Spurs exposed in ways we didn't expect, but perhaps should have
We've thought we had seen the end of the Spurs before. Was this finally it?
OKLAHOMA CITY -- No tears.
There would be no emotional outbursts, no big scenes about what this failure feels like or what the future holds. The San Antonio Spurs didn't look inward or down after their Game 6 113-99 loss to the Thunder on Thursday. The Spurs were eliminated 4-2, failing to reach the conference finals for the second straight season since winning the title, and losing in the postseason for the second time in five seasons to this young, emotional, athletic team from Oklahoma City. The end comes with questions, and the weight of those questions was evident the entire night even as the Thunder ran away with the game.
Was this the last game Tim Duncan will ever play? What about Manu Ginobili? Is the era over? Do the Spurs finally need to get younger? Are changes necessary after 67 wins and a historic season that saw them lose only once at home in the regular season?
With 3:12 remaining, the Spurs had cut it to 11. From the other vantage point, the Thunder had let a 26-point lead slip, and the crowd was about to have a collective panic attack and crumble into the fetal position. One more big play and the panic was going to start to infect OKC. Kawhi Leonard ran the pick and roll, and Old Man Riverwalk, the Big Fundamental, caught the ball and drove the lane. Then this happened:
Duncan's face as he walked off the floor was a haunting reminder that eventually everyone has that moment where they just can't do what they used to.
After the game, when asked if this was Duncan's last game, Gregg Popovich was coy, jokingly asking the reporter if he knew something Popovich didn't know, and simply saying Duncan played well in Game 6. (He did.) Duncan did what you expected after the game. He said he would think about it after he left the arena.
Tim Duncan on evaluating his future. pic.twitter.com/jIoRk0UnsP— CBS Sports NBA (@CBSSportsNBA) May 13, 2016
We've thought this was the end of San Antonio before. The 2011 failure to get out of the first round. The 2013 Finals, maybe the toughest loss in NBA Finals history. This felt different, but so did those. Maybe Duncan will simply return, maybe Ginobili will, too. What's clear, though, is that as great as this Spurs team was in the regular season, it was not ready to face the elite teams.
The beautiful ball movement that has sent basketballphiles' heads spinning was gone, replaced by isolation grinds which the Thunder snuffed out and manhandled. The scoring balance was absent as the Spurs turned again and again to LaMarcus Aldridge, who had two great games and then returned to just being a mid-range shooting power forward, high in volume, low in efficiency.
And then there was Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard's season was phenomenal. He was among the elite in efficiency in every type of play-set he interacted with, offensively or defensively. He was a great spot-up shooter, isolation scorer, pick-and-roll player, slasher, cutter, post-up player and he defended every man, woman, child, wildebeast, mountain lion and mythical creature he was tasked with on his way to Defensive Player of the Year.
However, if we're going to hold these elite players to high standards, Leonard's game has to be examined. Against the Clippers in 2015 he faded over the course of the series, taking less and less of a role before San Antonio was bounced in Game 7. He was solvable. Against the Warriors this season, he failed to assert himself.
Against the Thunder, he had his games, but over the course of the series his impact became less and less. On Thursday, Leonard finished with 22 points, on 23 shots, and really only started trying to exert his will when it was too late. He had just nine shots at the half as the Thunder ran up a 24-point lead. That can't happen if Leonard is going to be the best player on a title team, the guy they lean on. The Thunder, fittingly, took a very Spurs approach to guarding Leonard and Aldridge. No matter how much individual success they had early in the series, OKC kept throwing tough, physical defense at them with Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams on Aldridge and Andre Roberson and Kevin Durant on Leonard. It wore them down, it wore them out, and in the end, the cumulative effect was too much.
The team that always defined itself by its scoring balance and poetic flow found itself stuck in the mud, spinning its two-star wheels helplessly. This was Aldridge's first year in the system and though he was the marquee name of the summer, this team's future is built around Leonard. His early success came as a utility man on the 2014 title team. The jury is still out on his tenure as a star player. Leonard is still phenomenal, still growing, and with how many close games this series had, it's entirely possible that if Leonard did enough the series could have bounced their way.
But it didn't, and on some level, either the Spurs have to return to the balance they had before this season's revamped attack (which was designed to counter the Warriors) or Leonard has to rise above. He has improved every year, but this shows that even he will have to deal with the setbacks every young player -- he's only 24 -- has to go through.
Heavy is the crown.
As for the Spurs' longtime ruler, the greatest player in franchise history, Duncan said nothing Thursday night, as he has said nothing so many times. He is timeless, ageless, speechless, his only expressions coming in disbelief at a foul call he disagrees with. (And he was still making those faces in Game 6 all the way to the end.) Tony Parker sat at his locker and stared straight ahead. Duncan stared straight ahead as he answered the media's call on whether this was it for him. Manu Ginobili walked down the hall toward the bus, embracing Patty Mills as they walked side by side.
From Popovich to Duncan, and Danny Green in between, the Spurs were the same classy organization they've always been. They showered the Thunder with praise, answered their questions dutifully. Then they left.
When asked about his conversation with Popovich, after which Duncan returned for the fourth quarter, Duncan said: "He asked me if I wanted to play and I told him I wanted to play and I always want to play, so he said to go for it. That was the end of it, so I stayed out there the whole time."
Manu Ginobili on if he'll retire: "I'll take my time as always."
Kawhi Leonard on Duncan as a teammate: "He's been a great teammate to me. Helped me grow up a lot throughout my years. We'll see what happens."
So no. No farewell tours. No emotional goodbyes. No tears. If this is the end -- and as always, assuming that it is should be considered folly with this seemingly immortal squad -- it comes with the same quiet dignity that has brought them so many championships, so much success, so much respect.
However, no matter how long it takes, or how far away from the spotlight they'll go, the Spurs will face a process that Tim Duncan described when asked about his future.
"I'll get to that after I get out of here, and figure life out."
After such an amazing season, and with such high hopes dashed, the Spurs are left to do the same.
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