"Spurs have nothing to apologize for"
If memory serves, this season was supposed to be about the Spurs’ coronation — as what, we may never know. A team for the ages, perhaps. Or maybe the last great dynasty until a new era of parity sets in. Or at least “Team of the Decade,” given that they could have been going for their fourth straight championship this spring, if not for a fluky heave by a first-rate second-string point guard named Derek Fisher in the 2004 Western Conference semifinals.
All that is moot now. It tells you how fragile this dynasty business can be if Tim Duncan can be so cramped from dehydration that he’s outplayed by the legendary DeSagana Diop in the overtime of a Game 7.
Dallas won that series by a gnat’s eyebrow, though it should be noted the Spurs somehow seemed vulnerable all season. Duncan, still the preeminent foundation player in the game, struggled with plantar fasciitis for months. Manu Ginobili had a rough ride all year, with foot and calf injuries taking away his aggressiveness and timing for long stretches. There also was a depth issue: Tony Parker arrived as a top five point guard, but there wasn’t much to back him up. Beno Udrih was too green, and bone chips were rattling around in Nick Van Exel’s elbow.
These problems, except perhaps for that last one, never really influenced the outcome of the series; in the end, the Spurs’ second-round exit was a common playoff circumstance that arises when two great teams meet — the team that gets stops and makes shots survives white-knuckle time, period. No disgrace in that. Somebody has to lose, and after years of superb execution in similar situations over the past eight postseasons, Duncan finally was handed the check. The missed bunny at the end of regulation in Game 5. The 1-for-7 meltdown in overtime of Game 7. It happens even to the best of them. It’s almost comforting to know it can actually happen to the human metronome.
Still, the Spurs have nothing to apologize for — least of all Duncan, who ended up having the best series of his career.
But the rest of the country is asking this: So what the hell happened, then? And it was left to Gregg Popovich, in his final backward glance last week, to explain the obvious.
Nothing happened, he said. It was just the Mavs’ turn.
Blasted platitudes, you say. Sorry you lost your bar bet, I say in reply. Because Popovich isn’t wrong. When they lose one game by a single point and two others in overtime, coaches tend to grow angry enough to eat raw wolverine and scream until the walls shake. But the way Popovich handled this loss might have been his finest moment because he spent most of the epilogue praising his protege, Avery Johnson, who coached with the same poise with which he played.
That’s the way it had to be in this series, no matter how crushing the defeat. The media, the final arbiters of such matters, always need to know why losers lose. They often are obsessed with underlining any show of weakness or magnifying clues that a team is preoccupied with spit-polishing its tarnished legacy — the most common such tip-off is when coaches offer excuses.
That doesn’t mean the Spurs are perfect, of course. They’ll make some minor moves. Nazr Mohammed is a free agent and won’t return. He and Rasho Nesterovic, who would have some trade value if he didn’t have $23.5 million left on his deal, played 29 minutes combined in the second round. So it’s time to add another big, and one is on his way from Spain — Argentinian power forward Luis Scola.
They could use an understudy for Bruce Bowen, who will turn 35 this month. Robert Horry will be 36 in August. Maybe they’ll revisit that Brent Barry-J.R. Smith deal that fell through at the deadline, if only to give the roster some young legs.
As for that perception the Mavs beat them with superior athleticism: “It just makes me smile,” Popovich says. “If you win, there’s all kinds of things you did well. If you lose, there’s got to be reasons why you lost. So if they’re more athletic, I need to figure out how much more to win by a point. How much more athletic is that?”
Indeed, the margin was so scant, the Spurs’ primary move this summer probably will make only the agate section: the addition of a backup point guard. Van Exel is retiring. Udrih will be given another shot, but they won’t know if he’s ready for it until camp.
In retrospect, if the Spurs had had a solid sub for Parker — a veteran who could play screen-and-roll with Duncan and hit open shots — they may have overcome the Mavs in the end. The problem is, the type of guy they needed was coaching the other team.
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