Tim Duncan turned 33 on Saturday and did something he never does on such an occasion: He lost a playoff game.
After getting thumped 88-67 in one of the worst postseason performances in franchise history, the Spurs promised a better game four effort. Duncan and Tony Parker gave Hall of Fame-caliber efforts, but the Mavericks still bested the Spurs 99-90.
Now, for the first time in his career, Duncan faces the possibility of a first round exit. The last time the Spurs bowed out in round one, 2000, Duncan did not play due to injury.
Down 3-1 to an opponent that has consistently displayed the heart of a choke artist, San Antonio is desperate.
The Spurs can win gave five at home if the Mavericks continue their pattern of responding poorly to nice victories. They are losing badly to a squad happy to win some fluke matchup advantages.
The series deficit says more about the Spurs deficiencies than the Mavericks playing great basketball. These Mavs lost in San Antonio 93-75 in February, when both Duncan and Manu Ginobili sat in street clothes. That final score should show observers which team is closer to a championship.
Yet, with Ginobili out for the playoffs and the role players off the mark, the Spurs look nothing like the poised, confident bunch that brought four titles to the Alamo City.
They played with gusto and grit, and got 68 points from the remaining "big two"—and it wasn't enough.
Duncan, ever the leader, took the blame for game three's embarrassment. He promised an attitude adjustment for Saturday.
"We're not going to play like that again," he said.
Duncan adjusted to the tune of 25 points and 10 rebounds, numbers that look a lot like what he has scored in so many enormous postseason contests.
Parker played the postseason game of his career, dumping 43 points on a not-salty Mavs defense. He scooped in layups, twisted around big guys and drilled jumper after jumper. He even drained two consecutive three-pointers.
Even with Parker scoring like George "Iceman" Gervin and Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki as non-factors, the Spurs struggled to stay close.
A brilliant 10-0 run for Parker in the fourth quarter plus treys from rookie George Hill brought the Spurs as close as three.
Oh, if the Mavericks do win this series, they will get their comeuppance in the next round. You can bet on it.
For now, the Spurs are left with one option. They must win game five as they did in 2006, when they also trailed the Mavericks 3-1.
This time, however, Ginobili will not be there to give them bailout play after bailout play. He had 30 points and 10 rebounds in the game six then that sent the series back to San Antonio for a winner-take-all contest.
Something else is missing for the Spurs. The supporting cast struggled to draw iron in both games at the American Airlines Center.
These Spurs, as constructed, cannot afford to make only nine three-pointers in two road outings. The long ball has become the team's lone effective weapon when defenses suffocate Parker and Duncan in the paint.
Popovich—once a purist who detested the idea of players camping behind the arc—now realizes how the game's most efficient shot can win championships.
As he watches his unathletic, aging roster struggle to score 90 points, he also sees how such shots can lose championships.
This is not a eulogy for the Spurs. They will be title contenders as long as Duncan wears silver and black. He is not called the greatest power forward to ever play for nothing. He boasts leadership skills and a killer instinct Nowitzki and many other All-Stars in these playoffs will never sniff.
Along with David Robinson, he took a supposed small market team to basketball heights such cities are not supposed to enjoy. NBA championships are reserved for Boston and Los Angeles, right?
He has spoiled San Antonio fans. There is no reason to believe he won't spoil them again.
It looks like this year, however, is out of the question.
Two plays in the final quarter explain why this club faces sudden death.
Down five with a minute to go, Popovich called a timeout. He drew up the shot he wanted. It was a perfect look. It was for Matt Bonner.
The shy, sheepish, sharpshooting forward-center bricked the trey attempt from the corner. He has been far-from-sharp in this series, shooting in the 30 percent range and constantly blowing defensive rotations.
With his frugal, "aw, shucks" attitude and starter-worthy production, Bonner was San Antonio's feel-good story.
R.C. Buford and Popovich wondered if Bonner was a bust. Why did they sign him to a three-year deal?
He reminded them throughout the season by drilling a sensational number of open threes and improving his defense.
His sans-pareil performance came against the defending champion Boston Celtics at TD Banknorth Garden. He poured in 23 points in front of two busloads of his New Hampshire fans.
Popovich noticed. Even after his game one dud in this series, Bonner was the unquestioned starter.
Perhaps now, Popovich sees the error of such misplaced trust.
Bonner is all of the things Popovich said he was after a game two win. He works earnestly, scraps and never takes his role for granted.
What was misplaced was the notion that such a limited player could produce ten points a game in a playoff pressure cooker.
The Lakers can play Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom up front alongside Pau Gasol. Even the Mavericks employ the cocky but athletic Ryan Hollins. Yeah, Hollins—the guy who taunted both Kobe Bryant and Duncan.
When Bonner gets open and he makes shots, along with Michael Finley and the other shooters, the Spurs look like champions. When they misfire as they did Thursday night and Saturday afternoon, Parker and Duncan cannot give the Spurs enough.
What has Duncan not given the Spurs since 1997? Besides maybe Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, is there another player this decade you would rather draft to start a franchise?
He shows up to every training camp in shape and has never threatened to not play defense if his teammates forget to dump him the ball. O'Neal did that once.
He has never berated or cussed out teammates in a YouTube video. Bryant did that.
He has also never lost on his birthday. His 33rd ended miserably for the Spurs.
There's a first time for everything.
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