Game 4. Western Conference semis.
A little over five minutes left in the game with the Spurs down by five to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers had been outworking the Spurs all game. Getting every 50/50 ball. During the timeout, Spurs Zenologist Gregg Popovich explained to his team that, basically, they were getting outhustled. In the middle of making his point to the team, he said, "I'm serious." He didn't yell it or raise his voice or place heavy emphasis on either word when he said it. He just … said it.
Then the clinic began. Just like that (with the help of Chris Paul, who scored seven down the stretch but also took a bad one-handed shot attempt and had a turnover followed by another off-balance shot attempt in the lane), it's 102-99, Spurs. Game over. Series over. Another sweep. On to the next one.
Call it resolve. Efficiency. Precision. Hunger. Pride. Invent a word. Just admit: It's been a while since we've seen something like this.
At this point, at this moment, going into this series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs are not just the best team playing the best ball in these 2012 NBA playoffs, they might be the best Spurs team we've ever seen -- one that would probably beat any of the four Spurs teams that won championships -- and possibly one of the best in this modern era.
Yes, it is premature to go there only eight wins into a 16-win odyssey. But everyone knows, even the people who go back with the Spurs to James Silas and Billy Paultz, that over an almost-three-month span the Spurs have looked (honestly, now) as flawless as any team we've seen since the 1995-96 Bulls.
Since March 2, they have lost only five games. They've played 38.
This is a machine. This is the Green Bay Packers before Week 15. The '01 Seattle Mariners before the ALCS. The '07 New England Patriots before the Super Bowl. Tiger before Thanksgiving 2009. Gretzky before the trade to Los Angeles. Mayweather Jr. leading up to a hypothetical Pacquiao fight.
This is what OKC is up against. Something stronger than nonfiction. This isn't the Dallas team that stopped the Thunder from getting to the Finals last season. (Note: If last year's Mavs had met this Spurs team, the league would have stopped the series after three games to save Dirk Nowitzki and Co. from a beatdown.) If what we've seen so far in these playoffs continues, if they win the title, the Spurs could become the prototype of how all NBA teams in the future decide to build their franchises.
The word that keeps coming up when conversation of the Spurs occurs is "reborn." Manu Ginobili is reborn. Tim Duncan is reborn. Boris Diaw, since coming over in late March, has been reborn. Tony Parker is born again.
But the truth is there is no true rebirth of the Spurs as much as there has been a brilliant example of roster restructuring by Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford. They finally surrounded the Duncan/Parker/Ginobili DNA with three-dimensional ballers as opposed to one-dimensional spot-up shooters.
Even Nowitzki admired their work during a recent radio interview: "To me, he's the best coach in the league, he's a genius on both ends of the floor … they draft people in the second round that nobody gives them a shot and they turn them into players. They have an amazing franchise and they really do a great job finding people that play well in their system and Pop makes them believe in their system.
It's that genius that the Thunder need to fear and respect, but not bow down to. Facing Pop is a whole level above facing Rick Carlisle.
Popovich is two series wins away from ascending in the G.O.A.T. coaching conversation, if not Red Auerbach/Phil Jackson, at least joining Pat Riley. He could carve his spot in the Mount Rushmore of NBA coaches.
And if you don't think every one of the Spurs players isn't thinking about that -- how that drives them and how that will validate what they've been subliminally saying about Pop all of these years -- then you are as lost as the millions of people who refuse to jump on this bandwagon while it's rolling at max speed. Like I just did.
The Spurs, who were knocked out in the first round two of the previous three seasons, finally have their core players healthy, and at some point Stephen Jackson is going to make them look like geniuses for getting him back.
There's no need to go any further. No need to repeat what Bill Simmons, John Hollinger and J.A. Adande have already written. No need to remind all of the ESPN NBA experts and insiders of how few of us picked the Spurs to be in the Finals and how none of us saw this coming. No need to say, "Damn, the Spurs get so little love that Duncan had to split last week's cover of Sports Illustrated with a high school player."
These ain't your grandmother's Spurs. This is a new and improved team. This isn't "The West Wing," it's "Boss." This is the new definition of serious.
In his "A Champion Will Rise" playoff commercial for the NBA, Kevin Durant sits atop the rafters where he hopes one day a championship banner will hang for OKC and says, "I don't see a team with nothing to say. I see a team ready to make a statement."
So do we. But right now the team making the more impressive statement happens to be the one he's about to play against, not the one he's playing for.