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Director's Cut: 'Always Leave 'Em Laughing,' by Thomas Boswell

Career Arc: Tim Duncan, Part 2

The Duncan Show has been many things over the past 16 years, but it has rarely, if ever, been boring

If you missed Part 1 of The Duncan Show (1997-2004), click here. Here’s Part 2.

THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASON 8: 2004-05

Record: 59-23 (second-best)
Playoffs: Won title, beat Detroit in Finals (in seven)
New additions: Brent Barry (four years, $19.6 million), Beno Udrih, Nazr Mohammed

Smartest Big-Picture Decision: With Duncan coming off two mega-usage seasons and a discouraging 2004 Olympic experience — so discouraging that he shaved his head and grew a Dennis Haysbert–esque goatee — Pop finally began protecting Duncan’s minutes (66 games, 33.4 MPG). If you’re wondering how Duncan made first-team All-NBA in Season 16 without a biogenesis clinic being involved, start here. No coach protected his star better than Popovich protected Duncan from 2004 through 2013, with the possible exception of Jerry Sloan and John Stockton.

Most Enjoyable In-Season Story Line: “Here Comes Ginobili!” In the span of 11 months, Manu led Argentina to a 2004 gold medal, made the 2005 All-Star team, earned his own SI feature, caused me to write, “If I could be any NBA player, I would probably choose Manu if it wasn’t for the whole ‘There’s a 90 percent chance my parents would get kidnapped’ thing,” bastardized the sport with his serial flopping (he’s Patient X of the Flop Era), matured into a legitimate playoff force (20.8 PPG, 51-44-80 splits, 24.8 PER in 23 playoff games) and won over TNT’s Charles Barkley for life.

Most Enjoyable In-Season Story Line for My Wife: That’s right, it’s the Tony Parker–Eva Longoria romance! Suddenly the “boring” Spurs were landing in Us Weekly every week, employing a crossover celebrity and having their nationally televised games get hijacked by shots of Longoria cheering in the stands. They married in 2007 and had a chance to become the one celebrity power couple who wasn’t that annoying. And then this happened.

Best Spurs-Related Quote: Bowen telling Sports Illustrated, “This is the first place I’ve been where they respect what you can do rather than concentrate on what you can’t.” Well said. By the way, this was the season when Bowen turned into a bona fide villain, feuding with Kobe and Ray Allen, tripping guys left and right, and even inspiring me to call him “Blackjack Bowen” (so he sounded more like a WWE heel). Can you really be boring if you have Blackjack Bowen, Big Shot Rob, Ginobili, Parker and the best power forward ever on your team? I say no.

What Went Right Other Than Manu: Strangely, not much other than midseason pickup Nazr Mohammed stealing Rasho Nesterovic’s crunch-time minutes and their Big Three resembling an actual Big Three (52.9 PPG in the regular season, 61.6 PPG in the playoffs). Duncan sprained his ankle in March, then limped through the playoffs at 70 percent. Barry struggled to fit in. Parker suffered a postseason mini-slump lowlighted by Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups outplaying him, as Longoria did everything but start dressing like Kim Basinger in The Natural. Their biggest breaks happened with other teams: C-Webb’s faulty knees killing off the Kings (for the next decade, as it turned out); Kevin McHale screwing up the T-Wolves and earning himself an invite to 2006′s Atrocious GM Summit; the Lakers rebuilding around a suddenly sullen Kobe; and then, Phoenix’s Joe Johnson breaking his face in Round 2 …

… and Dwyane Wade getting injured during the Eastern finals. Instead of playing Miami and not having home court, San Antonio stumbled into a Game 7 at home against Detroit (which they won). Nobody remembers this now except for Wade, Pat Riley and the Heat’s biggest fan.

Bieber

Best Spurs-Related Quote in General: After San Antonio throttled Phoenix in five,1 Suns coach Mike D’Antoni gushed, “[Duncan] is the ultimate winner, and that’s why they’re so good … I hate saying it, but he’s the best player in the game.”

