SAN ANTONIO — Injuries weren’t a factor for once. Neither was depth. The San Antonio Spurs finally were healthy, and had the supporting talent and even the momentum of a historic winning streak crafted at the perfect time to become NBA champions again.
And it still wasn’t enough.
“I thought this was definitely our time. Our time to get back to the finals. Our time to push for another championship,” Spurs forward Tim Duncan said. “That was our singular goal, and obviously, it ends here.”
He meant this season. But it might also be a deeper truth.
On Thursday, coach Gregg Popovich passed on speculating what’s next after the Duncan era-Spurs possibly saw their championship window close shut — for real this time.
Duncan, who is 36 and now without a contract, has suggested this year that he is leaning toward returning for at least a 16th season, but there are no guarantees.
The Spurs were up 2-0 on Oklahoma City and appeared to be a lock for the NBA Finals, before the young and hungry Thunder finished a stunning turnaround Wednesday night to win the Western Conference.
“We all want more. It hurts every day,” Popovich said. “It’ll pass eventually.”
It’s become cliche to declare every Spurs’ run that doesn’t end with a championship The End. The Spurs, after all, have defied their supposed demise and advancing age every year since their last title in 2007. No NBA team has more wins in the last three seasons than the Spurs, who just last week were steamrolling on a 20-game tear that stands as the fourth-longest winning streak in history.
Then it unraveled, and fast.
But this time Manu Ginobili wasn’t hobbling through the playoffs with a freshly dinged elbow (2011) or sitting out altogether (2009). Tony Parker wasn’t banged-up (2010) and there was no glaring lack of “firepower” (2009) that made it abundantly clear why the Spurs so suddenly came unglued and lost four in a row for the first time all season.
Injuries won’t haunt the Spurs with “what ifs” this summer. And it’s hard to find fault within a roster that Popovich called his deepest ever and pundits lauded as a near-perfect mix of veteran savvy and young athleticism running the second-highest scoring offense in the NBA to almost flawless perfection for 50 unbeaten days.
The explanation from Popovich instead was simple, and perhaps a little revealing.
“We faced a team that beat us fair and square. We reached our limit,” Popovich said.
After the final loss in Oklahoma City, Duncan didn’t extinguish the possibility he’ll retire Wednesday night but spoke several times this season as though he’ll return. Popovich said Thursday talks with the star haven’t begun.
Duncan, among the league’s highest-paid players this year at $21 million, would certainly come back at a cheaper price that might give the Spurs more flexibility to tinker. Parker, who turned 30 last month, is under contract for two more years and just put together the best all-around season of his career, having finished fifth in the MVP voting.
Rookie Kawhi Leonard is considered a star in the making within the Spurs. Ginobili, 34, is signed for one more year and so is veteran swingman Stephen Jackson, who had 23 points off the bench in Game 6.
The vaunted Spurs’ depth that Jackson headlined, however, disappeared as the series with the Thunderdragged on. Danny Green, the unheralded and undrafted swingman who became an unlikely starter midway through the season, lost not only his starting job but playing time altogether by Game 5. Big men Matt Bonner (1 of 9 in the series) and Tiago Splitter also played their way out of the rotation.
Following last season, Parker returned to France and famously told reporters the Spurs were likely done as contenders. While Oklahoma City celebrated being the first new Western Conference champion in 14 years, in the visiting locker room Wednesday night, Parker declined to speculate on where the Spurs go from here.
Ginobili had an idea.
“Same place we’ve been going the last eight years,” Ginobili said. “We’ve been always old. We’ve been always criticized for that. We still compete. We won the West — well, regular season, of course. We are fine. We trust Pop and (general manager) R.C. (Buford) to make good decisions, bring talent. I think they did an unbelievable job this year. I think we had the best record in the league. I mean, what else you can expect, right?”
That’s what the Spurs might be asking themselves all summer.