The ending of the 2012/13 season was factored into any prediction about the 2013/14 Spurs. It had to be. Such a painful, frustrating disappointment usually breaks teams. Would Manu Ginobili's teammates trust him after a bad year? Did Duncan have it in him to play 100 more games before reaching the ultimate goal? Were Kawhi Leonard and a newly re-signed Tiago Splitter going to be able to contribute more than they had? Were the off-season acquisitions enough to get the team over the hump? Those answers wouldn't be definitively answered for months, but the way the Spurs started the season gave the faithful a reason for optimism.
Manu's latest column for La Nación
Manu describes how he felt after winning the NBA Championship and how much he loved this team. He also seems confident that Tim Duncan will return next season.
On the first game of the year, the Spurs beat a former bogeyman in the Grizzlies. They suffered the first injury of the season on a Tony Allen elbow to Tim Duncan's chest, which foreshadowed a tough road ahead, health-wise. But the Spurs would go on to win 11 straight games in November, with the losses coming at the hands of the Blazers, Thunder and Rockets. Their play was far from perfect, but their 13-3 record was good for second in the West, behind the surprising Blazers.
The Spurs experimented with lineups while integrating Marco Belinelli and Jeff Ayres. Patty Mills won the back up point guard spot, bringing even more change to the rotation. Emerging through all those adjustments was the identity the Spurs were going to eventually find, but the transition wasn't seamless. The trend early in the year was San Antonio crushing over-matched teams, usually from the East, then losing to the West's elite. A big reason why that happened seemed to be that Kawhi Leonard, who had showed flashes of excellence in the 2013 Finals, wasn't playing at the level he had against the Heat.
After a malfunctioning generator forced the league to suspend a game between San Antonio and Minnesota in Mexico City, the Spurs dropped a game against the streaking Pacers. The Spurs beat a few cupcakes, and they then dropped games against the Rockets, Thunder and Clippers. The record was still solid after December, a tie for second in the West with the Blazers at 25-7. The fans and analysts alike were calling it as a mirage, an inflated winning percentage that didn't have any bearing on the team's ability to make noise in the playoffs.
Compounding problems, Tony Parker was injured against the Clippers in a loss, one of the many health concerns he would struggle with throughout the campaign, but Pop continued limiting minutes and the bench provided a feel-good win against the Dubs. But the the starting lineup's offensive was struggling and 2013 ended with some serious questions about the Spurs' viability as a legitimate contender.
The good guys finally got a quality win, but even their victory over the Clippers on January 5th came while L.A. was without Chris Paul. But Splitter suffered a sprained shoulder in the win, and San Antonio readied for life without Tiago by trusting their stable of bench bigs to pick up the slack and signing Malcolm Thomas for the remainder of the season. But Danny Green broke a finger a week later, putting two of the Spurs' best defenders out for weeks.
The Spurs kept winning, as Boris Diaw stepped up, and Italian journeyman Marco Belinelli remained scorching hot from outside. With Ginobili having a down month, the Spurs got it done as a team on both ends, with even the deep bench players stepping up when needed. Their depth and teamwork would be tested even further, as the injury bug kept biting. Leonard broke a finger and a couple of days later Ginobili pulled a hamstring. The Spurs went 8-6 in January, with the losses coming against good Western teams (and the always tough Bulls) and they went into February and the Rodeo Road Trip with a varying array of injuries.
San Antonio needed wing depth more than a promising big, so they waived Thomas and signed Othyus Jeffers and then Shannon Brown to lend a hand. Mercifully, the schedule was easy to start the RRT and the Spurs secured a win against the Kings before going on the road, then beat the Pelicans and Wizards before dropping one to the Nets. The team was starting to see the light, with Danny Green returning early on the trip. Splitter was close to coming back and the recoveries of Ginobili and Leonard were on track.
After a win over the Bobcats and a loss over the Pistons, Pop decided to sit a clearly hobbled Tony Parker due to "a variety of maladies." Things were looking grim. Fortunately, Ginobili and Splitter returned, and back-to-back wins against the Clippers and Blazers signaled that the Spurs' fortunes were turning. The Rodeo Road Trip ended with a surprise loss against the feisty Suns, but it seemed that the team, with Duncan leading the way, had gone through the worst of the season.
After an injury-mired February, the Spurs only trailed the Thunder in the West, but with Kevin Durant putting together an MVP season and Parker out, it seemed home court advantage in the West playoffs was going to be out of reach. The trade deadline came and went, but not before the Spurs was sent Nando De Colo to the Raptors for fellow bench-warmer Austin Daye. The Spurs couldn't persuade anyone to sign off of waivers. There was no reinforcement coming and the team hadn't looked dominant, even early in the year when they were fully healthy.
But everything started to click once Kawhi Leonard returned to the lineup in the first home game after the RRT. The Spurs won 19 in a row, beating the Heat, the Blazers, the Warriors and the Pacers in the process. Tony Parker found his way back into the fold and the starting lineup started scoring. The bench was clearly strengthened by the minutes they'd received because of all of the injuries, and the Spurs were looking as unstoppable as they were a year before. The Thunder and Pacers slipped in the standings and San Antonio was close to securing not only home court advantage in the West, but throughout the entire playoffs.
