This story appears in the June 2, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. You can subscribe to the magazine here and purchase the digital edition here.
R.C. Buford, the hoops visionary who found Tony Parker in France with the 28th pick and Manu Ginóbili in Argentina with the 57th, who plucked Danny Green from Reno when he offered to become a water boy and saved Patty Mills from unemployment when he needed to visit a fat farm, sees something. Buford is sitting courtside at AT&T Center, 90 minutes before Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, watching the Spurs as they warm up, greeting the Thunder as they file in, when he stops mid-sentence. The San Antonio general manager and 2013-14 NBA Executive of the Year stares across the court at the rolling advertisements on the face of the scorers' table, which have momentarily come unhinged. Rolls of thick black paper pool on the sideline about 10 feet from where forward Kawhi Leonard hoists jump shots.
In 1990, when Buford was a 30-year-old Spurs assistant coach, he remembers seeing Cavaliers point guard Mark Price chase a loose ball to the scorers' table in Atlanta. Price's left leg got tangled in one of those rolling ads, and he tore his ACL. "Give me a second," Buford says. He rises from his seat and strides across the floor, positioning himself between Leonard and the piles of paper. He stands sentry until a maintenance worker arrives. Buford then returns to his seat before pausing at mid-court and turning back again. He confirms with the worker that the ads are properly reattached.
Here is one small act underlining how the Spurs have contended for 17 straight years in a television market smaller than Milwaukee's and with a centerpiece older than Kevin Garnett. They take special care to protect their employees, and they must, because three of them have logged a combined 95,859 minutes, plus 20,552 in the playoffs (with another 3,427 in international competition, according to Real GM). That's about 50 standard NBA seasons packed into only 42 player years. After particularly laborious games, the 32-year-old Parker, 36-year-old Ginóbili and 38-year-old Tim Duncan sink into their cushioned locker-room chairs, searching for a final wave of energy that can carry them to the showers. They struggle to walk, yet in the next game they invariably resume their long-running recital: symmetrical spacing, choreographed cutting and balletic ball movement better suited to a theater than a gym.
RELATED: NBA Finals predictions | Schedule | Storylines | X-factors | Matchup analysis
San Antonio's offense is the most artistic and the second-most efficient in the playoffs, incessant screens and dribble handoffs creating how-did-he-get-so-open shots. The Spurs throttled Oklahoma City through the first two games of the conference finals with 234 points on 53.8% shooting and held a 2-1 lead at week's end. But the Spurs often pay less attention to the scoreboard than the clock, wedged between ads for Channel 5 and Academy outdoors store on the JumboTron at AT&T Center. Those red neon digits, counting down a quarter, a game, a season, a generation, hang over everything they do.
On April 11, 2000, eight days from the end of his third season, Duncan tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee at Sacramento. He could have returned for the playoffs, and he prepared to do so, but coach Gregg Popovich wanted him to heal properly. The Spurs fell to Phoenix in the first round without Duncan, missing an early opportunity for back-to-back championships. "A decision was made to be sure Tim was perfect," says 76ers coach Brett Brown, a former Spurs assistant who spent 12 years in the organization. "There is a human side of Pop -- a care for his players and a responsibility to them -- that trumps a lot of the other things."
Popovich saw how a coaching role model, Jerry Sloan, extended the careers of John Stockton and Karl Malone by dialing back their burden in Utah. Pop canceled practices and shootarounds because his Big Three required rest more than instruction. "I don't need your energy in the morning," he likes to say. "I need it at night." He benched them at the end of difficult road stretches despite incurring the league's ire. And gradually he whittled down their workload. Duncan logged a career-high 40.6 minutes in 2001-02, Parker 34.4 in '03-04, Ginóbili 31.1 in '07-08. This year's Spurs became the first team ever to finish a season without a player averaging 30 minutes. Parker was down to 29.4, Duncan 29.2 and Ginóbili 22.8. Duncan's 2,158 total minutes led the club while ranking 102nd in the NBA.
"That's a smart coach with everything under control," says 6' 9" Spencer Haywood, who played 3,808 minutes for the Denver Rockets in 1969-70, the most of any living NBA or ABA player. "I started at small forward, and then I'd go to power forward, and then I'd go to center and then back again. I just thought it was fun. It was luxury compared to picking cotton for 12 hours a day in Mississippi, which is what I would have been doing. But it does eventually take a toll."
San Antonio is again healthy while the Thunder, featuring NBA minutes leader Kevin Durant, are again hobbled. Now Serge Ibaka is hampered by a strained left calf one year after Russell Westbrook was shelved with a torn right meniscus. "Pop has a way of delivering a team to April," Brown says, "that is meticulously calculated."
He allots minutes before the season, but every coach does that. Sticking to the vision, through slumps and streaks, injuries and acquisitions, is what distinguishes him. "He has an assistant remind him whenever somebody has been on the court for six minutes," says 6' 8" backup Boris Diaw. "That's when you know a change is probably coming." Midway through the first quarter Diaw prepares to replace center Tiago Splitter and slathers his dry palms with Vaseline lotion. "Sometimes I get Tiago at 6:30, but if he's made three baskets in a row, then maybe it moves back to 5:30. Nothing is set in stone, but there's a plan. He's not playing the whole first quarter." Parker sometimes does, but usually, he's out after nine minutes and Duncan after seven. Ginóbili enters after five or six.
