The late-game villains varied, but the results did not. Raymond Felton, Zach Randolph, Andre Miller, Nicolas Batum, Gerald Wallace, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin should not expect free meals in San Antonio anytime soon.
The Spurs lost more consecutive games than they ever had since Tim Duncan donned silver and black.
As the losses mounted, frustration and anxiety in the Alamo City seemed to stand taller than a sagging defense. Fans, in their minds, prepared for a plunge into that muddy river. Even this writer considered opening the proverbial window to join the thousands of others on the ledge.
Gripping pain accompanied each agonizing moment. San Antonio did not surrender with Duncan in street clothes. Instead, the defeats hurt more because the Spurs had done everything possible without their captain to pocket some stirring victories.
If it wasn’t Tony Parker going under late-game screens involving Felton, it was Miller heisting the Frenchman and tossing a contest-winning lob to Batum. If it wasn’t Manu Ginobili bricking a critical free throw in Houston, it was Parker, Ginobili and George Hill failing to get the ball across the timeline, which would have sealed a triumph moments later.
If it wasn’t Matt Bonner wilting against Randolph and Marc Gasol, it was Bonner and the other supposed dead-eye shooters gift-wrapping Boston’s second-half surge.
Sunday’s merciless thrashing of the Steve Nash-less Phoenix Suns did not cure all ills or ease the sense of panic in South Texas, but maybe the 114-97 win should have done that. The grand lesson after a stunning March stumble should inspire hope, both within the locker room and in the minds of frightened, trembling San Antonio supporters.
Maybe stunning isn’t the right word. Gregg Popovich, after all, blames all of the franchise’s successes on Duncan. The do-it-all anchor's absence, then, is more than a convenient excuse.
The Spurs clinched the Southwest Division title Sunday night, when the Dallas Mavericks lost at the Rose Garden. If they can sweep the three games on this week’s slate, and the L.A. Lakers lose one of their two matches versus the Oklahoma City Thunder or Portland Trail Blazers, they’ll lock up the Western Conference’s top seed, too.
The cushion San Antonio built in the season’s first four months might save a plummeting squad from the indignity of a collapse into the second spot. Although more importantly, it will aid the Spurs as they continue a quest to maintain home-court advantage tonight in Atlanta.
The Hawks will trot out a lineup brimming with high-flyers who could crush the field at a long-jump competition, but lady luck might have grounded Atlanta's 747. Josh Smith skies to the rim the way Richard Jefferson used to, but he will miss tonight's contest.
The shooters don’t seem to mind if a hand is there to contest, but when they go cold, their temperature rivals Antarctica's. Joe Johnson and Al Horford broke the Spurs the previous March in another overtime tussle that got away, but another reason for desperation changes the equation.
Duncan is the biggest reason to believe Ginobili, Hill and Parker will find a way to secure possession if San Antonio is up three with 38 seconds remaining. These final five regular-season dates could be the last ones of Duncan’s Hall of Fame career, and the Spurs will approach the run up to June with that in mind.
If no one jumped in the River Walk during or after the streak, the once-vaunted defense sure did. The team has allowed opponents to shoot 48 percent and score 101 points in March. None of the alarming numbers on that side of the ball suggest a title is within reach.
Yet, numerous factors have skewed those statistics. Such as: Vince Carter dropped four of his five buckets Sunday afternoon in garbage time, when the defensive focus was duller than a plastic knife trying to cut through steel. Three of those baskets came with Jefferson’s right hand covering his former teammate’s kisser.
The garbage time lineup included Steve Novak, and the opponent’s points come in bunches when he plays. The final score did not do the day’s carnage justice. Phoenix, at one point, trailed by 31 and was shooting 39 percent.
Duncan's presence still makes a massive difference. That was apparent in Friday's second half, when the Rockets shot 5-17 in the third period and 9-23 in the deadlocked fourth frame. This came after the Rockets raced to 54 percent shooting and 64 first-half points.
As much as the defense appears as cause for worry, the motivation Duncan's situation provides should keep silver and black followers off that ledge for good.
