OKLAHOMA CITY — Sometimes the qualities that prevail are quiet, slow…almost unnoticeable.
No one goes to an NBA game looking to admire someone’s endurance, and the marathon is never going to be a compelling sporting event to watch, no matter how much mental and physical strength it takes to do it and especially win it.
The San Antonio Spurs have a way of reminding us of winning characteristics that we overlook in our fast-paced, entertainment-desiring lives.
Their perseverance won out Saturday night.
It brought them through overtime in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the high-rising Oklahoma City Thunder in much the same way Tim Duncan, 38, has kept plugging away for 17 seasons while amazingly staying at the top of his craft.
This season’s schedule is not yet complete for the Spurs after their 112-107 victory Saturday night, a shot at vengeance against the Miami Heat now awaiting them in the NBA Finals.
That the Spurs got there via this overtime thriller was appropriate, leaning on their unsung depth of talent as opposed to high-end talent when top weapon Tony Parker sat out the entire second half with a sprained left ankle.
Even more poetic was Duncan’s dominance of the overtime minutes—no matter that Duncan has played more playoff minutes (8,737) than anyone but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ever in the NBA.
“I just wanted to do something to help the team,” Duncan said.
It’s such a long season—especially when Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili are, as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich put it late Saturday night, “older than dirt”—that Popovich’s dual-goal achievement was remarkable: the best record in the league while utilizing almost everyone on his roster.
Popovich even dared to get Duncan extra rest in the fourth quarter after Duncan had stripped off his warm-up shirt in preparation for returning to Game 6 with 6:36 left in the final frame. Without Duncan, the Spurs’ lead dwindled from eight to two points before his return.
It appeared a poor choice until Duncan still had the wind and power to rule overtime, outscoring Oklahoma City single-handedly, 7-6. Meanwhile, Thunder 25-year-old stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook shot a combined 1-of-10 from the field in overtime, and 24-year-old Serge Ibaka was doubled over at the waist at one point in overtime from fatigue.
It’s easy to forget the very game of basketball hinges on endurance, so much running that Durant winds up with 52 minutes of high-usage court time in this game—and he trips over his own feet for a turnover on a crucial possession near the end of regulation and misses a tying three-pointer with 16.9 seconds left in overtime.
Perhaps the normally relentless Westbrook would’ve blocked Duncan’s last, slow-developing shot if Westbrook hadn’t been so gassed that he paused to gather himself before going after it.
“We left it on the floor,” Westbrook said. “They made some plays at the end, and they won.”
After the game, it was interesting to hear Duncan explain the key to the Spurs’ success this season: They realized they needed to let up along the way and think long-term. They were burning their reserves too early while still angry about blowing that five-point lead in the final 28.2 seconds of Game 6 against Miami and then not finishing Game 7, either.
“We were able to settle ourselves down,” Duncan said.
So they endured. They’ve gotten where they wanted to go with the whole slow-and-steady-wins approach.
So even after the long, tough game, Duncan was clearly energized.
“We’re happy to have another opportunity at it; we’re happy that it’s the Heat again,” Duncan said. “We’ll be ready for them.”
Parker not playing this second half was another long-view decision by the Spurs. They kept it quiet, but he sprained the ankle in Game 4, aggravated it in Game 5 and was out on the court in the dark of the Thunder’s Game 6 lineup introductions testing it with a variety of cutting drills.
At the same time, Popovich was warning Ginobili he might have to play point guard in Parker’s place, even though Ginobili hadn’t all season.
Ginobili did just that in overtime—with the Spurs’ open-floor team offense dumbed down to individual plays, including several for Duncan to make Oklahoma City pay for its an undersized lineup that switched assignments on every Spurs screen.
“Timmy came through, and we went to him,” Popovich said.
Popovich and Duncan have now together won 145 playoff games, by far the most of any coach-player combo in NBA history. (Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant are second with 118.) They’ve been going through this whole process for so long, yet they’re still so hungry to compete and win.
In a light moment before the game, Popovich made a rare personal revelation, saying: “The worst part of my job is sitting in a hotel waiting for a (night) game. It can be regular season or playoffs, it doesn’t matter. It just seems like wasted time in life.”
Even after so many runs at it, they still can’t wait to get to work and get closer to their ultimate goal, which sits awfully close now.
With the victory, Duncan and Ginobili held their post-buzzer hug for an extra beat on the court, the kind you savor a little more when you’ve fought so long that you have to fall into someone else’s arms.
The Spurs could grab the Jimmy John’s sandwiches ordered up to replenish themselves postgame and can now take four days off for Parker’s ankle to heal instead of playing a Game 7 against the Thunder on Monday night.
The NBA Finals will start Thursday night in San Antonio, where the Spurs are 9-1 this postseason and won their three games over Oklahoma City, the NBA’s next-best road team, by an average of 26.7 points.
Back home, the Spurs have long had a Jacob Riis quote up in their locker room, posted by Popovich even before he and Duncan came together, to remind the players about the value of perseverance.
“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
This enduring stuff isn’t just what won it for the Spurs on Saturday night. It’s the very foundation of their excellence.
And even Popovich stands impressed at how well they’ve fulfilled that vision this season, applauding the team’s “unbelievable amount of fortitude” to power-walk all the way back from the disappointment a year ago in Miami.
“If I can compliment my own team, humbly, to have that tough loss, especially the Game 6, and not have a pity party, and come back this year and get back to the same position, I think that’s fortitude,” Popovich said. “And I’m really proud of them and even happier for them.”
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.