How do you measure success? For a team that has been to the top and back again, the bar is high. Almost impossibly high. With a bottle of Irish Whiskey to dull the pain, I had this debate with a friend following the Game Six loss. It’s a heated debate – emotional, educational, and regrettable. We’re gonna need another round, please.
It’s difficult to separate the anger over the disappointing loss from unbiased analysis, but watching the San Antonio Spurs fall (or implode) the way they did, cloaks the season with a sense of disappointment. It’s inescapable for even the most balanced Spurs fan (which, after that game and a few drinks, does not include your humble writer).
This was supposed to be our year. We were supposed to be in the finals. We were supposed to reign supreme once again.
Basketball is a cruel game.
This post is supposed to be a macro look at the Spurs’ season as a whole, but I can’t write about this without talking about last night’s epic collapse. Is that too harsh? Maybe it’s not harsh enough. In the history of our franchise the Spurs have never given up a 15-point lead in the playoffs. The largest lead the Spurs had ever given up was an 11-point lead against the Mavericks in 2003. Epic collapse?
It’s the very definition of a choke job. With literally the season on the line – the championship on the line – and a double-digit lead in hand, the team could not make a bucket. At halftime, there were only two ways for the Spurs to lose the game: giving the Thunder extra possessions by turning the ball over or by allowing the Thunder to out-shoot them from the field, not by a little, but by nearly twice their shooting percentage.
That’s exactly what they did.
They managed to take care of the ball, but in the third quarter the Spurs not only allowed the Thunder to shoot over 60% from the field, but at the same time they barely made 1 of every 3 of their own shots. Extraordinary.
Pop said after Game Five that championship teams win on the road. Well, they also make shots when it counts. The Thunder did, the Spurs couldn’t.
The recent history of the Spurs at least is marred in this type of failure. For two consecutive seasons now the Spurs have taken the best record in the league to a disappointing upset in the playoffs. Both years losing to teams that they were favored to beat. Both years leaving fans unfulfilled.
Would fans of the Bobcats feel the same way about the same level of success? Unlikely. If they are reading this they probably want to open hand slap me right now. But success is measured against expectations, and expectations for the Spurs this season were at an all-time high.
Not only expectations, but urgency.
This season was tailor-made for the Spurs. A lockout shortened season with no training camp and games scheduled at such a frenetic pace that practice was nearly impossible. Even Allen Iverson was jealous. This was a season perfectly suited for a team that was composed and ready to play from day one. A team like the Spurs who made few, if any, offseason adjustments. With the exception of Leonard, this was the same team that achieved the best record in the NBA last season.
And the Spurs showcased their advantage early and often. A regular season in which they never lost more than two in a row and had a twenty game winning streak. A team that lost four of their last 38 games lost four in a row to close the season. It’s no secret that Tim Duncan is at or near the end of his storied career. There were expectations attached to a team with 4 NBA championships that could perform at that level, but there was also the urgency of completing another title run while Tim Duncan’s name remained a part of this roster.
Expectations and urgency. You can rise above them or fall victim to them.
Without question there were many positives to be taken out of this season. Tim showed that he is still a force in this league – maybe he has another year or two left in him. Kawhi Leonard vindicated the much maligned trade of George Hill far beyond any one’s greatest expectations. Though Danny Green pulled the greatest Houdini act in the Thunder series since, well, Houdini, his shooting ability and athleticism secured him a place in the starting lineup. And finally, late season additions of Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson brought the talent, size, and aggressiveness necessary to be NBA champions once again.
But positives do not equal success.
Where do we go from here? That’s a topic for another post. But as we sit here and reflect on the season that was, the image is a bitter one. I doubt this team feels any different. They hold themselves to a higher standard – that’s what champions do. That drive to achieve and exceed expectations is what separates great from good.
There are players to sign, contracts to renegotiate, and a 59th overall draft pick to scout. It’s going to be a long, frustrating summer for this team and their fans as they lament what could have been; what should have been. Failing to meet expectations is a disappointment, to be sure. That’s the answer to our original question. But it’s an answer that leads only to more existential questions. Is this the end of an era? The passing of the torch? Or will this drive the hunger of a team full of champions to make one last run at glory?
We will find out next fall. Or perhaps, more fittingly, next May.