With two more wins in the Western Conference Finals, our San Antonio Spurs will return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007.
Of course, that was the case just one year ago. Didn't exactly pan out that time. But the good news: the Memphis Grizzlies don't have one of the NBA's best bailout artists in Kevin Durant. Nor do they have three of the ten best players in the league, as was the case with OKC's Durant, Westbrook, and the Ayatollah. The better news? This team of ours, with its playoff-hardened, Larry-tested veterans and hungry young guys, remembers what happened last year better than any of us.
The Spurs are famous for pounding the rock, as each of us can attest. But the Jacob Riis quote which summarizes the Spurs' philosophy goes hand-in-hand with another piece of wisdom handed down through the ages:
The Popovich-era Spurs have been blessed with some phenomenal talent over the years. This is not unique to the Spurs, though - the Lakers had two short list greats playing together for eight years in Shaq and Kobe. And for the past six seasons, Kobe has been paired with a Hall-of-Famer in Pau Gasol. (Pau's no Shaq, but who wouldn't love to have him?) The Boston Celtics were led by a trio of HOFers in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen from 2008 to 2012. John Stockton and Karl Malone played together for fifty-one seasons. (Go on, look it up)
Talent alone doesn't explain what's happened in San Antonio recently. In almost any other organization, the diminishing returns from the 2009 and 2010 seasons would have been enough impetus to blow the whole thing up. Just 50 wins? Haven't won a second round game since 2008? It's not enough. The Lakers are too big. The Nuggets, Hornets, and Thunder are all young and coming up. We gotta rebuild. We gotta retool. Ginobili's an old 33. Duncan's good years are behind him. We could get a lot of trade value for Parker.
And for the panicky sports fan, it makes sense. The Spurs were 14-18 in three playoff seasons since winning the 2007 title. Everyone KNOWS that, at some point, you have to cut the old guys loose and start over. Fortunately for those of us who scream at the TV, who own a Ginobili jersey, who stay up way too late after playoff games (as I am doing now), the Spurs have too much sense and patience to think that way.
Fall seven times, stand up eight. The Spurs bounced back from 50-32 in 2010 to 61-21 in 2011. But when they were humbled by the eighth-seeded Grizzlies in the first round, the 61-win season seemed like so much fool's gold. The years really showed against a youthful, aggressive, physical team. There were no Bobcats or Wizards on the playoff schedule, no gassed opponents playing their fourth game in five nights. This older, offensive-oriented team was ill-equipped to withstand the playoff grind. Their playoff record since 2007: 16-22.
So how did they bounce back? By ripping off 60 wins out of 80 regular season and playoff games, that's how. The old, tired graybeards in Silver and Black reached the NBA playoff pole position ahead of younger competitors in a compressed, accelerated lockout schedule. But the elephant in the room, failure to return to the Biggest Stage, reared its ugly head in the form of a three-headed monster from Oklahoma City. But this is how it goes, isn't it? A longtime contender gets older and remains dangerous, but can't ever recapture their championship form, right? It happened to them all - Bird's Celtics, Magic's Lakers, Dr. J's/Moses' 76ers, Isiah's Pistons - they were all overrun by younger contenders and went out with a whimper rather than a bang.
Since the Big Three became the Big Three in 2003, they have won three championships. They have also fallen short of the title seven times: 2004, 2006, 2008-12. But this is a team and organization with will and pride. Though they have fallen seven times, today they stand for an eighth. And with two more wins against the Memphis Grizzlies, they will fight for a fifth.