OKLAHOMA CITY -- Less than 10 minutes before Game 6 of the Western Conference finals tipped off, Tony Parker approached Gregg Popovich, telling his longtime coach that he was unable to play against the Thunder on Saturday and that he simply couldn't make any cuts on a left ankle that he had injured -- and then re-aggravated -- earlier in the series.
Parker had dodged questions about his health earlier in the week, leaving both the media and fans in the dark, but Popovich sounded as surprised as anyone to hear the severity of his All-Star point guard's injury. Popovich is known for his velvet touch when it comes to managing minutes and injuries, but this was no ordinary decision. Considering the stakes, the the caliber of player involved and the scant time to make a call, this was, in fact, about as extraordinary as coaching decisions come.
Shutting down Parker at this point -- one win from the Finals -- would almost certainly mean a do-or-die Game 7 back in Texas on Monday. The home team had handily won all five games of the series and a Parker-less Spurs team would be hard-pressed to win on the road. Encouraging Parker to play through the injury in Game 6, though, would not guarantee victory and it could compromise his availability for that potential Game 7, with only one off day in between. Worse yet, any re-injury could carry over into the Finals, should San Antonio advance.
"I didn't want him to be a hero because he was 50 percent or less," Popovich said afterwards. "I went back and forth. Through the National Anthem and all that time, he tried to get warmer and warmer."
The decision was to let Parker give it a shot as the Spurs monitored his response. Parker posted eight points (on 3-for-6 shooting) and two rebounds in the first half, but he was helpless in stopping Oklahoma City's attack-minded guards. Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson combined for 27 points on just 16 shots at halftime, and they showed no signs of letting up. The Thunder, with their season on the line, were going all out: Kevin Durant sat out for just 1:12 and four Oklahoma City players would all log at least 40 minutes on the night. The Thunder held a seven point lead at the break and they had enjoyed a strong close to the second quarter.
Popovich's pre-game reservations about playing Parker at so far shy of 100 percent health -- "That's probably bad for the team, if you think about it" -- deepened when Parker's ankle stiffened up at halftime. Against Parker's wishes, Popovich elected to pull the plug for the second half.
"He tried [to play] in the first half, and it wasn't doing very well," Popovich continued. "The 19 minutes he gave us were huge, because we couldn't have gone the whole game without him. ... He showed a lot of guts to be out there and do what he did."
The Spurs stick so tightly to their principles that virtually every one of their victories feels like a "quintessential Spurs victory," but their performance on Saturday still stands out as "particularly quintessential," pardon the redundancy. If the 2013-14 Spurs have been known for one thing, it's their depth, with no player -- not even Parker or Kawhi Leonard -- averaging 30 minutes a night during the regular season. Such an approach requires trust and ingenuity from a coach and readiness from every player on the roster.
Here was an ultimate test for the whole philosophy. This wasn't a throwaway back-to-back in January; this was the Western Conference finals, on the road, down seven, against the league's MVP and his All-NBA running buddy playing desperate basketball.
Out of these dire circumstances, Popovich did a particularly quintessential Popovich thing: he cobbled together a second half starting lineup that had played a grand total of zero minutes during the entire 2013-14 season and 2014 playoffs. Third-year, third-string point guard Cory Joseph, the second-to-last player taken in the first round of the 2011 draft, joined Danny Green, Leonard, Tim Duncan and Matt Bonner, who had been tapped to replace Tiago Splitter for matchup purposes. In the biggest game of the season, Popovich moved on without Parker by playing the role of jazz conductor, randomly pointing at various members of his Big Band to keep the music going.
The new-look Spurs responded by starting the third quarter on a 9-2 run and they won the period by a 37-20 count. Of course they did. Popovich's never-before-seen improvisation had provided an element of stability and tied the game, setting up a classic back-and-forth battle that required overtime. Even though Parker was sidelined, it was the Thunder who started to show cracks first. Any semblance of offensive balance gave way, as Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka combined to score 35 of Oklahoma City's final 38 points.
"We didn't come out," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of his team's second-half play. "We started settling for too many jump shots and then we turned the ball over. I think we turned the ball over 12 times in that second half. ... If you relax for two or three minutes, they can go on a 12‑2 run, and I thought they did that late in that third quarter."
