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The Spurs greatest playoff play: The Memorial Day Miracle

The fans have spoken.

It took three-and-a-half weeks, 11 rounds of voting, and 31 polls to reach this point, and now the Spurs’ greatest playoff play has been determined. Winning by a score of 57% to 43%, the Memorial Day Miracle has beaten out Manu Ginobili’s dunk from the 2014 Finals for the title of this summer’s hypothetical tournament.

(For those who are disappointed with the outcome, here’s a trip back down memory lane to when “The Revenge Dunk” won The MANU Tournament last summer if you wish to read up on it.)

I know we have reached a point in time when many readers were not old enough or weren’t watching the Spurs religiously back in 1999 when Memorial Day Miracle happened, and as a result the scale of how monumental that moment was is being lost to time. So many young Spurs fans these days only remember the Spurs of the 2000’s, who were perennial contenders and always expected to compete for a championship. However, that wasn’t always the case.

The Spurs of the 90’s were a talented squad led by David Robinson, Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson, and a conglomerate of role players who always seemed like they should at least win the West at some point, but it never happened. When the wall that was Karl Malone and Utah Jazz wasn’t blocking the road to the Finals, the Spurs choked away their best chance at their first championship in 1995, when Michael Jordan was in retirement, and they were the top seed in the West with a 62-20 record (their first 60-win season in franchise history) and the league MVP in Robinson.

They would go on to lose 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals to Hakeem Olajuwon and the 6th-seeded Houston Rockets (who would in turn easily sweep a young Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic for their second straight championship), losing all three games at home (including a 90-111 blowout loss in Game 5 after regaining the momentum from winning Games 3 and 4 in Houston). It would all but cement their legacy as playoff chokers and earned The Admiral the label of a nice guy who was super talented but too soft to win it all.

Also, many may not remember what a tumultuous start the 1999 lockout-shortened season got off to. There was little room for error with only 50 regular season games, but the championship was there the for taking with Jordan once again entering retirement. However, the Spurs got off to a slow start, beginning the season 6-8, and Gregg Popovich’s job was on the line. After a players-only meeting, they banded together and finished the season with a 37-13 record, seemingly cruising through the playoffs 15-2 on the way to their first championship and the start of an unprecedented run of success under Pop.

However, this is where the meaning of the Memorial Day Miracle gets lost. Yes, the Spurs swept the Trail Blazers (who were no pushovers) in the WCF, but it was’t as easy as that. Portland had led by as much as 18 in Game 2, and if the Spurs lose that game, home court advantage is gone, and all the doubt of past playoff failures begin to creep back in. If anyone needs a more recent example of how quickly things can go south, think back to 2012, when the Spurs were on a 20-game winning streak heading into Game 3 of the WCF vs. the Thunder. They appeared virtually unstoppable, but with a Game 3 loss, all that momentum was suddenly gone, and the Spurs never regained their confidence or form before OKC completed the backdoor sweep. Who’s to say that couldn’t have happened in 1999 to a team that didn’t have a championship pedigree to fall back on?

Back to the MDM, the Spurs had crept back into the game from 18 down in the third quarter to get within two points, but the odds were still against them. Beyond the gargantuan meaning behind this shot, it was an extremely difficult one. First, Mario Ellie had to get the ball to Elliott, which was nearly stolen or at least knocked out of bounds, which would have placed the ball in the corner (an extremely hard place to in-bound the ball). Elliott then had to gather the ball and himself without falling out of bounds, which is where his momentum was taking him. His awareness of where the sideline was is impressive enough, so much so that he even purposefully shot from his toes so he wouldn’t step on the sideline, taking away a lot of the strength behind the shot.

And that was just the first part. Next, there’s the charging Rasheed Wallace to get the ball past, and just look at how close he came to blocking it. Has a shot ever come closer to being blocked than this? If you showed this image to someone without any other context, they would tell you it was a blocked shot:

That’s the shot itself, but then there’s the whole factor of how much it meant to Elliott. He was in kidney failure at the time and needed a transplant (not yet knowing that brother Noel would be a match), and he played through these playoffs knowing they could be his last days on the court. He kept this information from the team until after the season was over to avoid being a distraction and would ultimately become the first professional athlete to return from a major organ transplant the next season. Talk about inspiring.

Finally, there’s what this play meant for the future of the Spurs. If they don’t win Game 2, do they win the series? If they don’t win the series, does Gregg Popovich remain head coach? Does Tim Duncan go to Orlando in 2000? There’s no way of knowing for sure, but I wouldn’t bet against it. Without this shot, there may not be a Spurs dynasty, a Big Three era, or any championships to celebrate, and that’s what ultimately made it the winner of the tournament.

Obviously Manu’s dunk was more recent, extremely satisfying, plastered all over the internet, and was the sign that there would be no 2013 meltdown again as the Spurs waited seven years for the fifth championships. But it also doesn’t carry the weight the MDM does. It was in Game 5 of the Finals with the Spurs up 3-1 in the series and already pulling ahead of the Heat on their game-defining run. There’s very little doubt that the Spurs still would have won that game (and championship) without it. It’s an amazing play that will live forever in Spurs lore for a multitude of reasons, but it will never carry the same weight on its back as the Memorial Day Miracle.

Still, the fact that there is even this debate to be had about two plays from 15 years apart — a whole generation in basketball years — tells you all you need to know about the enormity of this Spurs dynasty. Pop and Tim were a part of both teams and naturally the main reasons behind the dynasty, but the Spurs ability to restock throughout that time period and continue the run of success that is still ongoing to this day is a testament to the greatness of the organization as a whole.

Whether what you deem the Spurs’ greatest playoff play to be one from their first or last championship (or anywhere in between), the fact that we had this much to choose from is more telling than any particular play itself, and that’s something all Spurs fans should be grateful for.

I want to thank everyone who voted and made this entire project possible! Participation was up 50 to 100% most of the time from last year’s MANU Tournament, which averaged roughly 500 votes per poll after the first week. This year, it held steadfast with over 750 votes on the slowest days and over 1,000 in some instances. These tournaments are huge projects that take a lot of time to not only research, but also organize and create the actual articles, and your participation is what makes it worth the effort. Hopefully we can do it again next summer!