MANILA, Philippines - It felt like the San Antonio Spurs entered game two of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers with their season on the line. A defeat at the uproarious Staples Center, against these Clippers, would have given them enough confidence heading back to The Alamo to believe they could finally end the Spurs’ dominant reign.
A defeat for San Antonio might have meant the end of their quest for something they’ve never achieved before: winning back-to-back titles. A defeat against these Clippers could have put what might be the last year of the Tim Duncan Era to a disappointing, premature end, against the same team San Antonio has repeatedly turned back in past years.
For moments in game two, it looked like the nightmares of Spurs fans were becoming a reality. San Antonio choked a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. Tony Parker was horrendous, scoring just 1 point and missing all of his shots. Maybe it was the injured ankle, maybe it was the hurting thigh. By the fourth quarter, the Frenchman could no longer bear the pain, and was taken to the locker room after his right achilles stopped operating at a high level. The Spurs lost their point guard - the engine that drives their well-oiled machine.
Manu Ginobili, the infamous third star of this Spurs dynasty, wasn’t any better with just 9 points.
On the other side, Blake Griffin was unstoppable: 29 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. When he was left open, he made jumpers. When a guy guarded him close, he destroyed him at the rim. When he was sent to the foul line, charities went in.
Chris Paul was running the show beautifully, driving, dishing, and scoring. DeAndre Jordan had 20 points and was grabbing every rebound within sight, finishing with 15 to go with 3 blocks. The Spurs were crumbling; their grip on the West hung in the balance.
But Tim Duncan wouldn’t allow his club to go down quietly. He played 44 minutes, scoring 28 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in the most important game of his team’s season at 38-years-old. It was vintage Timmy. He schooled Griffin and Jordan in the post, dumbfounding them with pump-fakes, drop steps, and other fundamentals. He was hitting bank shots over outstretched arms. He was making jumpers, including this beauty that spearheaded his team’s game-winning run:
Duncan had help from Patty Mills and Kawhi Leonard, but he was the force San Antonio needed to save their chance at a sixth championship - his chance at a sixth ring. And he delivered. Like he always does, like we expect him to do.
“This is nothing new for Timmy… He was spectacular. He continues to amaze me with the things that he is able to do,” said Gregg Popovich.
Duncan has always performed huge in the biggest stage, but you won’t always recognize it. He won’t throw down a hammer dunk and then roar at the delight of the home crowd after like a young Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. He’ll instead hit you with a fake, drop-step, and put in a floater, followed by simply running back down on defense, his emotionless-face staying blank as always.
Duncan eclipsed the 5,000 playoffs points mark in game two, becoming just the fifth player to do so. It’s a testament to his hard work and dedication to always honing his game, staying in shape throughout his career, and being selfless enough to pass the torch to his teammates. He did it when Parker became a star the same way David Robinson allowed him to take the reins of the Spurs. And now, the best power forward in the history of the game is allowing Leonard, last year’s Finals MVP, to take over the team, so he could continue playing through April, May, and June.
But in game two, where Mills had 18 and Leonard scored 23, it was Duncan who was the safety net of San Antonio, just as he’s been countless of times before. Duncan was dominant in the post in the first half, finishing 8-of-9 for 16 points. For many possessions, he looked like the NBA MVP of 2002 and 2003 that terrorized the league. And when the Clippers finally sent double-teams his way in the final two quarters, he kicked out to open shooters, giving Mills open 3-balls and Leonard easy floaters in the lane.
In OT, Duncan put his team up two, and then helped San Antonio get a stop on defense as he patrolled the paint for a possible Griffin layup or Jordan dunk, paving the way for a steal and Mills breakaway layup. Moments later, he played decoy near the perimeter, leaving Leonard open to cut to the paint and deliver a six-point lead.
There’s more at stake this playoffs for the Spurs than many realize. They’re a dynasty - arguably the most successful one in NBA history for their sustained excellence. But there’s a blip in that touted resume: they’ve never repeated as champs. Jordan and his Bulls achieved that feat. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers did the same. Even LeBron and D. Wade’s Heat - the same team the Spurs torched into pieces in last year’s finals - won in 2012 and 2013.
Parker hasn’t been himself the entire NBA season. His points, assists, and FG % averages have been at their lowest in the past three years. His ailments are piling up. Ginobili has had his moments, but consistency has been a problem. Mills is a great back-up point guard, but can he run San Antonio’s offense if Parker can no longer go to battle? Can Leonard, the Defensive Player of the Year, carry even more burden than he’s already handling on both sides of the floor?
That’s why game two was so important to win. Had San Antonio returned home for game three, limping and two more losses away from elimination, with Los Angeles coming in filled of swagger and confidence, it could have spelled the end of the Spurs in potentially Duncan’s last season. Instead, San Antonio returns home with the series tied, the momentum in their favor, and the Clippers reeling off a loss - they were up two with 50 seconds left - that should have been a victory.
In game two, Griffin came so close to leading his Clippers past these Spurs, moving them closer to elimination. Griffin and his teammates were within arm’s reach of taking control of this series, and giving their general Paul the nearest opportunity he’s had to eliminate the team that has given him playoff heartbreaks in the past. But old-man Tim Duncan wouldn’t have any of it.
In a battle between power forwards yesterday and today, the greatest and someone who’s very great himself, the veteran came out on top. As Griffin fumbled two late turnovers in the fourth quarter and overtime, Duncan hit jumpers and found open teammates to save San Antonio once again.
There’s no predicting who’s going to win the NBA championship this year. San Antonio is hobbled, and it could impede their run for another title.
But rest assured, Tim Duncan and his Spurs won’t go down without a fight.