Gregg Popovich walked a few feet from the bustle and sat on one of the closely aligned, thickly cushioned black folding chairs that compose his team’s bench. Lost in thought he rubbed his forehead and top of his head with both hands while the world around him, largely of his own creation, celebrated.
On the court Tim Duncan was asked by ESPN’s Doris Burke how the Spurs had done it, how they had climbed the mountain to win their fifth NBA championship. “We remember what happened last year and how it felt in that locker room,” Duncan said, recalling their devastating loss to LeBron James’ Miami Heat in 2013. “We used it and built on it and got back here. It’s amazing.” Then, his voice cracking with emotion, he finished his answer, “It makes last year OK.”
It was in that moment of triumph last June that the Spurs pulled back the curtain, just a bit, and gave the world a rare glimpse inside. It was the first real admission there was something extra, something beyond fundamental basketball and precision passing that had driven them to that point. The Spurs were in fact human and were hell-bent on revenge in 2014.
Every fall, the Spurs, along with 29 other NBA teams, gather for camp prior to the start of another long season. And, every fall, reporters ask Popovich what theme he has for the coming grind, what motivational tactic he will use to persuade his guys to make another run. And, as with virtually any question asked of the coach, he casts its relevance aside, preferring usually to grumble something about how they are well-paid, grown men that don’t need him to tell them how to get ready. So it was with no surprise that his answer was the same last fall as it was in all training camps prior.
But Popovich’s seeming (or, more likely, carefully crafted) ambivalence to the importance of emotion as a motivating factor came crumbling down during large stretches during the 2014-15 season and his team’s first-round match-up with the Los Angeles Clippers. Age played a role, for sure. Seeing Manu Ginobili sitting on the end of the bench at the end of playoff games has to stir melancholy in even the most cynical fans. And the maddening disappearance of Kawhi Leonard for the balance of the series has to be a cause for concern for the Spurs going forward. But despite their individual failings or triumphs (Duncan played masterfully), the giant, collective chip on each of their shoulders was gone during the season and in their lone playoff series, likely never to return.
Missing also was a sense of fairness in the series: It was too good to be the first round. The Clippers secured the third seed in the West by winning 56 games in the regular season, including their final seven and 14 out of their final 15. Their efforts were rewarded with a first-round match-up against the defending NBA champions, who themselves finished with quite a flourish, winning 21 out of their final 25. And the late-night starts meant that much of the country, most of the kids in the country who spend weekends playing in league tournaments of their own, didn’t get to witness the greatness on display, some of which might never be seen again.
However, chronicling what was missing from this year’s San Antonio Spurs, and the idiocy in the NBA’s seeding process and television contracts, should in no way diminish what Los Angeles was able to accomplish. Blake Griffin overcame early series shakiness (if you can call a triple-double combined with a late mistake “shaky”) and Chris Paul’s heroic play on an injured hamstring in Game 7 will go down as one of the great individual performances in NBA playoff history. Their play in the clutch deserves to be applauded, regardless of what the Spurs were, or were not, able to muster.
It was also almost poetic to watch as the Clippers found a way to harness the intangible that had fueled the Spurs just a season earlier. They used their emotion to out-hustle and outplay San Antonio, particularly in the pivotal Game 6 and 7 close-outs. Paul had playoff demons to slay, and he did. Griffin heard the whispers. Perhaps he and his teammates were physically imposing but emotionally soft; they were all steak and no sizzle. He quieted the doubters, forcefully, in keeping with his now famous style.
The Clippers’ growth in the series was also worthy of note. After the Spurs won Game 5, the Los Angeles Daily News’ Mark Whicker wondered if the Clips were trying too hard, unable to control their emotion, which ultimately led to late-game mistakes that allowed the Spurs to steal two road wins:
The law of gravity is usually a no-brainer. It works fairly reliably on this planet.
But when Blake Griffin’s go-ahead basket rolled around the rim and finally showed signs of falling through the cords and down to earth, DeAndre Jordan felt obliged to help it.
Whistle. Offensive goaltending. San Antonio winds up winning Game 5 of this first-round series, 111-107, and taking a 3-2 lead going to Texas on Thursday night.
Maybe that’s the way we’ll remember this Clippers era, if it ends without an NBA or Western Conference championship. They might go down as the team that tried too hard.
(Clippers coach Doc Rivers) talked beforehand about the Clippers’ need to use “emotion without being emotional,” a tricky thing. Chris Paul, who also didn’t hit a 3-pointer and was held to 19 points, felt he got fouled and reacted by getting a technical. This is not to say the Spurs don’t act out their emotions. Duncan has been called for very few fouls over the years that he felt he actually committed. But it’s a matter of managing emotion, desire, all those things that every team has but few can channel properly.
In the wake of Game 7, an exhausted Rivers summed it up: “I’m a better person because I went through this series. I guarantee you that.”
A certain sense of inevitability fell over the series in the seconds following Jordan’s basket interference call on Griffin’s shot that likely would have fallen regardless. Jordan’s touch and subsequent free-throws by Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard sealed the Clippers’ fate in Game 5, as they fell behind in the series to the Spurs, kings of close-out games at home. It seemed that the predetermined natural order of things was playing out. The NBA’s royalty would again prevail.
In the New York Times best-selling book “Natchez Burning,” author Greg Iles writes of a conversation between the aging, frail, aristocratic town matriarch and the novel’s central character, Penn Cage. Cage is concerned that the old woman is in danger from a group of ambitious and dangerous men desperate for control. Iles masterfully explains why the old woman shows no concern. “They’re peasants in their bones,” she explains to Cage.
That passage roiled in my mind leading up to Game 6 on Thursday night and a variation of the feeling was heavy in the air inside the AT&T Center. Few, if any, in and around the organization thought the series would be extended. But it was. Chris Paul and his team were unwilling to let the story play out as so many expected. Instead, the Clippers likely closed a chapter on the Spurs as we know them.
Of course there is the chance that they will rise again in some other form with a bevy of tantalizing free agents available. But the most recent iteration of the Spurs, the core of the team that’s been together so long, has most assuredly laced them up together for the final time. Popovich admitted as much in his year-end press conference on Monday. “The team will probably look considerably different than it did this year,” he said. “We want to try to start, not exactly over again, but these last four seasons have been a grind.”
The Spurs are dead. Long live the Spurs.
Sean Elliott was a member of the Spurs first NBA Championship in 1999. He is also one of only seven former players to have his jersey retired and hanging from the rafters. For the past several years he’s been employed as the color commentator on the team’s local Fox Sports affiliate. He is a Spur, through and through, which garners both praise and derision because of his unabashed “us against the world,” mentality when calling games.
On Saturday night after Chris Paul’s last second shot secured the series win for the Clippers and the onset of an offseason of uncertainty, Elliott’s broadcast partner, Bill Land, asked Sean for his thoughts on the series and his former team as the final broadcast of the season wound down. In a plaintive voice Elliott described how proud he was of his friends and former teammates before pausing. And then his voice cracked as he struggled to finish his thoughts, just as Duncan’s had the year prior.
The raw emotion from each sounded similar, even if both were borne from a different place. Duncan’s shaky voice last June was of redemption and relief. Elliott’s on Saturday was more about remembering what once was and will likely never be again. Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan will soon decide if they have anything left to give. Danny Green will be a free agent and as a sharpshooter that brings rare perimeter length and defensive prowess, he will potentially command more than the Spurs can pay him. Kawhi Leonard will field offers from those with the deepest pockets before deciding where to sign and Tiago Splitter might prove expendable with the looming availability of a few big-splash big men. And even though Popovich said after the game that he, Duncan and Ginobili would return because “the paychecks are pretty good,” his future prowling the sideline is anything but guaranteed.
So it was in Elliott’s pause and subsequent cracking voice that you could hear the proudness he has in being associated with those men, the profound joy he feels in having watched their excellence for so long, and the fearful uncertainty about what’s to come. Elliott’s words conveyed his belief that it was not that the Spurs had grown complacent, but more perhaps because they had nothing left; nothing left to prove, nothing left at all.
And thousands, millions even, joined Elliott in wondering how we got here. How did 18 long years pass so quickly? To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, the end for these Spurs came in two ways: First gradually, then suddenly.