Translation: I just threw my own MVP under the bus! That reminds me, Duncan finished in the top five of the league’s MVP voting for the eighth straight season (from 1998 through 2005, he finished fifth, third, fifth, second, first, first, second and fourth). Throw in three titles, two MVPs, the Rookie of the Year, eight straight first-team All-NBAs and three Finals MVPs, and Duncan would have made the Hall of Fame off of those first eight seasons alone.2

Best Game You Definitely Didn’t Remember: Round 2′s Spurs-Sonics battle ended with a gorgeous Manu-to-Duncan layup in the last second of Game 6, a thrilling finish for a terrific Round 2 series.3 Remember that enjoyable Ray-Rashard-Fortson Sonics team, those raucous Seattle crowds, or Jerome James playing just well enough to rope an overmatched GM into a preposterously dumb contract? (Paging … Isiah Thomas. Isiah Thomas, please pick up the red courtesy phone.) I loved that series. Also, Game 6 was the last Sonics home playoff game ever. Hold on, I’m pouring out a 40.

Best Game You Definitely Remember: The last-ever Big Shot Rob game! After four straight Finals clunkers, the Spurs were trailing in Game 5 in Detroit when … BOOM! Big Shot Rob scored 21 points (including five 3s), unleashed maybe the best in-game lefty playoff dunk ever, drained the game-winning shot in OT, relegated Rasheed Wallace to “How Could You Do That?” basketball infamy (for hopping off Horry to double Ginobili, and by the way, “HOW COULD YOU DO THAT?????”), inspired me to write a glowing postgame column that successfully compared Horry to Nate Dogg, and caused Duncan to gush afterward, “That was probably the greatest performance I’ve ever been a part of.” What a game.

Enduring Story Line: “Tim Duncan might be great, but he’s not transcendent.” And that wasn’t totally fair. A gimpy Duncan won his third Finals MVP by default (20.6 PPG, 14.1 RPG, 42% FG, 67% FT), missing 22 of 32 shots in Games 3 and 4, missing six of seven free throws down the stretch of Game 5 (as well as what should been an easy game-winning putback), then gutting out a 10-for-27 in Game 7 that was just good enough. The 2005 Finals could have cemented his “Best Player of His Generation” claim, but physically he couldn’t pull it off (leaving the door juuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust open enough for Kobe). Even Duncan admitted afterward, “We can play a lot better, and that’s something horrible to say up here right now as we’re sitting up here NBA champs.”4

Futuristic Tangent: Two weeks ago, Bowen told me that 2005 was San Antonio’s best team, followed by me asking, “Why didn’t you guys play better in the Finals?” Bowen raved about the ’05 Pistons, calling them the best defensive team his Spurs ever played. He chalked it up to a failure of styles — two superior teams involuntarily bringing out the worst in each other (from an entertainment standpoint). That backed up my take before Game 7, when I wondered if defenses were getting too good, worried about shaky officials deciding a championship (something that happened a year later, actually), and wrote, “Much like the Rockets and Knicks in the hideous 1994 Finals, the Spurs and Pistons seem to bring out the worst in one another (only without OJ’s Bronco Chase to lighten the mood).”

Overall contribution to Spurs’ “Boring” Reputation: 10 out of 10. Ratings for Spurs-Pistons dipped 38 percent from 2004′s five-game Pistons-Lakers series, even when you included just the third Game 7 in 21 years. Game 7 morphing into a surreal mix of dramatic, disjointed and weirdly disappointing,(my postgame column) didn’t help matters. Had they played Wade and Shaq, we’d remember the 2005 Spurs more fondly. Alas.

Enduring Story Line: “Anyone but the Spurs and Pistons next year … please.”


THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASON 9: 2005-06

Record: 63-19
Playoffs: Western semis, lost to Dallas (in seven)
New additions: Michael Finley, Nick Van Exel, Fab Oberto

What Went Wrong: Duncan suffered his worst season (19-11, 48% FG, lowest PER since his rookie year) thanks to an ongoing battle with plantar fasciitis.5 But that’s not what killed the Spurs. Phoenix and Dallas were taking advantage of subtle rule changes that favored penetrating guards, small ball and slash-and-kick offenses (I wrote about it that spring), only the Spurs hadn’t totally embraced those novelties yet. Dallas ended up being 0.000004 percent better in a Round 2 bloodbath that featured five nail-biters (Game 1 and Game 3 were especially good), as well as the Spurs nearly rallying back from a 3-to-1 series deficit. That brings us to …

Best Game You Definitely Remember: Game 7 at San Antonio … or as it’s also known, “The Best Game 7 of The Duncan Show.” You had Duncan at his best (41 and 15) and Dirk at his best (37 and 15).6 You also had Parker and Manu dropping 47 combined, only Manu went from hero (the go-ahead 3 with 32 seconds left) to goat (inexplicably fouling Dirk on the 3-point play that saved Dallas’s season). Dallas took care of business in overtime and that was that. The following is not hyperbole: Because of start-to-finish drama, consistent entertainment, star power, unexpected twists, history-altering significance, excellence of play, sheer rewatchability and such a memorable Game 7, this was THE best professional basketball series of the 21st century. It’s amazing. But yeah, the Spurs were boring.

Enduring Story Line: “Did we just come two plays away from maybe winning four straight titles? Where’s the tequila?”


THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASON 10: 2006-07

Record: 58-24
Playoffs: Won title, beat Cleveland in Finals (sweep)
New additions: Matt Bonner, Jackie Butler, Francisco Elson, a.k.a. “The Not-So-Big 3″

What Went Right: Pop kept everyone’s minutes under 34.1 or less, fine-tuned his whole It’s A Marathon Not A Sprint philosophy, and started tinkering with more small-ball lineups than ever before. Duncan cruised to fourth on the MVP ballot and mastered the second phase of his career in an evolving league:7 Once upon a time, he was the perfect power forward … now, he was the perfect center. Meanwhile, Golden State shocked the 67-win Mavs in Round 1; the precociously young Cavs shocked Detroit in the Eastern finals; and the Suns became possessed by an evil spirit in Round 2. Hold on, let’s break that last point down via YouTube.

Game 1: Phoenix squanders home-court advantage because Nash butts heads with Parker, then Phoenix’s legendary training staff somehow can’t stop the bleeding on his nose, causing Nash to miss most of crunch time. So if you’re scoring at home, Phoenix’s medical staff can save Grant Hill’s ruined career, coax multiple All-Star seasons out of Amar’e’s ravaged knees, save Steve Nash’s bum back and eke an All-Star performance from an overweight Shaq … but they can’t figure out how to put some freaking Vaseline on a cut.

Game 3: I wrote afterward that this was one of the most poorly officiated playoff games ever, never realizing that a crooked ref was involved. Wait a second … Good god, that’s Tim Donaghy’s music!!!!!!!!!! MY GOD, TIM DONAGHY IS CLEANING HOUSE!!!!!!!!!!8

Game 4: Right as Phoenix was clinching its victory in San Antonio, Big Shot Rob body-checked Nash into the scorer’s table and inspired Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw to charge off Phoenix’s bench — Stoudemire to defend the fallen Nash, Diaw because Horry knocked three doughnuts to the ground. We’ll always remember this as Big Shot Rob’s last great play.

You know what happened next: David Stern stupidly suspended both guys for leaving the bench (one of THE biggest mistakes he made in 30 years), leading to San Antonio beating a depleted Suns team in Game 5 and closing things out at home. For the record, Manu and Parker combined for 63 in Game 6, and Duncan threw up a 24-13-9 …

… but that’s not making Suns fans feel better. I believe the Spurs were 2007′s best team and wrote as much that entire spring (most emphatically, right before the Finals). Duncan owned the Suns. It’s just a fact. In 2005, 2006 and 2007, Phoenix went 6-15 against San Antonio. But if you’re a Suns fan dealing with 45 years of close-but-no-cigar seasons and no light at the end of the tunnel? I get it. They’ll go to their graves thinking they were beaten by a bloody nose, a crooked ref and a bad commissioner ruling. And they won’t be totally wrong.

