How Odd? Spurs Gone
It was an innocent enough question, but Tim Duncan was offended. I was in San Antonio last October and I was talking to Duncan about the young big men in the NBA -- specifically Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Greg Oden. I followed my question by saying, "Aren't you glad that around the time those guys enter their prime and are beating up each other, you'll be on your way out?"
"Are you calling me old?" Duncan asked me, looking quite agitated.
I tried to explain to Duncan that I wasn't calling him old, it's just that when those young guys enter their primes in about six or seven years, he'll either be retired or nearing retirement. Duncan ignored what I had to say, and before discussing the young centers, he told me, "They'll be old one day, too."
About five minutes later, I was talking to Roger Mason Jr. and Duncan interrupted our conversation to say, "He just called me old!"
We all laughed as Duncan walked away, but even though he was kidding with me, he was obviously a little annoyed.
Why do I bring that up? Because Duncan this season finally began to show some serious tread from 12 NBA seasons that have resulted in six trips to the conference finals and four championship rings. The first 10 times Duncan reached playoffs, he always made it at least to the conference semifinals (the Spurs lost in 2000 when Duncan was out with a knee injury). But on Tuesday night, Duncan was unable to carry his team beyond the first round, as the Spurs left this postseason in a feeble five games to the Dallas Mavericks after a 106-93 loss at AT&T Center.
Duncan scored 30 points and Tony "Parisian Torpedo" Parker had 26 points, but the two-dimensional Spurs had too little help once again. The moment Manu Ginobili was lost for the season, the Spurs' hopes of extending their streak of odd-numbered year championships was dashed. The three-headed monster of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili combined to win rings in 2003, 2005 and 2007.
But as the third seed, they still were favored to defeat the Mavericks -- until the teams actually started playing. By then, there was no doubt which team was better. The Mavericks have won 11 of their past 14 games overall and Dirk Nowitzki is once again resembling the player who led Dallas to the NBA Finals in 2006 and won the league's most valuable player award in 2006-07. Josh Howard also decided to remind people that he once got attention for being an all-star instead of behaving like a pinhead.
Duncan and Parker simply had no support, and some nights it was a Parker one-man show. Mason, the former Wizard, had an excellent regular season and delivered several game-winning shots. But he vanished in the postseason, scoring just eight points on 3 of 11 shooting in the final three games of the series. The other supporting players were either too old (Michael Finley, Kurt Thomas, Bruce Bowen), overmatched (Matt Bonner) or simply not ready (George Hill). Drew Gooden, whom the Spurs signed after the Kings bought him out, didn't even play in the finale. .
The Spurs have been called old for the past 10 years, it seems. But age has finally caught up to them, primarily because it has caught up with two of the most important players -- the 33-year-old Duncan and the soon-to-be 32-year-old Ginobili. The Spurs believe that they can still compete with the conference's elite as long as the Big Three is healthy.
But this is the second year in row that Ginobili's ankle betrayed him. And, General Manager R.C. Buford and Coach Gregg Popovich will have figure out how they will continue to build around their all-star studded trio. Plucking unknown talent from overseas isn't enough anymore (almost everybody else has done it). Will it be enough to fill holes with aging vets like Rasheed Wallace?
Buford recently told the New York Times that he has no intention of blowing up the team and starting over. It surely doesn't help that the young legs that could've helped kept the championships rolling in are playing elsewhere. Howard, a player the Spurs passed over in 2003, came back to haunt them. Luis Scola, a player they swapped essentially for cap space in the summer of 2007, has the Houston Rockets one win from the second round for the first time since Hakeem Olajuwon was dream-shaking.
The early exit might provide Duncan and Ginobili the rest and motivation they need to come back stronger and healthier next season. Either way, Duncan will probably return a little grumpier and bit more cantankerous in his pursuit of that elusive fifth championship ring. The old man will surely need a better, possibly younger, supporting cast to get it.
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