It began with a Tim Duncan layup and ended with Manu Ginobili scoring on a breakaway.
Between those fitting bookends, the Spurs' recipe for obliterating the eighth-seeded Utah Jazz included a little bit of Gary Neal, just the right dose of Stephen Jackson, a splash of Danny Green, a tall order of Tiago Splitter, the busy bulk of Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair, a few fanciful finishes from Boris Diaw, the stoic spice of Kawhi Leonard and a whole lot of Tony Parker.
The Spurs asphyxiated the Jazz en route to their first playoff sweep since the 2007 NBA Finals. Gregg Popovich will scold his players for almost folding in the end, for surrendering a commanding lead and allowing Utah to pull within four late, because such a meticulous, unrelenting approach fits his coaching and managerial styles.
The Jazz, trailing 0-3 in the series, faced elimination in front of their fans. They needed to make the final score cosmetic to avoid the sheer humiliation of losing by 20, again.
When a Neal three-pointer afforded the Spurs a 21-point cushion with six minutes left, the Salt Lake City faithful brayed more boos.
An Al Jefferson jumper kick started a furious Utah rally. Ginobili’s soft but incisive layup shut the Jazz’s cracked door for good.
A year earlier, a Zach Randolph fist pump amidst rare FedEx Forum bedlam capped a cruel termination.
The Grizzlies and Spurs departed in different directions. Memphis prepared for its second-round date with Oklahoma City. San Antonio’s championship core headed for the exits, perhaps forever.
Billy Hunter and David Stern’s treacherous head-butting presaged an agonizing vacation for a team that never played the Game 7 at the AT&T Center it worked so hard to get.
A work stoppage commenced July 1, and the chances of a resolution dimmed with each day and each devastating delay.
Labor negotiations stalled, and at times, screeched to a halt like a vehicle responding to the emergency brake’s swift activation.
Every time the owners and players became deadlocked, it appeared less likely Duncan, Parker and Ginobili would get the chance to avenge an unjustified embarrassment.
A season-long layoff would have messed with Duncan’s body clock and his rhythm. If the lockout had extended beyond this fall, which seemed plausible after numerous meltdowns in collective bargaining talks? Retirement may have been a more attractive card for Duncan to play than the one that now has the top-seeded Spurs 12 wins away from a fifth title.
Would Ginobili have followed?
A long-awaited lockout truce just after Thanksgiving saved more than a season. It afforded the Duncan-era Spurs the chance to exit on their own terms.
The labor spat, low-lighted by intense verbal clashes about luxury taxes and basketball-related income, claimed a few victims. No coach would dispute that losing all of the Las Vegas Summer League, most of the preseason and two months worth of available dates to lessen the schedule compression was a bummer.
The most important potential casualties, however, escaped the work stoppage’s wrath unscathed. Duncan was one. Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash and Ray Allen were a few others.
The greatest power forward ever deserved better than a career execution imposed by Hunter and Stern’s ruthlessness and recklessness.
The lockout’s 149th day finished with a handshake and an invitation for a redo. Stern and Hunter—flanked by Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, NBAPA President Derek Fisher, Maurice Evans and Spurs Owner Peter Holt—sat in a hotel conference room in the wee hours of Nov. 26 and announced the accord that ended the dreary prospect of no hoops and a nuclear winter for a league that could ill-afford the coming destruction.
Stern promised an acrimonious, painful basketball Armageddon when the players took the owners to court. A settlement salvaged the reputes of the key cogs and yielded a truncated, dizzying campaign that has the Spurs where they thought they’d be a year ago.
Popovich espouses class and the political correctness that accompanies both victory and defeat. He would never say or suggest it, but the pundits can, and should.
San Antonio earned the right to play the crippled New Orleans Hornets last year. Without David West alongside Chris Paul, the scrappy Hornets did not stand a chance against any of the Western Conference’s top four seeds.
The Grizzlies entered the postseason fray with a swagger that validated the Spurs dread.
Nothing and no one stopped Randolph. No amount of strategizing or rotation tinkering could halt fate.
When the labor parties lifted the lockout, they removed a boulder-sized burden from the Spurs shoulders.
Popovich would remind those advocating a pity party after the Grizzlies ouster that his squad failed to win one road game in three tries. San Antonio was not equipped in 2011 to go the distance and hoist another Larry O’Brien trophy, even with home-court advantage through the Western Conference Finals.
Instead of complaining about misfortune or accepting a popular assessment that they had become also-rans, the Spurs unwrapped the gift of new life and took full advantage.
They built on a rocky 12-9 start. They withstood Ginobili’s 30-game absence. Popovich brought along Leonard and Green. Splitter’s impact increased with his role. Parker revisited extended dominance.
When they won 50 times, scored the conference’s best record again and drew the most favorable foe in the West bracket?
They did not squander the opportunity a date with the maladroit, discombobulated Jazz presented.
The Jazz shot an average of 37 percent, and the points in the paint gulf in favor of the Spurs seemed wider and deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Gordon Hayward made one basket in the two outings at Energy Solutions Arena. Paul Millsap struggled to get going. Jefferson scored most of his points with Duncan draped all over him.
It gets tougher now, with opponents that can win on the road and, in some cases, do it with defense. The L.A. Clippers or Grizzlies come next, and both squads will drill at least one three-pointer in every game against the Spurs.
With a season and pride on the line, the Jazz finished 0-13 from downtown. They couldn’t shoot, and they didn’t have a clue.
Tyrone Cobrin will also take some heat for not giving Derrick Favors more burn and more opportunities to make a difference.
Randolph and Marc Gasol or Paul and Blake Griffin will give Popovich more to think about than the undersized tandem of Jefferson and Millsap. Guarding Paul or Mike Conley will require Parker to expend more energy than he did opposite an overmatched, regressing Devin Harris.
The Spurs will need Ginobili’s best and a few more 20-point outbursts from Duncan.
Leonard and Green will face tougher defensive assignments as the playoffs progress. Kevin Durant or Kobe Bryant, not to mention Rudy Gay or Caron Butler, will cause more headaches than Josh Howard, DeMarre Carroll and a budding Favors.
Parker was succinct and frank when assessing his team’s second conference semifinals appearance since 2008.
“We didn’t accomplish anything,” he said.
While advancing beyond the first round is hardly a reason to throw a parade, how the Spurs did it suggests they have what it takes to conquer the grind of four series.
If nothing else, San Antonio kept pace with Oklahoma City and Miami in the quest to deliver the most impressive bludgeoning in the postseason’s first two weeks. Until the Thunder raises a banner, as constituted, that team has not proven anything, either.
The Heat’s star trio knows that many pundits and fans will see anything less than a championship as a failure.
It gets a lot tougher, but this team has procured the right to be favored in its next match. If the Philadelphia 76ers can finish off the limping Chicago Bulls, the Spurs are guaranteed home-court advantage the rest of the way. San Antonio will host any Game 7 it plays from now until late June.
The Spurs’ 2011 playoff run ended with a forceful, sobering spanking April 29.
Thanks to a Stern-Hunter handshake and the tale of atonement that followed, after completing a sweep of the Jazz on May 7, this one is just beginning.