Half-Decent Game That You Definitely Didn’t Remember: Even if the Spurs-Cavs Finals was over after about 10 minutes, Game 3 in Cleveland featured two unexpected twists: Anderson Varejao deciding to take Tim Duncan off the dribble on the game’s biggest play (over, you know, letting LeBron James have a crack), and then LeBron nearly sinking a game-tying 3. (Thinking.) Oh, who am I kidding? This series sucked. There’s never been a worse-rated Finals. Even worse, a French guy won the Finals MVP. Come on.

Fun ESPN The Magazine Reread: After 10 solid years and countless failed attempts to write an entire column about Duncan, I finally came up with a gimmick (centering it on the attempt to write about The Man Who Couldn’t Be Effectively Written About), included a half-decent hook (that Duncan wasn’t just underrated, he was wildly underrated), and figured out a decent comparison for Duncan’s career (none other than Harrison Ford). So if you’re scoring at home, Duncan is like Trey Parker, Dennis Haysbert, Garry Kasparov, Mr. Spock, and Harrison Ford. Hey, Dos Equis guy, make some room at the Most Interesting Table in the World!

Overall Contribution to Spurs’ “Boring” Reputation: 17 out of 10. Before the 2007 Finals, I praised them by writing, “These guys can play run-and-gun, they can play slowdown, they can defend, they can play small ball, they can come from behind, they have one of the best coaches in the league … you name it, this team can do it. Again, it’s the second-best NBA playoff team since Jordan retired. For some reason, only a few people realize this.”

But there was no recovering from that ’07 Finals miasma, even if the Spurs can’t be blamed for being saddled with the most overmatched Finals opponent since the ’71 Bullets. (You realize an aging Eric Snow played BIG minutes in the 2007 Finals, right?) The only fun memory from that series: A delighted Duncan celebrating Parker’s Finals MVP trophy after Game 4. He couldn’t have been happier. Do you think Kobe would have reacted that way three years later had Pau Gasol won Finals MVP (which, by the way, he should have)? You’re right, I’m openly trolling Lakers fans. I’m sorry.9

Enduring Story Line: “Wait a second … did we just come within two plays of probably winning FIVE straight titles?” Actually, yes. You did.


THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASON 11: 2007-08

Record: 56-26
Playoffs: Western finals, lost to Lakers (in five)
New additions: Ime Udoka, Kurt Thomas

What Went Wrong: You mean, other than Pop unsuccessfully protesting L.A.’s January hijacking of Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, two future first-round picks and Pau’s then-semi-obese little brother? (Funny how that one swung around, right?) San Antonio’s supporting cast aged in dog years: In the ’08 playoffs, no Spur other than the Big 3 averaged more than seven points. Even worse, the Lakers knocked them out, giving Kobe a 4-2 edge in Playoff Series Bragging Rights over Duncan. And even worse, Duncan’s longtime rival and least favorite opponent (Kevin Garnett)10 finally made the Finals, leading to this moment …

Sneakiest Spurs-Related Subplot: Buford’s dutiful assistant GM, Sam Presti, jumped to Seattle before the 2007 draft with San Antonio’s gushy blessing. From there, he drafted Kevin Durant and proceeded to build the up-and-coming juggernaut that — SPOILER ALERT! — ruined San Antonio’s title chances five years later. Was this a Walter White–Gustavo Fring situation? Not really. But it had to be mentioned.11

Juiciest In-Season Subplot: In April, San Antonio’s salty relationship with the one and only Joey Crawford bubbled over when Joey threw Duncan out of a game for laughing.

