OAKLAND, Calif. — Gregg Popovich manages Tim Duncan’s minutes all season long as if he were a pastry chef baking a souffle. Too long in the oven and everything can fall flat.
“It’s what we do,” says the Spurs coach.
Except how many coaches would do it with a two-point lead in the final 4 1/2 minutes of a close-out game in a playoff series that always seemed on edge?
But there were a couple of weak jumpers that seemed to come off tired legs and then an absent-minded crosscourt pass that nearly took the bald head right off the shoulders of referee Joey Crawford and wound up in the stands.
So that’s how Duncan came to watch the final scenes of his 200th career playoff game, a 94-82 win over the Warriors that put his Spurs back into the Western Conference finals.
“I don’t think he was giving me a break,” Duncan said, ruefully smiling and shaking his head. “I think I had played three or four pretty bad minutes in a row and he decided to go with something else.
“It is what it is and we were able to finish the series. I wish I could be out there, but honestly the way we playing and the way we finished it was the right move. So I’m happy for it.”
It is what it is and the Spurs are what they are, which is a more experienced, more mature, just plain better team than the one that bolted to a 2-0 lead over Oklahoma City in the conference finals in 2012 and then was steamrolled out in four straight defeats.
They’re a team that could have Tony Parker make only 1 of his first 13 shots and survive. They’re a team that could have Manu Ginobili go 1-for-6 and still advance. They’re a team that could have their 14-time NBA All-Star Duncan get the hook in the clutch and still go into the next round against the rugged Grizzlies as the team to beat.
“Oh, it won’t be pretty,” Duncan said looking ahead to the mud-wrestling match with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. But then again, neither was this and yet the Spurs somehow made it look like a work of art.
Maybe nobody but Popovich could have gotten away with sitting Duncan down at that critical point in the game. After Stephen Curry hit a jumper from the key to cut the Spurs’ lead to 77-75, Duncan made his wildly inaccurate pass and the Oracle crowd rose for one last deafening roar.
“I just made that choice,” Popovich said.
Probably no superstar of his stature would have accepted the seat on the bench with Duncan’s aplomb.
“Of course, as a player you want to be in there competing,” he said. “But you had other guys in there getting the job done, so it was obviously the thing to do.”
It is that union of coach and star, that steadiness that has enabled the Spurs to advance to the Conference finals for the eighth time — with four championships already — in Duncan’s career.
There was a time — just two years ago — when the Spurs were the No. 1 seed in the West and were unceremoniously run out of the playoffs by the No. 8-seeded Grizzlies. It was a series when Duncan limped in on a bad ankle, Ginobili played with what was later found to be a fractured elbow and the Spurs’ bench faltered. So Popovich chose to roll the dice with last-gasp veteran Antonio McDyess over a rookie named Tiago Splitter.
Two seasons later, Splitter was hitting 6 of 8 shots, scoring 14 points, grabbing four rebounds and holding his own on the inside of the defense while Duncan became a spectator.
Duncan and Ginobili are older now, but the Spurs are deeper with Splitter, Danny Green and the quietly deadly force of Kawhi Leonard stepping up. They’re a team that can see the in-full-bloom Parker miss 12 of his first 13 shots in the game and be confident that he’ll make the right choices and hit the big shots when needed.
Ginobili won the incredible double-overtime Game 1 of the series by hitting the game-winning shot on a night when he was 5-for-20 from the field. And even though he could hardly find the basket in Game 6, twice in the last three minutes, he drove toward the hoop, drew the defense to him and delivered perfect passes into the left corner that produced treys from Parker and Leonard.
The Spurs’ core that looked old and tired the last time they faced Memphis in the playoffs is older now, yet playing spryer because Popovich is so diligent about managing those minutes. However, there is also fresh blood running through those veins in Leonard, Green and Splitter that makes much of what’s happening this season possible.
Even stunning things like Duncan watching from the bench in the close-out stretch of a close-out game and nobody thinking twice.
It’s what they do.