by Colin Powers
We’ve been aware for the past few seasons that the clock is ticking on the aging former champs down in San Antonio. Timmy crossed the 1,000 game mark, Ginobili was debilitated by an assortment of ankle injuries for nearly two seasons, Parker caught a bout of plantar fasciitis…all the while the West growing deeper and stronger, new contenders emerging, old foes rejuvenated by some timely salary dump bailouts. Apologies in advance for using such a tired comparison, but the Spurs came to see this season as their Alamo, perhaps the last chance for 21 and Coach Pop to climb the mountain one last time (before Pop retires to his wine vineyards and Duncan to playing Dungeons and Dragons?).
Ownership scorned the tax hit they would take and acquired Richard Jefferson, hoping his relatively young legs might infuse the roster with an energy and athleticism that has eluded the franchise in recent years. They continued to draft with prescience, adding George Hill and DeJuan Blair to their exemplary record of success (Tiago Splitter’s presence on the front-line could really help, though). Duncan came back leaner than we’d seen him in years, the fresh bounce to his step showing us that the guy who hoisted the Larry O’Brien after knocking out the upstart Knicks in ’99 wasn’t quite ready to fade into the sunset. For anyone short of the Lakers, surviving the West was going to be a major accomplishment, but San Antonio was giving themselves a shot.
Something was missing when they came out of the gate in November, though. The team didn’t have that same offensive rhythm nor did they have the same defensive commitment. Jefferson really struggled to redefine himself within Pop’s system, devolving more or less into an ineffective jump shooter instead of the attacking, aggressive transition threat he had always been. Ginobili either wasn’t healthy or was simply passed the days of being one of the best 2s in the world. Parker looked just a step slower because of all his foot issues, and for a player who has predicated his entire game on speed for the most part, that step, or half-step, removed him from elite guard status. Just when he started to look like his old self (you know, the only little dude in the league who gets most his points off lay-ups), he hurt the wrist and will probably be out until the last week of the regular season.
Even the vaunted Rodeo away trip failed to unite the team as it is predestined to do in Spurs mythology. It sure seemed (and still does seem to many people) like the gig was up. But when I’ve watched the Spurs in recent weeks, I’ve seen a team that just might come together at the perfect time. Manu is back, with his rediscovered quickness, confidence, and whirling-dervish attacks of the basket that make him one of the truly unique players in the League. All the old favorites are surfacing again: the step-back 3s (with a slow release that still never gets blocked), the lefty hesitation dives to the bucket with the accompanying running finish, the slick behind-the-back dribble against pressure, and the consistently exemplary court vision and play-making ability. When he’s genuinely healthy, Ginobili is one of the best guards in the League, and someone I would always trust with the ball at the end of the game (despite some rough possessions last night against Atlanta).
Ginobili’s play has also revitalized Richard Jefferson to a certain extent. For the majority of the season, the two did not share the court together all that often. They have in recent weeks, and in Ginobili, Jefferson has found another player with a feel for spacing, angles and movement along the lines of his previous partnership with J. Kidd. Jefferson even spoke to Coach Popovich about his desire to play alongside Ginobili even more often. RJ’s renewed swag and effectiveness will be necessary if the Spurs are to make any noise come April 17. He’s an imperfect fit at the 3 for Pop’s system, but Jefferson’s ability to get cheap buckets in transition and at the line will help a San Antonio team that can get a bit stale at times in the half-court.
Duncan has played some of the best basketball of his post-foot ailments career. He still scores at the bucket and draws contact for freebies with the best of ‘em despite his ever-decreasing hops. He anchors the defense, plays terrifically against the pick-and-roll, and rebounds/clears his man out as the consummate professional he is. Already widely acknowledged as the greatest 4-man in history, this latest incarnation of Tim Duncan with diminished physical gifts only augments his standing as the G.O.A.T. Few bigs have adapted to their twilight years as well as this Wake Forest product.
DeJuan Blair has been great all season, taking the game by the horns as he always has. He knows his way around the bucket and has no problem tossing bodies around even at the NBA level. McDyess and Matt Bonner are the atypical role-playing veterans of the Gregg Popovich era, and George Hill is also much improved, particularly in the consistency with which he shoots the ball from the mid-range and out. Still, Hill is not Tony Parker, especially at winning time. Hill’s athleticism and activity on both ends are a huge boost to San Antonio, but when the 4th quarter comes, he tends to slide into the background as the team relies almost entirely on Ginobili and Duncan for all their offense. That is all fine and well, and many-a-team would love to have those two options in the waning moments (Coach Pop probably requires that Hill give the ball up to Ginobili as well). But Hill’s deferential play allows defenses to simplify their efforts in a way they cannot when Parker is out there (then, they have to be ready for Duncan post iso, Ginobili-Duncan high pick and roll with shooters surrounding, Parker-Duncan high-pick and roll with shooters surrounding). The man from IUPUI has played brilliantly this season, and is incredibly valuable for the contributions he can make during the meat of the game. For the Spurs to consistently win the last few minutes, though, they need all three of their former champions out on the court together.
Word is TP shot pain-free Sunday and is hoping to expedite his return to the ball-club. If the Frenchman is back in uniform in time for the Spurs to gel once again as is the Popovich way, even more intrigue will mark the upcoming Playoffs (especially if SA can leapfrog their way up through the log-jammed standings and avoid the Nuggets match-up). I don’t know if they can do it, but for this team I used to hate for their boring, methodical ways, I’ve really grown to appreciate and enjoy the way they play the game. I hope we can see them at something close to full strength one more time.