Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Aging Spurs Not the Deepest, Not Even Close

The scenes are just as entrancing as always. It was fairly evenly matched. But it's not that close now. What happened Monday night might have decided the winner of the Western Conference Finals, with the Oklahoma City Thunder only one win away from securing a spot in the NBA Finals.

Before the Spurs-Thunder series, we heard all the positives about the Spurs. But the rhetorical notion that the Spurs were so experience, so deep and so disciplined wasn't exact. There's a reason Tim Duncan had a worried look on his face as he walked off the floor forlorn and unhappy. His facial expression was all indicators that the Spurs were done. Fighting for survival for now on, old age and torpidity equates to late-season struggles.

The Spurs, on the verge of elimination and trailing the series 3-2, are the oldest NBA team with five members of their roster at age 33 or older. The timing is bad to suddenly falter, but with all the disadvantages for a team that once built a dynasty, the Spurs are struggling because they are simply broken and exhausted, even if they are equipped for a championship. In a stunning turn of events -- with a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series -- San Antonio dropped three straight games.

There is a theory -- fatigued and slow to run the floor -- that age has a cumulative effect on one's ability to perform at such a physical level. The evaluation of talent was a misguided conception and it wasn't what it appeared as the Spurs are one loss away from vacation with Kenny and Charles and the rest of the TNT cast. Because this is the Spurs, an NBA team that has won four titles between 1999 and 2007, and because they have what is considered the big three in Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Duncan, expectations are heavy for a well-accomplished franchise.

But now, against a quicker, fresher and younger core, they are close to planning summer vacation, losing to the Thunder 108-103 in the Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. If they go on to lose, consider it a disappointment, a sentiment of misfortune and doomsday when the Spurs had the goods to extend their domination. There's not much time left, which means the Spurs are on barrow time and apparently not suited to contend with the fastest and strongest as much of the roster is almost eligible for senior citizen discounts.

Now, you hear much about how the Thunder, a small-market team whose emergence is what defines the NBA, are exciting, jelling together and growing as consistent troops on a mission to conquer a title. Since we have been brainwashed into thinking the Spurs are completely dominant, after having their impressive 20-game winning streak snapped by these Thunder, fans across the land have been inundated with buzz.

It was a lack of duration and energy that vitiated them, smearing a championship campaign after all the hype centered the four-time winners. If the Spurs fail to force a Game 7, which they probably will with all the momentum and confidence riding on the Thunder's side -- and everyone is stunned -- it would be a real shame on their behalf simply for discrediting a team that proved to be more athletic and physically active and well-proportioned. The clock is ticking and the Spurs have to make adjustments if they want to stand a chance against the youthful Thunder.

It would be a tall order, not to mention that Oklahoma City will return home for Game 6 where the crowd brings energy, for the Spurs to travel to the loudest NBA venue and grind out a pressing victory in a hostile territory. By the time it was all over, Manu Ginobili released his frustration by clenching his fist and striking the defenseless scorer's table. It was one of the lamest moments for the Spurs, and these painful times were illustrated after the left-handed sixth man missed a three-pointer that bounced off the back of the rim at the buzzer. He was the absolute best on this particular night, and whether he's growing old in the twilight stages of his accomplished career, Ginobili had one of his flashy playoff runs as a member of the Spurs, where he has been prone to injury throughout his career.

It's folly to ignore what he and the Spurs have collectively done this postseason. But then the same could be said for the Thunder, a team that simply outplayed San Antonio. In their current state, the Spurs are dangerously faced in a predicament within sight of wasting one of their greatest seasons by letting a 2-0 lead slip away. We may have seen the last of them. This Spurs team may never have another chance to compete at the highest level. It won't happen if this current roster separates after major redevelopment, a franchise that could aim for a new direction, an organization that could say farewell to Duncan.

After spending years in the league, Duncan's exit would be fitting if he does consider retirement, and call it a well-achieved career. They are now left with no other choice but to win on the road, needing to make a statement for us to believe in them again, as we were confident at the beginning of this series, particularly after the 26-point performance by Ginobili in Game 1 and after Parker compiled 34 big ones on the scoreboard in Game 2. This is the moment that no lead is ever safe, and as it turns out, the Spurs are victims, eyewitnesses to blown leads.

In response to two consecutive losses, the Spurs came out attacking the Thunder, fighting and delivering early. For the third quarter, the Spurs opened with an 18-4 spurt that sent an energized crowd into delirium. And all season, the big three have been resilient, refocusing and bouncing back after rare losses, with the wisdom and intellectual capacity of Gregg Popovich, the brilliant mind of all coaches for making adjustments and finding solutions to normally correct the problem.

But, this time, he and his players had no solution, although they were well on their way to a potential win but blew it when Russell Westbrook drove and earned free throws to shift momentum. Popovich -- over on the bench -- was biting his nails nervously and watched the Thunder outscore the Spurs 25-10 to manage an 81-72 lead with 12 minutes remaining. Without much youth, or fresher bodies, the Spurs are suddenly at the end of their reign, no longer feared or intimidating to their opponents, as one can see.

And in view of the demise -- the latest disintegration that only leaves behind precious memories for a once unbreakable dynasty -- it figures that now the Spurs will have better hopes and plans for the future to refurbish. More often than not, particularly in this game, Oklahoma City's sizable, taller defenders forced the Spurs into 21 turnovers, folding offensively with a mountain of mistakes and mental lapses.

Not only did the Thunder snap San Antonio's winning streak, but also they have them on the brink of elimination, and it is hard to imagine the Spurs advancing out of this round without any bumps and bruises when all the momentum and hopefulness was sucked out of them. By seeing this, one can argue that the Thunder are built hereafter, the scariest team in the west for the next few years. Missing in action was Danny Green, the Spurs regular shooting guard who was benched in favor of Ginobili.

There was no possible way Duncan could operate alone, as old as he is now, needing breathers every now and then. Not that he was a rickety point guard, but Thabo Sefolosha was a defensive fix assigned for guarding Parker and, after all, he was a better defender and maybe even faster than him as Parker was throttled. Another difference was Gary Neal, the Spurs outside shooter, who was fairly quiet and missed a number of shots. And even DeJuan Blair was useless in the first half.

It was only a matter of time before the Thunder gained full control of this series. And certainly, it happened. That's when Popovich, remember, a man known for his adjustments, inserted Ginobili into the starting lineup. By doing so, he scored 34 points in 38 minutes for the deepest team ever, as many described San Antonio.

In reality, it was not the deepest, maybe the most experienced, but definitely not the most complete team. At least it doesn't seem that way at this very moment. They could bounce back from this, and then again, maybe not.

Only time will tell.