"There are so many variables that can throw everything off," says forward Matt Bonner. "If someone is in foul trouble, if someone is on fire, if the other team goes with an atypical lineup." In Game 1, Leonard played 39 minutes because he was the primary defender on Durant, who played 41. But two nights later, in a Spurs rout, Leonard played only 16. It often seems Popovich is plugging these numbers into a personal algorithm that spits out substitution patterns. He rations minutes like bottles of his beloved Brunello in Prohibition times. "Remember when Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura said, 'Once you get inside my head, there's no turning back, baby,' " recalls former Spurs guard Brent Barry, now an analyst for NBA TV. "That's how it is with Pop. You shouldn't even try to get inside that man's head."
Blowouts help the quest for rest, and San Antonio won 26 times this season by 16 points or more. On the rare occasion that the Spurs trail big in the fourth quarter, they are quick to concede. But even in close games Popovich resists the temptation to drive his vintage imports, forever cognizant of that giant clock in the sky. "Guys really get screwed playing for me," he says. "It hurts their stats." Some readily admit they'd prefer more PT but acknowledge that the reduced burn prolongs their prime. "I'm a lot fresher, a lot healthier [this year]," Duncan says. "Absolutely it makes a difference." The Big Three reached their rejuvenated state while still finishing with a league-best 62 wins. Part-time was plenty. The stand-ins made it possible to sit.
Patty Mills arrived in San Antonio two years ago, known mainly for waving towels on the bench and forming imaginary eye goggles with his fingers, a gesture mimicked by three-point shooters nationwide. Mills was drafted 55th in 2009 by the Trail Blazers, ended up in China two years later and, upon returning to the NBA, found that Portland couldn't use him anymore. The Spurs are famously understated, but they signed Mills in March 2012 partly because they appreciated his exuberance. "That's from my upbringing," says Mills, an Aboriginal Australian. "My mum and dad taught me that you don't sulk when you don't get court time." Their advice resonated last season, when Mills dropped to fourth-string point guard and Popovich termed him Fatty Patty. Mills improved his diet in the summer, winning a bet with Diaw to get below 7% body fat, and earned the backup job, crucial because of Parker's recent hamstring woes. "I've learned things here I don't think I would have learned other places," Mills says, "and I've played more than I think I would have played other places." Pop doesn't inform his subs in advance when they will be inserted or for how long. "He just comes over and tells you, 'Patty, get Tony,' " says Mills, who averaged 10.2 points in a career-high 18.9 minutes. "And you better be ready."
The current main backups -- Ginóbili, Mills, Diaw, guard Marco Belinelli and center Aron Baynes -- were all born outside the U.S., and true to their international roots, they move the ball more than they pound it. "I think this might be their best team," Brown says, "because it's their best-passing team." Second units often play a completely different style from the first. "The Spurs aren't like that," Barry says. "The system doesn't change at all. Diaw executes the same plays that Duncan does. Mills executes the same plays that Parker does." Besides Belinelli, everyone in the rotation has been with the organization since last season. "Now they're beyond the ABCs," Barry says, "and into the RSTUVs."
Front offices trumpet the importance of depth, but it traditionally means little in the playoffs, with frequent TV timeouts and long breaks between games. The Heat won the past two championships while finishing 27th and 24th in bench scoring. From Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, two transcendent performers typically overcome all.
But this season the Spurs seized the bench-scoring crown, ranking fourth alltime with 45.1 points, and early in the conference finals their mob smothered the league's most dynamic couple, Durant and Westbrook. "They have five guys that can score on the floor at the same time," says Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "You don't have a possession off. Not one." With 2:43 left in the third quarter of Game 1 and San Antonio up by only four points, Popovich subbed Baynes for Duncan. Like Mills, Baynes comes from Australia and was recommended by Brown, who coached both players on the national team.
Mills took one charge, and 43 seconds later Baynes took another. Then Baynes sank a nifty reverse layup, grabbed a rebound and earned raves from Duncan during a timeout. When Popovich finally removed him with 9:57 left in the fourth, the Spurs led by 13. "That's kind of what we've done all year," Duncan says. "If someone is doing well in that position, we're going to go with them. I got a chance to keep my minutes down, and we still win."
Sitting courtside, broadcasting for TNT, the new coach of the Warriors was watching. "A lot of young coaches—and maybe I'll do this too—coach out of fear," Steve Kerr says. "They don't feel like they can lose a game. When they get more security, more confidence, they start to understand the power of the bench. That happened with Phil Jackson in Chicago. He prepared his bench to hit big shots. Now the same thing has happened with Pop."
Two days later San Antonio romped again behind seven three-pointers from Green, one off a sublime baseline feed by Ginóbili, which appeared headed out-of-bounds before spinning back like a Clayton Kershaw curveball. The NBA never revealed who won Finals MVP for San Antonio last June, before Ray Allen made the vote moot, but it could have been Green. Waived by the Spurs after less than a week in 2010 because Popovich thought he acted entitled, Green resurfaced two months later with the D-League's Reno Bighorns. He remembers calling Popovich and saying, "I'll be your ball boy, water boy, whatever." Green, like Mills, seized a second chance.
The Spurs could have aged into oblivion if they had not flanked their vaunted elders with Leonard and Green, Mills and Baynes, Belinelli and Splitter, twenty-somethings who are turning the crank on a championship window that never seems to shut. One day, Popovich believes, he will look up in the middle of a random third quarter and see Duncan strolling through the tunnel and into the Texas sunset. "And I'll be 10 steps behind," the coach cracks, "because I'm not stupid." The red digits, at some point, will flash all zeros.
Until then, the Spurs hold tight to however many minutes they have left, squeezing out every last dribble handoff. They glide through another spring, 10 of them in screen-setting synchronization, like basketball clockwork.