The last time I was a strong liberated fan of the San Antonio Spurs was 2001; over a decade ago. Last night was deja vu all over again.
I was 15 years old, and I hated the Lakers with a fiery passion. Since the Spurs had the best shot of beating the Lakers, I rooted for them. I also enjoyed that Spurs team -- Tim Duncan was entering his prime, David Robinson was still decent, and they had gotten younger and more athletic with Derek Anderson and Antonio Daniels. They also picked up Steve Kerr, one of my favorites from the long-dismantled Bulls team. There were far more unlikeable teams. It also looked like they had a shot against the Lakers. They had beat the Wolves three games to one in the first round, and then the Mavericks four games to one in the second. Plus, they were the first seed, so they had home court advantage going into the series. I was hopeful.
The Lakers won the first game handily in San Antonio, 104-90. The Spurs had lost Derek Anderson to a separated shoulder in the previous round (thanks, Juwan Howard) and could not answer Kobe Bryant's efforts. However, there was a second game, and I was hopeful. I thought the Spurs were the perfect team to deliver a solid punch to the Lakers, who at that point were a perfect 8-0 in the playoffs. I really believed they could win that second game, and turn this into a series.
I remember watching every minute of that game. It was a Monday, and I had spent the entire day talking trash about the Lakers to my friends, and how they were going to lose to the boring-ass Spurs tonight (I think I was the only San Antonio fan at school). I was nervous the entire day, hopeful that the Spurs would pull it out, but also fully aware that the Lakers, with Shaq still in MVP form, and Kobe transforming into the player we know and fear today, were really, really, good. So the butterflies were flying when the game got underway early that evening.
It started off well enough. The Spurs built up a big lead, with Tim Duncan and Antonio Daniels (starting for the injured Derek Anderson) leading the way. Duncan was a monster, dominating both Shaq and Robert Horry in the post. Daniels looked like an able replacement for Anderson. And they went into the half up by over ten. I was happy enough, but, again, knew the Lakers were really, really good. And when they came out in the second half, I knew things were going to be different. Kobe and Shaq came alive, and momentum quickly swung the other way. Suddenly, things looked very hard for the Spurs. Duncan's post moves (which in 2001 were not nearly as crisp and clean as they are today) started to look laborious and slow. David Robinson was a complete no-show (scoreless in the first half; finished with five points total for the game). Trusted bench guys like Kerr and Malik Rose were awful. And before long, a ten point lead became three, and soon thereafter, a three point lead became a five point deficit. The more panicked the Spurs became, the stronger the Lakers attacked. And in the end, the Lakers won the game 88-81. The Spurs would travel to Los Angeles down 0-2, having lost both games at home. Against a team that hadn't lost in the entire playoffs, this was basically a death sentence.
I remember turning off the TV after it was over. I sat there, numb and nervous. I'd have to face the masses tomorrow. I'd also have to watch the rest of the series. After a few minutes, I went outside, the sun setting on a gorgeous late spring day in Santa Rosa. I took my ball and began shooting hoops on the portable basket that adorned so many houses in the suburbia that I called home. With each shot that clanged off the cheap aluminum rim, I remembered that the Spurs had lost. With each made basket that swished through an already-tearing net, I remembered that the Lakers had won. I frowned and fretted; a liberated fan that was not wholly devastated by the loss, but saddened nonetheless. I remember shooting hoops long into the night, until the street lights came on and made it nearly impossible to see.
Twelve years later, in the aftermath of another Spurs defeat I have that familiar feeling again. True, the circumstances have changed somewhat. This time around, I had the game on in the background while work, following only somewhat while I tended to the needs of autistic children. During the pivotal fourth quarter, when the Spurs needed to rise to the challenge and extend their season, I sat in my car, trying to get home from a twelve hour workday. But the feeling in the aftermath is nearly the same -- a hollow, anxious feeling, that something that you didn't want to happen, that you prayed wouldn't happen, did. And now, you're not quite sure what to hold on to, and how to regroup. Sure, you'll be fine. But right now, you're just a little out of whack. This really isn't what you expected to happen.
Much like that Lakers series, it isn't so much that the Spurs lost, rather, it was the manner in which they lost. Much like that Lakers team, which was lead by two superstars, and a well-constructed cast of championship-caliber role players who stepped up at the right time, the Thunder had the exact set of personell needed to beat a system-driven team like the Spurs. Key contributions from Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha messed up the Spurs game plan, and forced Popovich to over-tinker with his lineups (benching Splitter and Bonner, playing DeJuan Blair), and severely disrupt the team's overall offensive flow. Moreover, guys who hitherto had provided valuable contributions, like Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Gary Neal, went completely silent, failing to rise to the occasion.
Further, it isn't so much that the Spurs lost, but rather, who the Spurs lost to in the end. In 2001, that Lakers team looked like an unmovable phalanx. With Shaq so good, and Kobe not yet in his prime, it seemed as if there would be no chance to unseat the Lakers any time soon. And indeed, those Lakers marched all the way to the Finals after sweeping the Spurs 4-0, and then won the Championship after 5 games. This Thunder team looks similar. They are already so good, and so young. Kevin Durant is the most gifted offensive forward I have ever seen play (this side of Lebron James) and Russell Westbrook and James Harden compliment him perfectly. Durant turned in a stat line for the ages, clinching his team's good fortune with a brilliant 35, 14 and 5 night. The bench looked sharp, and far more confident than the Spurs. Indeed, it is they that deserve to be going to the NBA finals, and awarded "presumptive favorite" status against either the geriatric Celtics or the discombobulated Heat. The Spurs? They, as they have for the last five seasons, are off to go fishing.
I will be fine. I'm already largely over it. I have friends in town, and am headed to Portland in a few days. Soon after that, I'll head to my college reunion, and then visit family in Minnesota and Chicago. I have far more things to occupy my body, mind, and soul than I did back in 2000, when all I had was my hormones and my feelings of disappointment. Indeed, this is just a game, and the Thunder played brilliantly. They truly deserve to be representing the West in the finals.
But I still wish I had my hoop outside. It would've been cathartic.