First round @Los Angeles: Clippers 111, Spurs 109 Clippers win series 4-3
It just wasn't meant to be.
11 months ago, the Spurs were being toasted as not only the deserved NBA Champions, not only a paragon example to teams of all levels on how to play, but also one of the most dominant teams to have ever graced the sport.
And then, in their first professional game after the Game 5 triumph against Miami, the Spurs lost to Alba Berlin on a crazy last-second shot.
On Dec. 12, at home against a Lakers team that would go on to win 21 games all year, the Spurs lost, thanks to this crazy shot by Nick Young, who very well could be a member of Alba Berlin next season.
Less than a week later, Marc Gasol banked in this crazy shot to send a game against Memphis into overtime. The Spurs lost in three overtimes.
Two nights later, Damian Lillard hit a crazy shot in overtime down three, off an offensive rebound that pinballed around, and the Blazers wound up winning that game in three overtimes.
On Jan. 6, against Detroit, Brandon Jennings hit this crazy shot to beat the Spurs, in a game where Gregg Popovich experimented by fouling up three late. (It did not work out.)
Then, on Mar. 12, when the Spurs were absolutely rolling, they were up three very late against Cleveland when Kyrie Irving hit this crazy shot. Pop elected not to foul up three late. (It did not work out.)
Sure, in a vacuum none of these isolated moments mounts to a hill of beans as far as the Spurs losing in Game 7 to the Clippers 111-109 at the Staples Center on a crazy last-second shot by the indomitable Chris Paul. Obviously, if San Antonio had won one or two of those regular season games, then they wouldn't have even had to play the Clippers. They would've been the second seed, trying to stifle their snickers from the bench while Rajon Rondo destroyed the Mavs from within and Mark Cuban could only shake his head.
Still, man, sometimes it's pretty ominous that it's just not your year. Heck, the Spurs had two title defenses go awry on crazy last-second shots by Derek Fisher and Dirk Nowitzki. (I'll spare you those clips since they're hard-wired inside your brain anyway.) Repeating just isn't their thing, and that's okay. Most teams in the league don't get the chance to peat, let alone repeat. The Spurs have now failed five times to repeat. That means they've been doing a lot of things right over the years. It's hard to complain, unless you're weird.
Please understand, the Spurs have NOTHING to be ashamed of. This was exactly the kind of performance I would've picked to have them eliminated on, if I had to choose. No one had a tragic miscue, the refs didn't influence the outcome in some annoying way, the Spurs weren't wiped off the floor in humiliating fashion, and they weren't beaten by some random footnote like Austin Rivers.
No, it was Paul who did them in, tossing in one of the most incredible shots in NBA history, over the outstretched arm of Tim Duncan. Danny Green played Paul well and Duncan's help couldn't have been more textbook. Great defense was beaten by a better shot, one Hall-of-Famer from Wake Forest over another.
I've given Paul a lot of crap over the years on this site, and I don't regret any of it, honestly. It's only fair then to give credit when its due. He was incredible the whole series, completely unstoppable as a scorer and passer in a way I've never seen against an individual opponent in the Duncan/Popovich Era. Steve Nash, LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant have all had their moments against the Spurs, but to be that good, for that many games, playing that many minutes, Paul is in a league of his own to me. He strained his hamstring early in the game, left, came back, couldn't go the basket and he still killed the Spurs. He just decided, "Well, if I can't drive, I'll just make every shot."
Blake Griffin also deserves kudos, showing the kind of toughness, consistency and determination I didn't think he had in him. He simply abused Boris Diaw every time he was matched-up against him. Griffin never allowed Kawhi Leonard to score on him when the Spurs went small, he tore them to pieces with his passing and was clutch from the free throw line, making 10-of-11. Griffin shed almost every negative stereotype of his game in this series. He's just a beast.
The Clippers won because their best players played well, but Game 7 showed why home court advantage is so important. Role players step up in games like this at home in ways they simply don't on the road. J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford and particularly Matt Barnes were all sensational. If you want to be objective about it, Barnes outplayed Leonard tonight on both ends and it wasn't close. Overall Barnes was pretty mediocre the first six games of the series, but he was L.A.'s Shane Battier in Game 7.
Okay, enough about the Clippers. The main thing to take away from Game 7 was that, without question, this was the Spurs second-best performance of the series, after Game 3. They were much better in this game, top to bottom than in Games 2 and 5. If you told me they were going to score 109 in regulation before the game started I'd have taken that gladly and I bet Pop would have too. They just picked a bad night to have a bad night, as the saying goes. The Clippers hit a dozen shots they just had no business making between Paul, Redick, Crawford and Barnes. They made 14-of-27 threes, many of them contested. The Spurs lost one of the greatest games I've ever seen, but they didn't lose the series tonight.
They lost it at home in Game 6.
I'm not blind and I'd like to think that I'm not stupid. There were at least 25 decisions by Popovich, from lineups, to match-up things, to play-calls, during the game I strongly disagreed with. There were certain Spurs whom I thought performed poorly overall and down the stretch. I just don't see the point in playing Monday Morning Quarterback with Pop because it sounds whiny, ungrateful and bitter and I don't want to be any of those things.
