Commentary

Bottom falls out on Spurs' ascent

After 20 straight wins, San Antonio Spurs rudely shown exit by fast-rising Thunder

Originally Published: June 7, 2012
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

SpursRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesSix wins away from a title after 10 straight playoff victories, the Spurs lost four straight to OKC.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- When it was over, Tim Duncan leaned back against a cinderblock wall in the visitors' locker room and braced for the uncomfortable questions he never dreamed he'd have to face so soon. The questions and the depressing math.

When it was over, Tony Parker zipped through his answers as fast as he's ever zoomed to the rim, keeping his sentences as short as he possibly could to get away from it all even quicker than the spotlight-loathing Duncan.

When it was over Wednesday night, Stephen Jackson couldn't bear to sit in the chair in front of his stall. He plopped down and sprawled out on the floor beneath the chair instead, presumably because that's as low as the San Antonio Spurs feel now, having cratered all the way from the crest of 20 wins in a row to four straight steamrollings inflicted by the Finals-bound Oklahoma City Thunder.

"It sucks," Jackson said after the media crowd around him dispersed, not quite believing that his near-perfect evening didn't do more to stop the young-no-more Thunder from closing out the Western Conference finals.

"But those mother------s," Jackson quickly conceded, "were just better than us."

[+] EnlargeSerge Ibaka
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesTony Parker's big night (29 points, 12 assists) wasn't enough to slow down the Thunder's rising youth.

Implausible as that might seem for the residents of South Texas who still remember how the West landscape looked as recently as last week, it's impossible to conclude otherwise now. Not after the Thunder, erasing any remaining doubt, spotted the visitors an 18-point lead, still trailed by 15 at halftime and then discombobulated the Spurs one last time to seize a 107-99 triumph in this clinching Game 6 at a typically raucous Chesapeake Energy Arena.

The even years have always been unkind to the Duncan-era Spurs, but this turnaround -- this sudden plunge from supposed invincibility to deep despair -- seemed particularly cruel. For Duncan especially.

A week ago, Duncan sat six wins away from his first even-year championship and fifth overall, with Oklahoma City stuffed in a 2-0 hole that seemed insurmountable against the most dynamic (and yet still robotically efficient) edition of the Spurs ever assembled. Four games later, Duncan's 25 points and 14 boards at age 36 -- yet another throwback performance in a surprising season full of them -- went for naught in a fourth straight L, comfortably eclipsed by the 34 points, 14 rebounds and five assists amassed by a 23-year-old named Kevin Durant.

A 23-year-old who happened to play every second of the 48 minutes that, with Russell Westbrook and James Harden likewise doing plenty of damage and Derek Fisher throwing in a couple of his trademark Spur-killing daggers, officially stretched San Antonio's title drought to a full five seasons.

A half-decade.

The longest span without a crown in Duncan's best-of-his-generation career.

"I thought this was definitely our time," Duncan said, putting words to the disappointment that was so clear in those unmistakable eyes.

"A time to get back to the Finals. A time to push for another championship."

It really should have been San Antonio's time, given what we know about 2-0 leads in the NBA playoffs and how they hold up nearly 95 percent of the time in a seven-game series, but the Thunder just kept pushing back. There's really never been anyone like them -- good enough to win it all in the present when they also rank as the NBA's Team of the Future -- and San Antonio couldn't cope when Oklahoma City distinguished itself even further by changing its personality in the middle of this very series.

"They made the extra pass," Parker said glumly, forced to settle for 29 points and 12 assists after racking up a whopping 21 and 10 by halftime, hounded to the finish line again by pick-and-roll D from OKC that was never this effective in these teams' regular-season encounters.

Said Jackson, who drained his first six attempts from 3-point range and finished with 23 points off the bench in the latest display of his self-proclaimed proclivity to "make love" to playoff pressure: "When they figured it out in Game 3, when they started playing together, they became the better team. That's what we do. When we won those 20 [consecutive] games, we were playing together. But now these guys are playing together and, I'm telling you, they're hard to beat."

Even for a team that didn't lose for 50 days until it got to OKC for Game 3.

"Great, great stuff," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said in tribute, focusing much of his brief postgame address on the Thunder's breakthrough as opposed to the pain of Duncan's lost chance.

Not long after reminding the assembled press that the Thunder will be the first West entrant in the Finals outside of the Lakers-Spurs-Mavericks triumvirate since Utah in 1998, Popovich could be spotted in the hallway congratulating Thunder architect/Spurs alumnus Sam Presti.

About his own team, though, Pop left you with the impression that, for once, he wasn't quite sure how to react. He made the claim at the postgame podium that "in many ways this group may have overachieved," but it's a little late to start selling the Spurs as plucky after they won 50 games in a 66-game season, started the playoffs 10-0, had Duncan openly claiming to be feeling better physically than he has since San Antonio's last championship in 2007 and sported the healthiest, deepest roster San Antonio has seen in years.

There are actually some similarities to the Spurs' playoff run in 2004, when they lost four straight to the Lakers after taking a 2-0 series lead that stretched their winning streak at the time to a tidy 17 games. Of course, Duncan was only 28 then. Championships would follow in 2005 and 2007. No one in the West, back then, could imagine a rising force like the Thunder in their worst nightmares.

Now? Writing the Spurs off is pure folly after the six months they just had -- after they rebuilt themselves into a title contender without a single lottery pick on the squad beyond Duncan -- but San Antonio's unquestioned front-office acumen isn't the determining factor any longer. The assurances Duncan has given management that he'd like to play another two seasons (yes, plural) if his body continues to cooperate can't change the demoralizing realization that the Thunder are only going to get better.

"They've got all the pieces," Jackson said. "Their talent just overwhelmed us."

Nasty, huh?

Not the kind Pop or Jack likes, either.

Parker and Manu Ginobili at least have the luxury of a trip to the London Olympics with their respective national teams to eventually start thinking about something else, but the opportunity that the Spurs have squandered is sure to stay with their 30-somethings for some time.

"Everyone," Parker said, "is sad."

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics