By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
SAN ANTONIO — Tick, tick, tick.
Tim Duncan has flecks of gray in the stubble on his face. Manu Ginobili’s hairline is sprinting a customarily frantic fast break in reverse on his scalp. Even the one-time teen-aged phenom Tony Parker has what polite company calls laugh lines running from the corners of his mouth.
Time waits for no one, not even the Spurs. Yet here is the so-called Big Three simultaneously pushing back against the sunset and deeper into the record book.
The years have practically blended them together into one multi-syllabic name with a single identity.
They were together again in the fourth quarter Wednesday night, side by side on the Spurs’ bench, spectators to watch the mop-up crew in a 112-77 rolling of the Thunder that wasn’t that close.
It was their 111th playoff victory as teammates, leaping Duncan, Parker and Ginobili past Lakers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper as the winningest postseason trio in NBA history.
Tick, tick, tick.
One minute an Argentine, a Frenchman and a swimmer from the Virgin Islands were learning the fundamentals of a basketball language and, a dozen years later, it is as if they were all born speaking a common tongue.
Everyone moves. Everyone cuts. Everyone passes the ball like it was radioactive. Everyone finds the open man. Everyone is for everyone.
There is a video tribute to the Spurs circulating online called “The Beautiful Game.”
Truth is, on nights like Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, all that’s missing are a sash, a tiara and a runway to show off their stuff.
Of course, the last time the Spurs held a 2-0 lead in this same round of the playoffs in 2012, they went to Oklahoma City and the bottom dropped out as they lost four straight and the series.
The Thunder are playing without James Harden, gone off to Houston, and the fact that there are scant offensive options behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is obvious and makes it lopsided. That OKC is also playing without its shot-blocking, rim-protecting anchor in the middle Serge Ibaka, due to a calf injury, practically makes it unfair.
Tick, tick, tick.
There are explosive devices on timers up and down the Spurs’ roster. In Game 1, it was those huge paws of Kawhi Leonard that grabbed control and would never let go. In Game 2, Danny Green strafed them with seven 3-pointers that probably made the Thunder defenders want to hit the deck and just cover their heads.
It is simple, timeless, elegant basketball that can only come from years spent together and a core of star players who are unique in an era of free agent team-hopping and trophy-chasing.
“We take nothing for granted,” Parker said. “We know how lucky we are.”
The milestone as the winningest combination ever?
“Until you said it I have never heard about it, so I haven’t thought about it,” said Duncan. “It’s a wonderful accomplishment, as a lot of the things we’ve done as a trio. But our only focus, our only concern right know is winning this series and moving on.”
They have been able to keep moving — never once missing the playoffs in their dozen years together, seven times reaching the conference finals, four trips to the NBA Finals and three championships — because they have all chosen to give up some chunk of money and some piece of individual glory for the whole.
Durant and Westbrook bark and bicker at each other in timeouts and as they walk off the court at halftime. Meanwhile the Spurs could teach a barbershop quartet a thing or two about harmony.
None of them played as much as 30 minutes per game this season. Parker was their leading scorer with a meager 16.7 average. All of it to be ready for this time of the year and the playoffs.
“I always think about our guys and their stats,” said coach Gregg Popovich. “They really get screwed sometimes, playing for me. If you win 62 games, and some of them are by a decent margin, I bet our guys play fewer fourth quarter minutes than most good players on any team. I’d be willing to bet that. It hurts their stats, without a doubt, but luckily I’ve got players who don’t think about that.”
What they think about is the different ways and the different plays that can turn a 36-33 OKC advantage four minutes into the second quarter into a 58-44 lead by halftime that becomes a merciless chokehold.
Ginobili whips a left-handed pass to Green in the corner for a wide-open 3. Parker slices through the Thunder defense for devilish layups and feeds to his teammates. Even Tiago Splitter shows off his dishing skills with a nifty give-and-go play with Parker and then sets the table for Duncan right at the hoop.
It’s the beautiful game, the way the Spurs have been painting it with a master’s brush for years.
While it’s fitting that they have their place in the record book, a gold frame would be more appropriate.