If there were any lingering questions about the aging San Antonio Spurs' fitness for title contention, they were answered when Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili overcame a huge early deficit and then found an extra gear in overtime to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies by a final score of 104-93 in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
Each member of the original Big Three was terrific, but Duncan was particularly brilliant. The 16-year veteran put up 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists on 11-of-19 shooting in 44 minutes. Even more impressively, he absolutely dominated in overtime, scoring seven points in the extra period.
For some reason, those late-game heroics seemed oddly familiar.
Oh, right! That's because Duncan did virtually the same thing in Game 2, scoring six critical points to ensure the 93-89 victory.
Teams as old as the Spurs—and players as old as Duncan is, for that matter—are supposed to run out of gas down the stretch, not hit the nitrous button. The Spurs went all Fast and Furious on the Grizzlies, though, stunning them by mashing the pedal down and pulling away down the stretch.
Duncan's refusal to surrender in the face of fatigue is something of a metaphor for the way San Antonio has managed to keep its championship window propped open for more than a decade. The doubtful assertions are the same every year: The Spurs can't do it anymore. They're too old, too slow and one key injury away from finally slipping out of contention.
You know what else happens every year? The Spurs contend.
And as everyone who's been watching knows, they do it by relying on their steady veterans.
To be fair, Parker was anything but steady in the early going, as his four first-quarter turnovers were probably the biggest reason behind Gregg Popovich's wholesale substitutions with just under five minutes remaining in the period. But the crafty point guard was undaunted and recovered to score 26 points while dishing out five assists.
Plus, Ginobili turned in a vintage performance, providing plenty of herky-jerky moves and some savant-like drives en route to 19 points, five assists and seven rebounds in 30 ridiculously efficient minutes off the bench. The Argentine played like a younger version of himself in Game 3, and to him, the questions about the Spurs' age hardly even matter anymore.
But in the end, it was Duncan who pushed his team over the edge. He was masterful at the elbow in the late stages of the game, hitting jumpers, finding cutters and executing the Spurs' precise offense with unparalleled skill.
In the overtime period, his leadership was largely responsible for an offensive diet composed almost entirely of high-percentage looks.
It was a true clinic, and even the guys around the league who have watched more tape than anyone were duly impressed.
Popovich deserves a healthy amount of credit for what the Spurs have done lately, as well. His sense for when to chastise his players and when to let them work through trouble on their own has resulted in a remarkably resilient outfit. In the last couple of years, no team has managed to win more games that appeared out of reach than his Spurs.
If you step back and think about it, it's really kind of hard to explain where the Spurs are getting their energy from. It's possible that they really do sense that their run is coming to a close and they've resolved to leave everything on the floor. Or maybe they've just been through so many wars together that they know they can overcome anything.
After all, confidence goes a long way. And the Spurs have plenty of it.
Whatever the explanation, one thing's for sure: This San Antonio team is as good as it's ever been, which is really saying something.
As has been the case for what seems like forever, San Antonio's championship window remains open. And that's because Duncan, the best player of his generation, simply won't let it slam shut.