those years ago? "Me and Manu are Danny Ferry and Steve Kerr now," Jackson said, "and Kawhi and Danny Green are me and Manu when we first came."
Some of the roles are different and they continue to adjust nightly. Ginobili led on Sunday while Parker has led for much of this season. A year ago, Ginobili played with a fractured elbow as the Spurs bowed out to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, and it was then that franchise officials considered breaking up their core. The Spurs talked to teams about moving into the top five of the draft. Parker was the bait – with one hefty repellant: Any team that wanted him also had to take Jefferson's contract.
Through all these conversations over the years, Popovich has clung to the same belief: The Spurs shouldn't waste any of Duncan's final years. "Will this deal make us better than we are now?" Popovich would ask. "Timmy didn't sign on to wait."
The Spurs weren't sure whether this would be Duncan's final season, and neither was he. His left knee routinely ached a year ago, limiting both his minutes and his effectiveness.
"I got to the point where I was depressed and pissed off that my body wasn't doing the things that it used to do, and that I was deteriorating skill-wise," he said. "I'm a competitor. I want to be a staple on a team, I want to be a go-to guy on a team. When that changed, that obviously hurt a little bit. But I found ways to be a part of this team and be a big part of this team."
He was again on Sunday, totaling 16 points and 11 rebounds in 35 minutes, a testament to his health. While Kobe Bryant and Alex Rodriguez went to Europe to have platelet-rich plasma therapy on their arthritic knees last summer, Duncan stayed home – "I don't think I'm cool enough," he said. "You have to be an A-Rod or a Kobe to get invited to Germany" – and adjusted his offseason workouts. In truth, he weighs the same he weighed two years ago when he first slimmed down for training camp. The doctors have found a few things to help his knee and the brace he wears has been adjusted to offer more support.
Duncan now says it's realistic to expect him to play another year or two. Three or four years, he thinks, would be a stretch, even in his improved condition. This much is certain: He has little interest in testing the free-agent market when his contract ends after this season, negotiating leverage be damned.
"Though I shouldn't say that; I have to threaten them that I'll leave," he joked. "No … I'm not going anywhere. You can print that wherever you want to. I'm here and I'm a Spur for life."
Left for dead, and now Duncan, Ginobili and Parker are on the great run of their careers. Ginobili drove for one more layup late Sunday and Duncan wrapped him in a hug. After all these years, they haven't gone anywhere. They're still standing, still together.
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