I don't want to name the players in question because, in the words of Rasheed Wallace, "Both teams played hard, my man."
Also, the players I won't name are French.
The least-surprising aspect of the game was how well Duncan played, which is just a ridiculous thing to type about a 39-year-old in an NBA playoff series, as opposed to, say, a poker tournament. Duncan averaged 17.9 points on 58.9 percent shooting to go with 11.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.3 steals per game, producing a star-level 24.5 PER. Duncan had four (!) 20-10 games in the series and made DeAndre Jordan look hapless in post defense. I just have no idea how he's still doing this. Honestly I don't remember him being THIS good in any of the four playoff series last year, but maybe that was because he had more help and didn't have to be. I don't think this was the final game of Duncan's career, but if this is how he wants to go out, I can't blame him. Not many all-timers can say they left the game while still playing at a dominant level.
I'm so happy for Green. He's had a rough series and a dubious reputation in closeout games, but he was sensational tonight, not just 16 points and 8 rebounds but more so defensively with a career-high 5 blocks and 2 steals. He silenced a lot of critics with this performance and he's going to make himself A LOT of money this off-season. I really hope he signs on that bottom line with the Spurs, but if he doesn't, this was a wonderful final game for him in their colors.
Also, this probably doesn't matter to most people, and it shouldn't, but Green was the most accessible and friendly guy on the team from beginning to end and a pleasure to cover. That, even more than his play is why I'd like him to stick around.
I couldn't be prouder of Manu Ginobili. Though he didn't announce his retirement, I'd be absolutely stunned if he returns. He just can't move anymore to be an effective, penetrating guard and that's one thing when you're a 15-minute shooting specialist like a Steve Kerr, but that's not Ginobili's game and never has been. Asking him to play point guard and all that it entails at 38 is just too unrealistic. Every team in the league traps him hard now and that pass to the roller is getting harder and harder to make. More than anything, I think he's too proud to be a spot player, a hanger-on.
Though Ginobili looked tentative and lifeless for the first half, he got himself going late in the third quarter, outsmarting Rivers by anticipating a foul to give and getting his body in shooting motion first. Everyone on the Clippers and on Twitter went nuts, but it was clearly the right call. The anger of the crowd seemed to spark Ginobili, reminding me of Game 5 at Phoenix in 2007, where he played the role of heel perfectly.
Let the record show that if he does wind up retiring, in the final quarter of Ginobili's career he sank the only two shots he attempted --both threes-- had three assists and no turnovers. It'd be hyperbole to suggest that I'll never forgive Pop for not playing him down the stretch and robbing Ginobili of a chance to determine his fate in a potential career-ending game, but let's just say I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for it.
Manu didn't shoot or score well during the series, but he led the team in assists despite averaging just 18 minutes per game and put up a tidy 17.2 PER, better than his regular season average. He can hold his head up high, for those of you who care about such things.
Just like that, the season's over. I can't believe there are no more games to cover. Despite my many declarations to the contrary, I was living and dying with every possession in this game, yelling, screaming, swearing like a sailor. It's not that I care about them winning or losing, in the big picture, I just wanted to see them play more games, if that makes sense. They needed to win to play more games, so that's what I was rooting for. I want to see Tim and Manu and Kawhi and the rest play more basketball, and now I can't, probably ever again in some cases, and that makes me sad in a way I'm not nearly talented enough to express. I honestly wouldn't care if they lost all their games if they got to play forever, because even in those losses there would be moments of brilliance. After five 'chips, the moments are all I need.
I probably sent poor J.R. Wilco some version of "it just wasn't meant to be" in a text a hundred times between Game 6 of the 2013 Finals and Game 4 of the 2014 Finals. I guess it was my morbid go-to. I just couldn't believe the Spurs would ever pull off that fairy-tale, sports movie ending, that "The Big Three," would ever get another championship after 2007 after so many heartbreaking losses. It turned out out I was wrong --shocking, I know-- and it was meant to be after all. It was perfect in every way and I wouldn't change a thing about 2013 now.
It is my hope that if anything good comes out of this premature, disappointing end, it's that more Spurs fans will come to appreciate how special and wonderful the 2014 season was. If it was supposed to be easy to win championships, then what's the point of caring so much?
More importantly though, I hope you tell me to put a shove it where the sun doesn't shine whenever you catch me in a "it wasn't meant to be," moment. No one likes a cynic and it's a terrible way to live. The best fans live in a state of perpetual hope, no matter the circumstances. If you never saw this result coming for the Spurs, then I'm truly envious of you, it makes you a better fan than me and certainly someone with a better, healthier outlook on life. Don't ever lose that positivity.
Finally, thanks for all your comments, praise and critiques during the season. I had fun covering these guys and it was a privilege, even if I don't always express it.
Your Three Stars:
3. Manu Ginobili (6 pts)
2. Tim Duncan (17 pts)
1. Danny Green (8 pts)
[Players receive 5 points for first star, 3 points for second star and 1 point for third star. Numbers in parentheses are their accumulated totals for the series.]