After the league suspended Crawford indefinitely, just like that, the most infamous referee-franchise feud in NBA history was launched. So what if Zach Lowe broke down on Grantland how it has been overblown, and that there’s no hard-core evidence that Crawford has it out for the Spurs? You can’t measure the impact of a team seeing a certain official and thinking to themselves, Oh, man, we’re screwed tonight. In a related story, who officiated Game 2 of the 2013 Finals when Miami desperately needed a win? That’s right … Joey Crawford!!! I love when the NBA resembles the WWE. And yes, Joey has a long way to go before he tops the Hebner twins.

Best Game You Might Remember: An unforgettable Game 1 against Phoenix in the first round … or as it’s more commonly known, “The Day We Should Have Realized That Mike D’Antoni Can’t Coach.” Just when it looked like the Suns finally matched up with San Antonio — thanks to the controversial Shaq trade — they foolishly gave up not one but TWO game-tying 3s, including Duncan’s unexpected dagger to send it to a second OT.

The poor Suns never recovered, losing in five as Steve Nash fought off the urge to hire a hit man to assassinate Duncan. The next round, Chris Paul’s Hornets took San Antonio to a seventh game, then blew it at home thanks to an Irrational Confidence Guy Gone Wrong performance from Jannero Pargo (who shot them right out of the series). Just when it felt like the champs had a guardian angel protecting them (à la the ’88 Lakers), Kobe eviscerated them in the Western finals: 29.2 points per game, 53 percent shooting, and 39 points in the deciding Game 5.12 The Spurs didn’t help themselves, blowing a 20-point lead in Game 1 and botching the potential game winner in Game 5, when Brent Barry got bumped by Derek Fisher while preparing to shoot a game-winning 3, then forgot to jump into Fisher to draw the foul. Oh, by the way, HE GOT FOULED ANYWAY. Brutal no-call. Just brutal.

Enduring Story Line: “So long, San Antonio … thanks for the memories.” Boston and Los Angeles had assumed control of the league, and with LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant coming down the pike, The Duncan Show was starting to look like 24 circa Season 7. With Duncan as an increasingly creaky Jack Bauer. The end was near. Or so we thought.


THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASONS 12 & 13: 2008-10

Record: 104-60
Playoffs: First round, lost to Dallas in five (2009); second round, swept by Phoenix (2010)
New additions: Drew Gooden, Roger Mason, George Hill (2009);13 Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, Richard Jefferson (2010)

What Went Wrong: Let’s see … old legs … poor play from the wing spots … a Manu injury that knocked him out of the ’09 playoffs … the ill-fated Richard Jefferson trade … Father Time finally winning a couple rounds with Duncan (2010: 17.9 PPG, 10.1 RPG) … some subtle Parker-Pop tension14 boiling over when Pop started George Hill over Parker in a few 2010 playoff games … and in one of the all-time NBA table-turns, Nash’s 2010 Suns knocking them out by sweeping them. That series was only missing a sobbing Nash turning away from Craig Sager, staring into the camera and bellowing, “Yo Adrian … I DID IT!”

Best Game You Might Not Remember: Is there something called the Goran Dragic Game? You’re damned right there’s something called the Goran Dragic Game!!!!

Best In-Season Subplot: Thirteen years into his career, Duncan officially joined the Tony La Russa All-Stars for “Sports-Related People Who Never Seem To Age.” Other members: Coach K, Gene Hackman, David Robinson, Dan Marino, Hank Williams Jr., Denzel Washington, Steve Kerr and James Brown.

Second-Best In-Season Subplot: Pop grew one of those Sean Connery beards, suddenly looking like a possibly adulterous college professor in an Alexander Payne movie.

Bieber

Third-Best In-Season Subplot: Starting in 2009, the NBA forced head coaches to be interviewed by sideline reporters once per game. Why? Because the NBA hates us, that’s why. This led to …

• Some of the most awkward/useless/forgettable 30-second exchanges in recorded television history.

• Me finally snapping and writing a 5,000-word column about how much I hated it, nearly giving John Walsh a heart attack in the process.

