The Spurs beat the Clippers Tuesday night and while the game was fun and entertaining to watch and write about afterwards, the match-up will always make me melancholy and apprehensive. It's not just that Chris Paul is the most terrifying player for San Antonio to face outside of Stephen Curry (or perhaps including him). And it's not just because the Clips defeated the Spurs in a playoff series.
No, what makes the Clippers unique is that the waning moments of the playoff series between the two teams produced a line of demarcation of sorts, or maybe better still an unofficial passing of the torch, at least in the mind of the man whose opinion means the most when it comes to the Spurs.
It officially became Kawhi Leonard's team, and the trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, the greatest "Big Three" of them all, was slowly but surely starting to get phased out. In the final seconds of a one-possession game, with the ball belonging to the Spurs and their season on the line, Gregg Popovich had his three future Hall-of-Famers on the bench in favor of Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and Boris Diaw.
It didn't matter that Duncan had had a terrific game up to then and that Parker and Ginobili had held their own. It didn't matter that Leonard had been sub-par the final four games of the series. Pop coached to the situation and score --as we saw him do in the closing minutes of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals-- and he felt the proper course of action right then was to bench his aging stars.
We've seen a more dramatic continuation of that philosophy here this season. Leonard has been the one constant, as he well should be. (And if you haven't already read the a superb profile of Leonard by Lee Jenkins for Sports Illustrated, then you get right on that.) We've seen games like against Boston where Popovich has sat Aldridge down the stretch and plenty where he's sat one, two, perhaps all three members of the Big Three.
It used to be automatic, no matter how much he was struggling, for Ginobili to check in for the final minutes of each half in a tight game, especially the fourth quarter. That is no longer the case. If Danny Green is playing well, or Mills is shooting well, Ginobili sits. Green is often seen as the more attractive option because of his defense.
Duncan is the foundation of the franchise, the rock upon which Pop built his church. Even a month shy of his 40th birthday he remains the defensive pillar of the ball club. Yet Popovich will keep him planted on the bench in fourth quarters if David West has it going, particularly with so many opponents going smaller and eschewing rim attacks for three-point attempts.
Duncan and Ginobili both seem to be at the end. Parker's case is more intriguing. He's just 33 and still capable of scoring 15-plus points on a fairly regular basis. He's done it 21 times so far this season, compared to 14 combined for Ginobili (9) and Duncan (5). Despite that, we're seeing Pop go with Mills more and more, instead of Parker. Not only is the Aussie dynamo a better spot-up option off of the post-ups of Aldridge and Leonard, but he's a feistier, more active defender. Mills has grown by leaps and bounds as a playmaker in the pick-and-roll this season and I believe him to be a better decision-maker in transition than Parker. The RPM numbers certainly favor Mills, as do the on/off court numbers. He's got the second best net rating on the team among rotation players, after Ginobili, and the second lowest net rating with him off the court, after Leonard. The Spurs are 4.3 points better per 100 possessions when Mills plays. They're 5.7 points worse with Parker.
As the Spurs rely more and more on their top two players, we're seeing them turn into the Oklahoma City Thunder, only with better/smarter role players, and obviously a lot better coaching. Popovich is not playing favorites and not bowing to tradition, history or past accomplishments. He's riding the hot hand, night after night. We've been wondering what the Spurs would look like without the Big Three, and this season has been a sneak preview in many respects.
The funny part of all this is how it's all happened in plain sight. We've had this quaint, cliche idea for years now that when Duncan and Ginobili retire that there will be some grand ceremony, that there will be a palpable culture change in the locker room and a noticeable difference on the court, with multiple lean years and trips to the lottery. What is in fact happening is a transition that feels like a sports car shifting gears. You feel it, it has a barely perceptible sound and vibration, but it's not jarring.
They're still probably going to be pretty good.