Three springs ago, on June 18, the Spurs were pronounced dead. Manu Ginobili in particular looked lost, a shell of his former clutch self as he committed eight turnovers against the Miami Heat, who stole game six of the 2013 NBA Finals en route to their second straight championship. Of all the things Ginobili said following the game, the word “insecure,” a reference to his ball-handling, rang the loudest. This team didn’t suffer a crises of confidence. This team didn’t collapse like this. But then, of course, they did. Collectively, we lowered the silver and black casket into the earth.
Flash forward a year later, and the formerly devastated Spurs were re-energized, crushing the Heat 4-1 in a finals rematch. Just one year and change after that, the Spurs re-loaded, grabbing 2015’s top free agent LaMarcus Aldridge, yet another coup for a team that always seems to bounce back from adversity.
A slow start from Aldridge begat long stretches of sheer dominance as the season wore on. Kawhi Leonard established himself as San Antonio’s next silent assassin, combining Duncan’s low-key demeanor and defensive prowess with Parker’s ball-handling skills and Ginobili’s once-deadly shooting stroke. By sheer virtue of the transcendent, record-breaking Warriors’ existence, the Spurs could only ascend to the mantle of best two-seed of all-time.
And then came the rumors that the Spurs could dominate the offseason again by making a play for former Texas Longhorn and current playoff adversary Kevin Durant. Though not a Texas native—he grew up in the D.C. area—he relished his one short year in Austin, and R.C. Buford and Popovich have a certain way of convincing free agents that San Antonio is Babylon in South Texas. That could have something to do with the five rings, the 17-consecutive 50-win seasons, or the smoked brisket tacos at Garcia’s. No one can be sure.
But how can the Spurs afford Durant with Kawhi and Aldridge making more than $37 million between them next season? With the 2015-16 cap at $84-million-plus and the Spurs sitting just above that threshold, some contracts are going to have to come off the books next season, namely those bearing the names of the old guard. The salary cap is rumored to hit $92 million next season before ballooning to over $100 million in 2017-18. To fit another $20-million-plus in there, Duncan will have to decline his $5.6 million player option, Ginobili will have to retire, and Danny Green and Boris Diaw, two significant cogs in the Spurs machine, will have to be traded or bought out this summer. That’s a lot of things that have to happen—and the end of the Spurs as we know them—but if anyone can make it happen, it’s Buford, who just won his second NBA Executive of the Year award.
But now, staring down the barrels of a 3-2 Western Conference semifinals against Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder and the twisted face of the Father Time, the death rattle of the 2013 Spurs has returned full-force.
In a close but ugly game Tuesday night, the Thunder hung with the Spurs until the bitter end as San Antonio refused to shut the door and take a winnable game five at home. Rebounding proved to be the difference, with Oklahoma City grabbing 54 to San Antonio’s 36, and three Thunder players finishing in double digits. Aldridge was also off all night, his midrange jumper from the elbow, normally automatic, impossibly clanking off the rim time after time, refusing to fall. San Antonio held Kevin Durant to an inefficient 23 points on 21 shots, but it simply wasn’t enough on a night where the villainous Steven Adams—the trifecta of tribal tattoos, man-bun, and old timey bartender mustache—and Dion Waiters were efficient, important secondary contributors. Everyone chipped in a bit on the Thunder, a page ripped out of their opponents’ playbook, but the same cannot be said for the Spurs.
Of course, this game will be characterized by its penultimate sequence. Down 92-91 with 9 second remaining, the Thunder inbounded the ball to Westbrook, and Leonard grabbed his waist with intent to foul. None was called, and Westbrook continued unabated to the rim, before a whistle was blown as the point guard sunk an easy two. And one. Game over. Leonard clearly fouled Westbrook before the shot, the foul called on Aldridge under the basket was ticky-tack, and it appeared that Westbrook traveled on his way to the hoop. Spurs fans should (and do) feel robbed, but their ire shouldn’t be directed toward the men in pinstripes, but rather at their own team. The Spurs shouldn’t have been in that position, down one with the clock winding down.
Regardless, whether San Antonio fans are cheering for the Durantula, Old Man Riverwalk, neither, or, by some sheer miracle and creative accounting, both next season, the Spurs now have to win two straight to avoid elimination and head into the offseason way too early for a 67-win team. The Spurs aren’t dead yet. But if and once they topple a surging Oklahoma City and climb that mountain, a historic Warriors team is waiting for them at the summit.