It was somehow over five years ago, almost to the day that I wrote my first post, titled (with conviction no doubt) San Antonio Blues. It was the opening round of the playoffs and the Spurs, led by a 34-year-old Tim Duncan, were in the process of being unceremoniously dumped by a resurgent Grizzlies team that was making its first playoff appearance in four years.
Back in 2011, I wrote:
The incarnation of the Spurs that we know: the systematic offense (even you, Ginobili, with your behind the backs and violent head fakes, are systematic), constricting defense, the method, practiced and refined, perfectly improvised; this version is gone. It’s the same group of guys wearing the same jerseys and coming up with the same regular season results (61 wins and a number one seed in the west), but with different method.
To look back now, it feels so improbable that in a five-year span San Antonio took that “different method” to its zenith, won two titles; then cut back again and managed to win 67 games with a historically dominant defense. I have no feeling about being right or wrong, but I lacked imagination and an inability to see the possibility of reinvention and regeneration – even though it was in front of my face. (re re re – it feels like Duncan, Manu, Parker and Pop are case studies for pro sport re-imagination which is a fantastical leap of the will of the mind triumphing over ego.)
When I made my first post in 2011 it was with some sense of finality, some foreboding feeling that the book was closing on the Spurs. But it was a two-pronged failure of a prognostication: First, that the Spurs as a Parker-Duncan-Ginobili core were finished, but there was no ending, just a chapter closing. The Spurs layered in Leonard, built Green out of his own best basketball self, seamlessly integrated Boris Diaw, and developed guys like Patty Mills and Cory Joseph. Whether it was R.C. Buford or Pop or both of them ideating on a porch swing on some San Antonian veranda, the Spurs collective hatched an idea and executed against it. My second failure was just an inability as a 30-year-old (was I just 30 then? It feels like another plane of my life.) in 2011 to foresee the inevitability of change without death. As a 35-year-old writing this now, it’s easy to look back at my growth as a human, a man; growth on mental and emotional levels with the comprehension of deep and honest loss and clearly see an inability to transpose that onto athletes or a team. Yet that’s exactly what happened with this group of Spurs – existential growth in the midst of physical decline.
Aside from the past, these playoff Spurs glided into a clumsy landing to the 2016 season. In 2011 I compared their defeat at the hands of a hungry, aggressive Grizzlies team to Biggie’s “Things Done Changed” track off Ready to Die. I’m fresh out hip hop metaphors, but these past six games in the Western Conference semifinals have been reminiscent of that decimation five years ago. Even though they’ve become Western Conference staples, OKC is still a younger, more athletic collection of talent than most of their opponents – particularly the Spurs – but they’ve grown into a more brutally bludgeoning version of themselves. If it was the hunger of Tony Allen and Sam Young symbolizing the fearlessness of those original Grit & Grinders, it was Steven Adams and Enes Kanter in this series. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the thoroughbreds gallivanting through the halls of basketball glory, but it was the thumping insistence of Kanter and Adams that acted as human body blows to Duncan, Aldridge, West, and even giant Boban Marjanovic. Where lesser players may have flinched at the snarls and glares of West, Adams and Kanter treated him like another speed bump on their way to rebounds and the Western Conference Finals.
It wasn’t just victory and defeat, but the manner of victory. It was physical, not executional. It was strength and endurance, not just mental fortitude. I don’t know or care if the Spurs were better prepared because it doesn’t matter now. OKC had too many horses or dogs or Kanters or Adamses. They were unrelenting and somehow inevitable.
And at the five-year anniversary of starting this blog, I find myself impressed by those still blessed by the sliver of youth (Durant and Russ have been in their mid-20s forever it seems) but relating to the unrelenting nature of change and age. I sit often with my leg propped up and an ice pack around my hamstring, going on six weeks nursing an injury that happened in a pickup game – half court no less. And though I don’t have title rings or banners, and though I rooted for OKC, I’ve never before been so capable of relating to the Spurs, that aging core with its calm, but confident acceptance of the passage of time. There isn’t any sadness in this defeat; there’s plenty of that outside basketball. It’s just change, one foot in front of the other, one day after the next with time offering endless opportunities for context and reflection.