No one can know what the 34-year-old will decide two weeks before a playoff run that might alter every plan in his packed cranium. It is not absurd to suggest, though, that a lockout could sway Duncan to leave basketball for good. If a work stoppage forces the cancellation of the 2011-2012 campaign, how will his body respond to a mandatory one-year vacation from the rigors of the 82-game grind?
Popovich would prefer not to imagine the day his franchise star leaves, but a looming labor fight leaves him no choice. Duncan's teammates, even the freshmen, know better than to take his standing near the basket for granted.
Some see the recent six-game skid as evidence, perhaps proof, the Spurs will fizzle come April and May. I see the opposite.
No postseason opponent has ever toppled the Duncan-era Spurs with less than their best. A parade of meltdowns in mid-March said as much.
Could the Grizzlies, Rockets, Blazers, Nuggets and Celtics have played better basketball? Randolph unearthed his Grade-A, two-way game, Lowry knotted the score with a jumper that two years ago would have ranked in his arsenal as a Grade-F shot and Rondo peppered his foes with jumpers even the Lakers were willing to cede him last June.
It took every tactic and made basket imaginable for these playoff-ready outfits to nip a squad missing its centerpiece. Yet, some can still guarantee the Spurs will exit in the second round, maybe the opening one, because the NBA's librarian delivered a quiet "shhhhhh."
Duncan will fall to Father Time's ruthless ways, sure. But not this spring. In his return from an ankle sprain, he posted consecutive 20-10 outings.
His lateral quickness has diminished, he clangs bunnies now and his always limited leaping faculty betrays him more than ever. At times, he looks every bit of 34 going on 35.
This is not the moment, though, to stop expecting Duncan's finest. He built a career on acumen more than athleticism, and he remains equipped to survive his own shortcomings. That Parker and Ginobili opened Sunday's noon laugher by finding him twice on the low block shows they still believe the same.
Popovich wondered aloud after an overtime giveaway that never should have required extra minutes, if his team possessed the title-worthy fortitude he demands.
“We’re going to see what we are made out of. If we can dig down deeper, we’ll see if we are worth the way we played this season or not,” he told the San Antonio Express-News.
Call me insane if you must, but I think Duncan can help the Spurs locate a few shovels. Why waste one of the greatest regular seasons in franchise history?
Any analyst sure a team with No. 21 on it will fold should reconsider that misguided view. The Lakers, Mavericks and Suns eliminated the Spurs in the previous three years, but how San Antonio fought then portends a powerful, passionate push now.
Ginobili limped through the 2008 Western Conference Finals and was unavailable in the 2009 first round. The Lakers had to erase three 20-point deficits and Bryant delivered two supreme second-half scoring barrages no Spur could answer.
Brandon Bass and J.J. Barea opened that fateful first-round series by ducking the scouting report odds. Last year's Suns? Phoenix's lethal outside gunners did not net close to as many open three-point looks as the Spurs do today. The lasting image of that sweep: Gordan Dragic nailing a contested trey after a George Hill bump. Suns coach Alvin Gentry responded to the play with an eruption heard even in the AT&T Center's upper bowl: "Jesus Christ!"
There is no reason to believe it will take anything less to topple San Antonio's latest edition.
Popovich can understand the Lakers not fretting about the top seed. He has touted them as the favorites since opening night and still considers his squad inferior. This writer has said the same.
The Lakers, though, might drown in deep water if they thought a series with the Spurs would prove as facile and hasty as their fans do. Bryant and Jackson know better than to book late May hotel reservations in Oklahoma City.
Look beyond the Spurs? None of the opponents in that six-game losing streak did. San Antonio's first-round foe will approach defending Duncan and his teammates as if they must halt a last stand. Why wouldn't the Spurs treat another playoff appearance the same way?
When Courtney Lee picked off Hill at the midcourt logo and coasted in for a lay up to pull the Rockets within one, Popovich scowled and threw his hands up. Perhaps he saw how Houston had to scrap and claw, sans a superstar presence, just to stave off postseason elimination, and maybe he knew his Spurs were headed for that.
Ginobili and Parker began Sunday's critical match as if they realized the same. Time is indeed running out on Duncan.
Popovich and the players tasted life without him in the first four defeats. They know what they will resemble in a year or two.
Start digging? Has a team with Duncan on it ever done anything else?