Monday, May 20, 2013

The More Things Change

By Corrie Trouw

The San Antonio Spurs opened the Western Conference Finals Sunday with a dominant 105-83 win over Memphis. It was a satisfying win for the West's elder statesmen, especially compared to the last time these two teams met in the postseason.

Two springs ago, the upstart Grizzlies pulled off one of the NBA's great playoff upsets, beating the heavily favored Spurs. It was only the fourth time an eight seed defeated a conference's top seed, but beyond that fact, the symbolism was shocking.

The Spurs were, and still are, NBA old money. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich won their first title together in 1999, in a time when people thought changing the first digit in the year would result in electronic Armageddon. Their partnership, which added Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili along the way, has bested Shaq, Kobe, Shaq and Kobe, Uptempo Suns, Slow Tempo Knicks, and even LeBron James. If the toughest part of winning a championship is just being around for the Playoffs' money rounds, the Spurs have held an embarrassment of lottery tickets.

By contrast, the 2011 Grizzlies were, well, not accomplished. I don't mean less accomplished in comparison to their competitors; Memphis had never won a playoff game. A cupcake matchup like this should have aired on Food Network.

So when those Grizzlies jumped out to win Game 1 of that series, it was a milestone for the franchise. These are the kinds of pyrrhic accomplishments that often offer young teams a convenient and easy way out. Progress is the antidote to embarrassment, and finally winning a playoff game could have been a satisfying dose. But Memphis remained unimpressed with its baby steps and lunged toward a series win in six decisive games.

Of course, when an historical upset happens, writers create narratives to explain them.

Some of the focus was on Memphis, a joke of a franchise since its inception in Vancouver. The Grizzlies had turned Marc Gasol, the convenient punching bag thrown into a trade for his brother Pau, and Zach Randolph, the mal-est of malcontents, into a punishing front court. In a league that rewards teams who master a particular skill rather than demonstrating competence for many, Memphis' win seemed like the announcement of a new set of a twin towers, ironically coming at the expense of the franchise that similarly rode David Robinson and Tim Duncan to a title.

But really, the main story two years ago was as pre-written as the obituary for a centenarian monarch; the Spurs were old, and the grim reaper had finally called.

Few NBA teams experience decline. For starters, the concept requires a level of achievement from which anyone would even notice a downturn. But the pattern is oft-repeated. After sustained success, the attrition of personnel mobility or the erosion of physical skills lowers the ceiling of performance just enough that the other elite athletes in the league believe they can compete. And once the glow of invincibility leaves the team atop the mountain, the barbarians stream over the hills.

In 2011, the hour of the Spurs' decline was inevitable.

Except it wasn't.

San Antonio rolled through the 2011-12 season, bested deep in the playoffs by great performances from a young, but certainly not upstart, Oklahoma City team. And again this year, Gregg Popovich's team has leveraged the one skill it dominates the NBA in, experience, for a live hand in another championship tournament.

When we compare timelines, we often cherry pick in the interest of amazement, but consider the shifts within the NBA during San Antonio's run. Since that first Tim Duncan/Greg Popovich title, LeBron James started high school, was drafted, played out two contracts in Cleveland, and is a year shy of signing his fourth deal.

Just two years ago, the Spurs' current opponent was an improving squad that was looking for its first playoff win. In a fraction of the San Antonio dynasty's span, that group has become an imposing team with a credible chance to win the NBA championship.

And this kind of change is common. The league may not churn like the NFL, but the potential for upward mobility keeps fans of losing franchises interested.

Longevity is underrated. There is something to be said for moments of greatness: dunks that defy gravity and winning streaks that span Zodiac signs. But the greatest compliment for success like San Antonio's is the silence from the peanut gallery.

Popovich and Duncan are winning playoff games on the brink of summer. What else is there to say?

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