Just as things were as rosy as ever, the Thunder snapped the winning streak and sowed doubt into even the most optimistic of fans about the Spurs' ability to beat OKC, who was now healthy and hungry after Russell Westbrook's return from injury. San Antonio did indeed clinch the best record in the league, but the luster of the winning streak had started to wear off.
In the first round, the Spurs drew the Dallas Mavericks. It seemed like an easy match up, and a sweep didn't seem out of the question. Instead, Rick Carlisle made sure the Spurs were of their comfort zone. Defenders stayed on shooters and every screen was switched. San Antonio was going to have to beat their rivals old school style, with the Big Three doing most of the damage. When Dallas achieved a 2-1 lead thanks to Vince Carter's buzzer-beating three, it brought back to mind memories of some past Spurs-Mavericks failures. But Duncan, Ginobili and eventually Parker stepped up, and combined with Splitter's outstanding defense on Nowitzki, they produced enough to beat their former rivals in seven, capped by a blowout in the final game.
Waiting in the second round was an overachieving Blazers team that had eliminated the star-studded Rockets in six games. San Antonio's defensive deficiencies that Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis and Devin Harris exposed were primed for a team with quick scoring guards to exploit. LaMarcus Aldridge was coming off of a couple of historic performances in round one, and it looked like the the second round was going to be another close one. But against a more traditional defense, the Spurs' offense simply went off, and San Antonio closed the series out in just five games.
The bench players that struggled against Dallas started to find open shots and they hit them. Kawhi Leonard's great play made up for Manu's decline in production. Defensively, Splitter played fantastic defense on LaMarcus Aldridge -- denying him any comfort while staying in single coverage -- and the Spurs' guards prevented Damian Lillard from killing them from outside. The extremely bench-thin Blazers just couldn't find any answers for the Spurs. The gentleman's sweep lifted the spirit of the fans, but OKC was waiting in the conference finals after beating the Clippers in a controversial six-game series.
The Spurs entered the Western Conference Finals as the slight favorites, and with Serge Ibaka sustaining a "season ending" injury that held him out of the first two games, contests the Spurs won handily. And it looked like the Western Conference loss in 2012 was about to be quickly avenged. But then through what can only be explained as a medical miracle (or a bad diagnosis) Serge Ibaka recovered in time for game three and looked to be almost completely healthy.
The Thunder took the next two, looking like world-beaters in the process. The collapse from two years earlier seemed to be haunting the Spurs. Game Five was a must win and they crushed the Thunder, with Duncan, Ginobili and Leonard leading the way. The series went back to OKC, and all of the pressure was on the Thunder.
In game six, it seemed that conventional logic would prevail. The Thunder got out to an early lead and were up seven at the break. Then, out of nowhere, it was announced that Parker was out for the rest of the game. At that point it seemed that the Spurs might as well just sit Manu and Tim to rest and prepare for game seven. Surprisingly, the team rallied in Parker's absence. Joseph did a great job to start the second half and everyone contributed to a magnificent 37 point third quarter, as the shell-shocked Thunder could do nothing to stem the rising Spurs tide. OKC came back in the fourth to force overtime, but Tim Duncan's masterful OT performance reminded everyone why he is one of the best ever to play the game, and he outscored the entire Thunder squad in the extra period.
The only ghost left to exorcise was the Miami Heat.
Game 1 of The Finals will always be known as the Cramp Game. A malfunction with the power to the AT&T's AC unit created a unique situation. The rising temperature led to a strange game with weird lineups that remained close until Lebron James' body gave out on him. With James on the bench with full body cramps (possibly the result of dehydration), the best version of the Spurs appeared and they destroyed the Heat in the fourth en route to an easy win.
Game 2 was Lebron's Revenge. With Leonard in foul trouble, James went into full-on scorer mode and tallied 35 points on just 22 shots. The Spurs kept it close thanks to great games from Parker and Ginobili, but they came up short in the end. San Antonio just couldn't execute late while the Heat struck at the right time with a Chris Bosh three pointer to seal the win. Everyone was ready for a back and forth series, not unlike the one from the previous season, but the Spurs had completely different plans.
The three games that followed were nothing short of a true masterpiece of team basketball. The Spurs had over 20 assists in all three games and made one of the scariest defenses in recent memory look slow and helpless. Kawhi Leonard emerged as the star while the Spurs bigs moved the ball crisply and with purpose. Parker and Ginobili avoided trying to break through themselves and simply passed the ball to avoid traps. Everyone contributed to the systematic dismantling of the two time champions.
Once the confetti starts to fall, everything starts to seem inevitable, predestined. But as the Spurs' season shows, it's impossible to see the end result while you are in the middle of the process. The heartbreak from last season, those injuries, those struggles against good teams -- all of the negative parts we'd love to forget -- everything played a part in building this amazing group. And that's why we need to remember them.