• Pop creating a spellbinding character that SNL easily could have parodied … a.k.a. The Coach Who Absolutely Despises These Stupid In-Game Interviews (played by Bill Hader!!!).15 Those hilariously tense Pop interviews took a life of their own over the next four years, to the degree that ESPN.com’s Marc Stein posted a colossal feature last week called “Do not disturb: Gregg Popovich.” Who said the Spurs were boring???

Fourth-best Subplot: Twitter took off in 2009, giving Spurs fans a new forum to bitch about any media guy who said or wrote anything other than “The Spurs are incredible, I wish there was a way to make love to them because I’d totally do it.” Spurs fans have a chip on their shoulders, and rightfully so — people have been crapping on their team for 15 years. Also, any city with one team acts irrationally whenever anyone even comes close to criticizing its team. (Cut to Portland fans nodding.)16 The Spurs have great fans — I loved their crowds during the Memphis series. Relentlessly raucous. Like a hockey crowd. I enjoy how diligently they stick up for their boys, and it doesn’t hurt my feelings when they tell me to have sex with myself. Which is often. And no, I didn’t write this because I’m staying in San Antonio all week and they could poison my food.

Most Fascinating Subplot Heading Into the 2010 Offseason: “Should We Stay The Course Or Blow It Up?” They chose the former, signing Parker to a four-year, $50 million extension a few months after adding three years and $38.8 million to Ginobili’s deal. They also convinced Jefferson to pass up his $15 million player option (a luxury-tax disaster) for a longer four-year, $39 million deal (tax-friendly short-term, cap-unfriendly long-term). Put it this way: The answer to the question, “What should we do about our Richard Jefferson problem?” should not have been, “Wait, I got it — let’s get MORE Richard Jefferson.” Huge mistake.

Enduring Story Line: “I know the Spurs are smart and all, but why keep running back a nucleus that peaked three years ago??? BLOW IT UP ALREADY!!!”


THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASON 14: 2010-11

Record: 61-21
Playoffs: Round 1, lost to Memphis in six
New additions: Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter

What Went Right: Remember when Pat Riley grabbed Kareem’s car keys and gave them to Magic before the ’87 Lakers season? That’s what Popovich did with Duncan and Parker; from this point forward, the Spurs offense belonged to a French dude.17 That’s one reason why the Spurs shocked everyone by finishing with the league’s best record again. The other? Familiarity. Their best three guys had been playing together for a solid decade; it’s the biggest advantage you can have on a basketball court. With Kobe’s knees bothering him and the Thunder still a year or so away, the Western Conference seas were parting for The Duncan Show again.

What Went Wrong: Remember Pop bitching about the Pau trade in 2008? Revenge is a bitch. That’s right, Pau’s formerly gordo hermano came back to haunt him, as Marc Gasol joined forces with a rejuvenated Zach Randolph and overpowered the Spurs in a dumbfounding 1-seed/8-seed upset.18 It remains the greatest sports moment in Memphis history, narrowly edging the time Lennox Lewis sent Mike Tyson to Bolivian, and Jalen Rose recently naming Memphis no. 1 in his Black Guy City Power Rankings. The Grizzlies outplayed them and overpowered Duncan (12.7 PPG, 10.5 RPG) down low in ways that made you say “Awwwwwww.” As recently as 2009, you could have gotten 200-to-1 odds for the prop bet, “Z-Bo and Pau’s little bro will kick Duncan’s ass in a playoff series within the next two years.” Just know it happened.

Best Game You Definitely Forgot About: With the Spurs facing elimination in Game 5, Ginobili hit what seemed like one of the most amazing game-tying 3s ever (1:50 mark) …

… only his foot was on the line, leading to Gary Neal saving the series with an improbable game-tying 3.

After San Antonio clawed out an overtime victory to stay alive, the consensus opinion seemed to be, “HERE COME THE SPURS!” You know who disagreed? General Z-Bo!

