Rockets coach Kevin McHale was regaling reporters before Wednesday's game at the AT&T Center on what it's like to be a top player at the height of one's powers.
"You get to a point where your mind and body and everything melds together and the game actually becomes easy," he began. "You just feel like you know what guys are going to do, you've played them a lot of times, you make them take shots you want them to take, you take away stuff you want to take away, you dictate to them when they have the ball when normally guys are dictating to you, but you get to the point where..."
And then his mind wandered for a second.
Earlier in the session it was brought to his attention that the Spurs "Big Three" of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were closing in on 540 regular season wins record held by McHale, Larry Bird and Robert Parish with the Celtics. It's no secret that Duncan, 38, and Ginobili, 37, are nearing the end. Their contracts are up and one or both may decide to retire. You don't have to be a trained scout to realize that their physical skills are diminished from their Hall-of-Fame primes. Yet they both continue to thrive in reduced roles, enjoying success thanks to their experience and basketball IQ's. McHale could certainly relate to their shared journey.
"Those guys have played for so long together and accomplished a ton of stuff, championships, deep runs, and when you're together a long time like that you do form bonds, you form chemistry that allows you to, even though you're not as good as used to be, you're still able to compete because you know what it takes," he explained.
From 2008 to 2011, "competitive" was the best term to describe the Spurs. They always won at least 50 games, but they were on the fringes of real contention. Their teams had the three stars and little else, and Duncan had declined just enough to where he could no longer carry the Spurs to championships by dominating inside.
Then, something happened in the summer of 2011 after their disappointing first-round exit at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies. Just when everyone wrote them off for good, the Spurs acquired a lanky project from San Diego State in a draft day trade. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time, but here they are in April of 2015, the defending champions, coming off back-to-back Finals trips, and just blowing the doors off everyone they've faced since the All-Star break.
Thanks to Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs have cheated death.
Leonard has been so dominant since late February that it now qualifies as a rarity when he doesn't finish as the team's leading scorer in a game. He's always been a fantastic defender, but now in his fourth season, his offense has caught up to the point where Gregg Popovich is regularly putting the ball in his hands, whether it be in post-ups, isolation, or initiating a pick-and-roll.
Parker, the junior member of "The Big Three" at 32, is more capable of summoning his past glory than Duncan or Ginobili, but even he has only led the Spurs in scoring three times since Mar. 15. The Frenchman has never been the introspective sort, so it was surprising indeed (after he scored a game-high 27 in San Antonio's 110-98 thumping of the Rockets) when he offered a bit of insight into the past, present and future of the Spurs.
"It's like me and Manu back in the day," he said of playing second fiddle to Leonard. "You have to share and wait your turn. Sometimes I don't see the ball for a long time but Kawhi is playing unbelievable. And it's going to be Kawhi's team anyway. Like Timmy transitioned to Manu, Manu transitioned to me, now it's going to be transitioned to Kawhi. I'll try to do my best to stay aggressive and be involved, but Kawhi's going to be the man. He's playing great and sometimes I'll have nights like this where I have the ball, but most of the time it's going to be Kawhi. We have to transition to that. He's young, he's playing great, and he's going to demand double teams. So I'll play off him, like all those years I did with Timmy [when I'd] just stand in the corner and just wait for Timmy to do his thing. We always did a great job sharing and wait our turn. It will be no different with me."
That kind of leadership and maturity wasn't always evident with Parker, but he's come a long way with the Spurs under the tutelage of Popovich and Duncan. If you want to get technical; the "mantle" went from Duncan to Ginobili to Parker to Ginobili to Parker to Ginobili to Duncan to Parker and then to nobody really when they won it all last year. But why quibble?
Parker's quote illustrates the cycle of life for a star athlete. You come up, show promise, blossom into a star, then get by on guile for a while and then it's over. The dynastic Montreal Canadiens of the NHL have a passage in their dressing room from John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields invoking a similar ethos.
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
Ginobili, who took the torch from Duncan in Parker's version of the story, was mired in a horrific slump this past preseason. He bared his soul about the war that rages daily between his mind and body.
"(Plays like the dunk against Chris Bosh in Game 5 of the Finals) happen once every 100 games," he said then. "Sometimes I really want to, but I can't. So it's a combination of things to calm down and be more mature and choose the moment and sometimes you just can't."
Ginobili was asked how often he felt unsure of himself and his candor was startling.
"It happens often, where you want to start and then you say, 'Go ahead Kawhi, you do it,' or 'Here you go, Danny [Green],' where it's better to find an open shot for Danny than me going against a big, because I'm not as effective as I was a few years ago. It's a tough situation because you feel like you can sometimes and then you realize you go against a wall and you realize, 'eh, probably not,' but it's a process and we all eventually get there."
We all eventually get there, but not many of us do so with eyes as wide open as Ginobili's. Perhaps that comes from the benefit of having such few regrets in an athletic life well lived. In a recent interview with the Argentine newspaper La Nacion, Ginobili summed up his current place in the Spurs pecking order.
It's not like it used to be, when I would go into a game thinking about destroying everyone, saying 'give me the ball and I'll take care of everything.' Now I'm just another cog that helps the team run but I'm no longer the main scorer or the go-to guy to solve our problems.
Leonard is the problem-solver these days and you wonder if it's ever crossed McHale's mind that Kawhi is to the Spurs what Len Bias was going to be for the Celtics once upon a time. Bias was supposed to help their big three cheat death. Instead, death cheated him.
McHale probably wasn't thinking about anything so morbid when he was trying to put into words something none of us will ever understand; what it's like to be an NBA star in your prime.
"... but you get to the point where ..."
I'm guessing that in the moment his voice trailed off, his career --the championships, the near-misses, the dizzying highs, the crushing lows-- flashed before his eyes.
"...and then you get old and it all goes away," he declared, and with that the Celtics legend was gone, with a game to prepare for against the Spurs' Big Four.