I'm not going to claim that what's going on with the San Antonio Spurs isn't surprising. With 20 straight wins heading into Game 3 of the Western Conference finals in Oklahoma City on Thursday, they are playing, after all, at a level reached by few teams in NBA history. Even with their consistently outstanding season, you didn't see this coming.
But what isn't all that surprising, to me at least, is the way that they're winning. To many observers, it's as if the Spurs have undergone a complete transformation, a remake on the most basic level, as if one day they were performing mainstream Chekhov on Broadway and now they are mimes in Central Park.
I don't see it that way. True, some of the metrics are striking. Once an offensive also-ran (by some numbers, at least) that built its reputation on stubborn defense, the 2011-12 Spurs were first in offensive efficiency (points per possession) and second in scoring. They were also seventh in pace of play, a department in which they routinely ranked in the 20s -- quite often the high 20s -- in a 30-team league.
But the seeds for their offense emergence have been in place for a decade. Further, the Spurs were never the boring, relentlessly fundamental, do-things-by-the-book aggregation they were made out to be.
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Let's consider the three championship Spurs teams in this century. The 2003 team had as one of its main cogs the irrepressible, unpredictable Stephen Jackson, who during the championship run made turnover after turnover -- yet more than made up for it by sinking stone-cold three after stone-cold three. Some might think that Jackson is the last player that the demanding Gregg Popovich would want on his roster. Yet this season Popovich welcomed back Captain Jack, who is now a nine-year-older version of what he was in 2003. True, Pop likes brains. But he also likes cojones.
That also explains why Popovich was never afraid to go with a madcap rookie named Manu Ginobili on that '03 team. Envision Ginobili's contemporary hell-bent-for-leather style and double it -- that's what he was like as a 25 year old. Any team with Jackson and Ginobili, not to mention a quicksilver second-year point guard named Tony Parker, in major roles, and you hardly have the profile of a predictable, by-the-numbers squad.
(OK, I'm getting to Tim Duncan.)
Take the 2005 team, the one that beat the Detroit Pistons in seven games for the title. By that point, Parker and Ginobili were in bigger roles than they were in 2003, Parker a lightning-fast tear-drop specialist, Ginobili a flying wedge of a competitor. (I remember a Spurs game from that season in which Ginobili made one of his patented crossover-take-two-giant-steps-that's-maybe-traveling-but-rarely-gets-called layups, then ran back on defense and blindly threw up his arms to deflect a pass with the back of his hand. I have still never seen a better sixth-sense play.)
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Plus, Popovich also had as a major part of his rotation Robert Horry, a rare player in that he was a 6-foot-9 forward who could post up and defend but was most comfortable hoisting threes, one of which won a crucial Game 5 in Detroit in the championship series.
(OK, I'm getting to Duncan.)
The 2007 champions also seem to be classically "Spur-like." Lockdown defender Bruce Bowen, who couldn't create his own shot if he set up a palette in a deserted gym, was, as always, a mainstay who logged more minutes than anyone except Parker and Duncan. But even that is deceiving. The Spurs often spread the floor and played an open-court offense that approximated that of the Phoenix Suns, who were the second-best team in the Western Conference (and probably the second-best team in the league) that season. That is how the Spurs prevailed over the Suns in a riveting Western Conference semifinal; at various points during that six-game series, they out-Sunned the Suns. And remember that Popovich never had to bench his defensive stalwart to do it; Bowen was a deadly spot-up shooter from one place (the corner), and benefited from the flying drives of Parker and Ginobili, as did Horry, who was drawing to the end of a career defined by clutch shooting.
(OK, I'm getting to Duncan.)
So, the underpinnings for the electric style that the Spurs demonstrated this season have been there for a while. The slashing of Parker, who just turned 30 though it seems like he's been in the league for 30 years. (Everybody talks about how old the Spurs are, but the most formidable thing about them is how young Parker is.) The high-octane unpredictability of Ginobili. The willingness of Popovich to rely on the three -- Ginobili, Danny Green, Captain Jack, Kawhi Leonard and Gary Neal all have the green light to shoot it.
There is also the new-blood factor, i.e., the Spurs' uncanny knack of integrating new players into a system dominated by Parker, Ginobili and the guy we're coming to. We speak here of Boris Diaw, who played just poorly enough to get himself waived out of Charlotte yet just well enough to keep his rep for versatility and get signed by San Antonio for the stretch run. (Seriously, has any NBA player ever been given such a fortuitous in-season gift? Diaw went from one of the worst teams in history to one of the best and joined his best bud, Parker, in the process.) Diaw, who is now logging starters' minutes, gives Popovich his Horry, a post-up scorer and distributor, as well as an outside threat.
Which brings us to the old blood. There is no doubt that throughout this century Tim Duncan has been the franchise's most important player, the glue, and it is from him that the Spurs' brand has been defined as "fundamentally sound" and even "boring." (The Onionplayed it up recently.)
I'm not here to tell you that "fundamental" doesn't describe Duncan to a certain extent. But "fundamental" doesn't mean "plays one way" or "can't play quick" or "boring." It means that everything he does -- no matter what the style -- is done the correct way. He sets the perfect screen for the pick-and-roll game. He rolls to the hoop or pops to the side for an elbow jumper. He clears out when Parker and Ginobili want a lane but also keeps himself in rebounding range. And he gets the defensive rebounds that start the break.
With a player like Duncan as the anchor, it's easy to play any style. While there is little doubt that Popovich has become more comfortable with going up-tempo this season, he has always been able to play fast, slow and in-between. What is happening right now with the Spurs is a natural evolution, not a sea change. And it's something to behold.
Jack McCallum is the author of the forthcoming Dream Team, a book about the gold-medal-winning 1992 U.S. Olympic team led by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird . Read an excerpt at jackmccallum.net.