Unequivocally Bizarre Off-Court Subplot That Negatively Affected This Season: In November 2010, Longoria and Parker separated after tabloid rumors swirled about Parker’s cheating. Eighteen months later, Longoria admitted what happened: She stumbled across hundreds of steamy texts that Parker had exchanged with a former teammate’s then-wife, a shocking revelation since the Spurs had always been perceived to be the NBA’s closest team. After Parker told a French newspaper that San Antonio’s days of contending were probably over, that was that: The Spurs listened to Parker offers before the 2011 draft from Sacramento (who had the fifth pick), Denver, Portland and Toronto (who had the seventh pick), hoping to turn the offense over to George Hill (Pop’s favorite player) and acquire younger assets.

And here’s where fate intervened: Nobody made a good enough offer for Parker.

The Spurs reluctantly went to Plan B — flipping Hill for the rights to Kawhi Leonard (the athletic wing they desperately needed), a trade that only happened after Leonard inexplicably dropped seven or eight spots to no. 15 (as Zach Lowe documented on Grantland recently). This ended up being Pop’s toughest moment (he cried on the phone when he told “Georgey,” as Pop calls him, about the trade) but also his luckiest (because they ended up with Parker and Leonard instead of Hill and 60 cents on the dollar for Parker). You need a little luck to stay relevant, right? The Spurs got lucky here. We also learned a valuable lesson: Keep your wife away from Tony Parker. In 2012, I took the Sports Gal to a Spurs-Clippers game and didn’t feel comfortable with her being 30 feet away from him.

Enduring Story Line: “Only the Spurs can survive a semi-scandal that would have submarined any other team and somehow come out of it better than ever.” By the way, how was this team boring again?


THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASON 15: 2011-12

Record: 50-16
Playoffs: Western finals, lost to OKC in six
New additions: Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson

What Went Right: Who benefits most from lockout-shortened seasons with limited training camps and tons of roster turnover — you know, when continuity and familiarity matter more than anything else? I’ll give you one guess. Also: Leonard and Cleveland castoff Danny Green19 gave them two much-needed DTAs (Defense/Threes/Athleticism) at the wing spots; Boris Diaw gave Parker someone to speak French with; and Captain Jack (acquired for Jefferson) gave them a little swagger and a chance to extricate themselves from a semi-massive mistake (Jackson’s atrocious contract expired one year earlier than Jefferson’s atrocious contract).20

Fun Grantland Reread: Hmmmm … we could go with my gushing column after San Antonio swept the Clippers. (A slice: “If you love basketball and (more important) love watching basketball played correctly, the 2012 San Antonio Spurs have a way of grabbing your attention.”) Or we could go with my running diary after Game 2 of the Oklahoma City series, when I wrote “The Spurs, as presently constructed and in their present state of health, are unbeatable” and “they’re magically Botoxing away every glaring footnote and asterisk from this lockout-shortened, injury-riddled season. They’ve transcended it simply by being as potent as any basketball team we’ve ever watched, the first NBA franchise to fully perfect a European offensive style (slash-and-kicks, high screens, open 3s, back-door cuts and everything else) while maintaining their defensive dignity.”

(Important note: They never won another 2012 playoff game. I’m an idiot.)

What Went Wrong: Down 2-0 in the Western finals, Oklahoma City suddenly transformed into a frightening hybrid of the ’91 Bulls and ’90 Blazers. They blew out the Spurs in Game 3. They rode ridiculous shooting from Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka (18-for-20 combined!) in Game 4. In San Antonio for Game 5, they fought off a 34-point effort from Manu as Durant, Westbrook and Harden combined for 70 — just a breathtaking display of talent and youth — followed by Durant and Westbrook combining for 59 points in Game 6′s clincher. I can’t remember a series flipping that fast, or that violently — in the span of eight days, the Spurs went from “unstoppable juggernaut” to “yesterday’s news.”

Enduring Story Line: “Thanks for the memories, San Antonio — you’re done unless Oklahoma City does something REALLY stupid.”


THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASON 16: 2012-13

Record: 58-24
Playoffs: Made Finals
New additions: None

Secretly Fascinating Preseason Story Line: You need a little luck to keep thriving for 16 solid years. Like Kobe and Shaq’s relationship splintering. Like Cleveland beating Memphis in the LeBron Lottery. Like Parker falling to no. 28, or every other team passing on Ginobili (the Spurs got him in the second round with the 28th pick). But Oklahoma City panic-trading James Harden for 50 cents on the dollar over waiting one more season, then figuring it out this summer … that wasn’t just luck, that may have actually been an act of God.

Craziest Preseason Story Line (late addition!): After Part 2 went up, a number of readers couldn’t believe I forgot about this one, and frankly, neither can I. Remember Tony Parker nearly getting blinded by a shattered champagne bottle during an epic Drake–Chris Brown nightclub brawl???? That was like a Mad Libs for NBA/TMZ story … Tony Parker, Chris Brown, Drake, champagne, nightclub, brawl, GO!!!

Fun In-Season Media-Generated Scandal: Pop sending Parker, Duncan and Ginobili home on Southwest Airlines right before a TNT Thursday-night showdown in Miami … or as many people (including me) interpreted it, Pop’s unabashed attempt to jump up and down while waving both middle fingers at David Stern. A furious commish reacted quickly, putting out a statement condemning the act, then fining Pop and the Spurs $250,000 … followed by the 24-hour talking head/sports blog cycle eating up the story.

My take: I loved it. The Spurs were playing their fourth game in five nights, with a crucial home battle against Memphis looming two nights later. What did the tired Spurs have to gain from getting their asses kicked on TNT, especially at the expense of a rival they might meet in the Finals? Isn’t Pop’s goal to win a title? Didn’t the lockout-shortened season wear them down against the younger Thunder the previous year? And shouldn’t the NBA be blamed for sticking to an 82-game schedule that guarantees exhausted teams playing a fourth-in-five-nights game six or seven times per year? This was Pop’s fault???? I loved Pop sticking it to Warden Stern. Long live Pop.

Secretly Fascinating In-Season Story Line: Out of nowhere, Duncan dropped 20 pounds, submitted his best all-around season in five years (30.1 MPG, 17.8 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.7 BPG, 50% FG, 24.4 PER) and generally looked like the old “Timmaaaay” again. You couldn’t even joke about Duncan’s renaissance being about PEDs because, again, he lost 20 pounds. He just looked sleeker and faster. Also helping the cause: An especially brilliant Parker season, as he mastered a complex offense that revolved around a relentless series of picks and screens (just about all of them for Tony Parker).

And now we’re here. The Spurs ripped through the Kobe-less Lakers in Round 1, fended off the mildly dangerous Warriors in Round 2, got revenge on Memphis with a conference finals sweep, then stole Game 1 in Miami. They’re three wins away from the title, with three consecutive home games coming in little ol’ San Antonio. Finally — finally — they’re playing in an NBA Finals that everyone cares about, battling the league’s marquee team and the greatest basketball player since Michael Jordan.

What happens if the Spurs win the 2013 title? In no particular order: Duncan officially knocks Kobe out of the “Best Player of Their Generation” conversation; Parker officially becomes a Hall of Famer and the league’s best point guard; Popovich officially ascends to the coaching Mount Rushmore along with Auerbach, Jackson and Riley; and you’ll be suffocated by a never-ending slew of gushing stories about chemistry, teamwork, precision, unwavering loyalty and everything else that made The Duncan Show so special these last 16 years.

Well, for about 12 hours.

After that, everyone’s attention would shift to questions like “Is Miami gonna blow it up?” and “Where’s LeBron going in a year?” and “Who’s signing Dwight?” and “Is Chris leaving the Clippers?” and every other sexy story line that never ends up being about the San Antonio Spurs.

Just know that, if/when it plays out that way, Popovich’s crew will lay in the weeds like always: steering clear of the limelight, saying nothing, subtly tinkering with their nucleus, preparing to defend their fifth title, hoping people will continuing talking about anyone else but them. Even if that sounds boring … we know better.

Filed Under: Art, Bill Simmons, General topics, People, Simmons, Teams, Tim Duncan, UNC

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland.

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