Playing huge minutes under heavy pressure from San Antonio's defense, the mistakes mounted for the Thunder's two All-Stars, who combined for 14 turnovers on the night. Durant slipped on a critical possession near the end of regulation and missed a potential game-tying three-pointer late in overtime. Westbrook vacillated between brilliance and recklessness -- mostly brilliance, as he tallied a game-high 34 points on (8-for-23 shooting), eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals -- but his chance at a go-ahead layup in overtime was swatted from behind by Kawhi Leonard -- the best defensive play in a game full of great ones.
San Antonio wasn't executing flawlessly, but its collective offensive approach served it well in the first tight game of the series. Not only did the Spurs' bench outscore the Thunder by a whopping 51-5, their ball movement paid dividends down the stretch. One beautiful sequence saw four accordion-style passes -- from the top, to the left wing, to a cutter to the paint, to a wide open shooter in the left corner -- that led to a Boris Diaw three-pointer. Another sequence saw an inside-outside-inside series of passes that ended with Manu Ginobili finding Diaw for a dunk. As Oklahoma City strained for its points, San Antonio was fashioning an ever-so-slightly more relaxed reality for itself, even as the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd grew louder and more insistent.
"Tony Parker is not their whole team," Durant said, after scoring 31 points (on 12-for-25 shooting) and grabbing 14 rebounds. "You've seen games where he wasn't playing and they still won. They've got a good system. They've got good guys that can plug in, and they came in and made plays."
Popovich, Spurs GM R.C. Buford and just about everyone else affiliated with the organization love to say that all roads lead to Duncan, and that all the credit for the franchise's success belongs to the 38-year-old future Hall of Famer. Their depth, they argue, only works because of the foundation building block with which to build around. Their pass-heavy offense only works because Duncan's selfless approach sets the tone.
Game 6 came back to Duncan, too, even though he had just 12 points (on 4-for-12 shooting) at the end of regulation. Down two with less than 3:30 to play in the extra period, the Spurs began force-feeding Duncan on the left side of the court.
Matched up against Ibaka, one of the league's premier defenders whose return had totally changed the complexion of this series, Duncan began putting on a slow-motion clinic. He pounded the ball in isolation -- no jazz here, just a single drum -- setting up pivots and drop steps that are unstoppable, even in year 17 of his career.
"I really don't know how he does it," Ginobili marveled, when told that Duncan had played 39 minutes, one minute off of a season-high. "We were pretty tired in overtime. They were very physical, and it's always hard to score against them. We just started to give him the ball, and he gave us solutions. As always, outstanding."
Duncan got to the line twice, made a layup and then rattled home a turnaround jumper over Jackson and through the harassing arms of Westbrook. He did it at his own pace, at the center of the game's attention, with elite players who are 10 years his junior watching helplessly as he delivered.
"By the time I turned, I saw [Westbrook] coming," Duncan said of his final shot. "I just tried to get up as much as I can, and I finally got a roll."
In a span of a little over three minutes, Duncan had scored seven straight points for San Antonio, turning a two-point deficit into a three-point lead. Surrounded by an unfamiliar group of teammates to start the second half, he closed out the game in the most familiar way possible, finishing with 19 points (on 6-for-14 shooting) and 15 points.
"Timmy came through when we went to him," Popovich said.
Diaw would ice the game with a pair of free throws, completing a 26-point, 4-rebound night and putting the finishing touches on a 112-107 victory over Oklahoma City that propelled San Antonio to its second straight trip to the Finals. There, the Spurs will get a rematch with the two-time defending champion Heat.
It was Duncan, you will remember, who was robbed of his fifth title when Ray Allen's miraculous corner three resuscitated the Heat during Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. Allen's iconic shot overshadowed a historic performance from Duncan, who posted 30 points and 17 rebounds in that game for the ages.
On Saturday, with a return trip to the Finals secure, Duncan answered questions with his standard emotionless expression and monotone voice, dressed in the same long-sleeve plaid shirt he's been wearing since Tupac and Biggie were still alive. His mild-mannered exterior didn't exactly scream bloodthirsty payback, and yet -- after making due without Parker and putting away a Thunder team that has overwhelmed so many opponents with its youthful athleticism -- the ageless Duncan chose to lay out his revenge quest all the same.
"We're happy that it's the Heat again," he said. "We've got that bad taste in our mouths still. Hopefully we'll be ready to take it this time."