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Secrets Of The New Explorers

By Jeff Koch on April 18, 2014.

“We Shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.”

–T.S. Eliot

The postseason is upon us, and this year feels like the culmination of a 4-year transformation for this team, perhaps the final permutation of the Duncan-Pop Spurs.

The 2010 Playoffs ended in ignominy, swept out of the second round by a Phoenix Suns team that barely resembled the teams we had battled–and beaten–over the middle half of the decade. A mostly unknown Goran Dragic had his way with us. Duncan looked old and 2 steps slow; Parker was never going to become the conductor of the offense we needed; Manu would never be healthy enough to contribute meaningfully; the spine of a once-great defense was all but gone. The Spurs were dead; long live the Spurs.

The next regular season, though, was a roaring success (2010-2011). Duncan came back slimmer; Pop opened up the offense. The Spurs cruised to the best record in the West and a #1 seed. They ran into the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, a team playing with loads of confidence and Zach Randolph at a career peak. Manu broke his arm in the final regular season game, and the culmination of events conspired in an upset. Great regular season, but another disappointing post-season. These Spurs were no longer championship material. (Year #1.)

Then came the lock-out and an abbreviated regular season (2011-2012) that saw an even slimmer Duncan and a reborn offense, based more around movement and spacing and the cutting and quickness of Parker, who, to his credit, was playing at career levels, levels we thought we might never see. More importantly, Splitter was brought into the mix, Green was ‘discovered’ and turned himself into a sharpshooter and ace defender, and Kawhi exceeded all rookie expectation; suddenly, the defense was reborn to complement the suddenly-unstoppable and surprisingly-enjoyable offense. The team again cruised to the top of the West and made it to Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals on a 20-game win streak, before OKC figured it out and swept the team out of the postseason behind insane athleticism and career series from several role players. A brilliant run, but surely this was the end of the Spurs, and OKC was ascending to the throne of the Western Conference. (Year #2.)

Last season (2012-2013) the team flew a bit under the radar as OKC won the West. But Duncan and Parker both had career years, and the defense of the starting unit got better and better. Still, it was OKC’s conference to lose. Westbrook went down with an injury and the West was suddenly wide open. The playoffs broke right for the Spurs and they found themselves in the Finals after a 6-year absence against LeBron and the mighty heat. The two teams produced perhaps the most entertaining Finals in two decades, capping it off with two instant classics. But the Spurs, 5 seconds from a title, could not finish it off. The Heat won in 7 and surely this heartbreak would be the end of the Spurs’ run, finally getting their due respect in the annals of the NBA in their most bitter of defeats. They deserved the title, they didn’t get it, and there was no way they could bounce back from that kind of loss. (Year #3).

Here we are in Year #4 (2013-2014). I’ve seen every minute of every game of the last 4 seasons: this is the Spurs best team in this era. Duncan and Parker might not be quite the level they were last year, but that is more than made up by a resurgence of Manu, the strongest bench in team history with Marco, Boris, and Patty, and the ascendence of Kawhi as the secret soul of the team’s success. Green and Splitter are still integral cogs in that starting unit and the team’s overall defensive efficiency, and Pop is still at the top of his game, perhaps never better, on his way to yet another Coach of the Year award.

More importantly, this team is focused and locked in in a way that no other team has been. There are two ways to go with a heartbreak like last year’s Finals: you can fall, or you can rise. You can let the memory destroy you, or you can use it as leverage, as motivation, as a reminder every day, every shot, every game to work harder, to find your way back. To arrive at that place and see it again for the first time. I truly feel like this is the best team the Spurs have had since 2007 and the best chance at another Championship, even more than last year. The bracket is breaking just right. The West will be trouble, but the East is weaker than last year. The team is healthy and better-suited for all comers. If the team can make it back and win a ring, it won’t be a singular event, the culmination of one season. It will have been a 4-year journey back, a feat that could only have been achieved because of last year’s loss, not in spite of it. It will be that 101st blow of the stonecutter, with the 100 preceding it spread out over the last 4 years.

This last era of the Spurs has really been defined by the dedication of Duncan to remake his body and stay elite against the oncoming onslaught of father time; and by the rise of Pop, in a way unshackled from Duncan’s dominance in the preceding decade, able to fully realize his potential as a coach and leader and grow into it as Duncan aged so gracefully beside him. Just like we started way back in 1998 with a rookie from the Virgin Islands and a coach with a military background, so it is 16 years later, the same team defined by the same two luminaries. After all this exploring, all of these regular season games, all of these postseasons, all of these roster changes and evolutions of style and rivals come and gone, so it is that we arrive back where we started, only to know the place for the first time.

Perhaps the Spurs can finish off the most dominating prolonged run in NBA history in the same place that run started: with another ring. And after so many years away from that glory, fighting so hard to get back and coming so close, it would surely feel like knowing that place for the first time.

Go Spurs Go.

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