As Manu Ginobili walked off the court in Monday night’s clincher for what may be his last time, the San Antonio Spurs crowd erupted into celebration and applause.
He, perhaps as much as Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, served as a front man for this generation’s most enviable NBA franchise. The fans in San Antonio sat through a fourth quarter that may have chased mortal fans away in an elimination game, just to see this moment – and they enjoyed it how they should.
But after a glorious 15-year run — including four NBA World Championships, a EuroLeague Championship and an Olympic gold medal in 2004 — it may be time to call it an era. Because Duncan is gone, Ginobili may be gone and the ascendant Golden State Warriors are quietly celebrating an emphatic sweep of the entire Western Conference.
The reliable Spurs will likely be back again next season. But not those Spurs. These guys aren’t the headliners anymore. Maybe they haven’t been for a couple of years now. But retirements, unfortunate injuries and some controversy have robbed us of a more convenient torch passing ceremony. Years from now, perhaps hoops historians will look back on this season’s 4-0 Western Conference Finals sweep — Kevin Durant’s first Western Conference championship in the Bay Area — as the moment one chapter of basketball closed and another began.
And this next chapter may be the league’s best, yet.
Durant and Stephen Curry — arguably the two best offensive players in the NBA — devastated an elite Spurs defense for four consecutive games. This came just a week after upending a terrific Utah Jazz defense for four consecutive games. Draymond Green, along with Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and the aforementioned Durant, make up one of the league’s most defensively talented rosters, ever. And their collective skills were on constant display in a conference playoffs that featured just a couple of close calls and many more blowout victories against some of the NBA’s best.
The versatility of the Warriors was literally on display from the opening tip-off, as the Warriors countered a small Spurs lineup with one of their own featuring Draymond Green at center. Although Green gave up five inches to LaMarcus Aldridge in the press guide, he gave up almost nothing else on the final box score as the all-star Aldridge finished 4-of-11 with many point-blank misses.
The depth of the Warriors made an impact, as well. Despite being derided as a “super team” full of ring-chasers, Golden State’s consistent willingness to trust and play its youngsters paid dividends once again. Patrick McCaw earned a start at small forward and played active and disruptive defense, and Ian Clark provided 18 quality minutes off the bench along with 12 points.
It was clear in the opening seconds that the referees would not officiate this game tightly, and players on both teams consistently took obvious fouls with nary a whistle. Yet while the Warriors of old would struggle in a more physical game, these Warriors took the contact and scored anyway. Curry repeatedly beat defenders on the perimeter to finish layups at the rim, in addition to scoring three-point field goals. He would finish with 36 points in 34 minutes of court time. Durant was beyond ultra-efficient, finishing with 29 points on just 13 shots. The team as a whole shot a blistering 55.8% in a road closeout game and managed to control the game from start to finish.
It is true that Kawhi Leonard was absent for almost all of the series, and he certainly would have made a substantial impact on the series; the MVP candidate was excellent all year until injuring his ankle. But the Spurs and their fans will have to wait until next season to get another try at this team. Right now, it’s the Warriors advancing to their third consecutive NBA Finals, with a chance to render every woulda-coulda-shoulda moot.
The Warriors, of all teams, know how it feels to lose their best player in the playoffs. They responded by signing Kevin Durant and closing out each playoff series with a maniacal fury — all intended to bring the squad to this moment, rested, healthy and hungry. They don’t need to apologize for this — they need to win four games in June and start this new era with a new dynasty.