It's hard to imagine the Spurs getting old. Maybe it's because they've already spent so many years as the elder statesmen of the Western Conference that we just expect them to keep doing what they do forever—consistently outplaying and outsmarting younger teams while staring down the perils of age but never quite giving into them. We expect the the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker triumvirate to succeed every year, and fail only when they are confronted by a team that is truly more talented. This is a team that we expect to never be undone by its own shortcomings. Last night, those expectations were turned on their head.
For the majority last night's Game 4 against the Warriors, the Spurs were in control. Neither team was shooting the ball great, but the Spurs were doing things that harkened back to the old days. Tim Duncan spent the first half controlling the paint to the tune of 14 points and eight rebounds, and Manu Ginobili was 4-6 from behind the arc and generally looking like his old self. The Warriors fought back in the second half, but with 4:48 left to go in the game, the Spurs held an eight-point lead. Then, suddenly, they started to look very old.
From the 4:48-mark of the fourth quarter to the end of overtime, the Spurs scored just six points. Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan combined to shoot 1-8 during that stretch, and they finished a combined 5-19 in the fourth quarter and overtime. More alarming than the dry spell itself, though, was how the Spurs looked while they let a potential 3-1 series lead slip away from them.
Manu Ginobili started doing things like this:
And Tim Duncan started doing things like this:
Those weren't boneheaded or poorly executed plays, they were just plays that were made by guys who might finally be too old to make them. Duncan has hit that shot countless times over better defenders than Andrew Bogut, and the dagger three was once a specialty of Manu Ginobili's. Both Ginobili and Duncan have made careers out of coming up big in situations like that, but this time they just didn't have the legs to finish the job.
It was only a year ago that the ever-aged Spurs were playing like a superorganism and blowing out a Thunder team that was stacked with supernovic talent. You can sense that some of that brilliance still exists, but so much more of it has diminished. Watch that first missed three by Ginobili again, the one that comes after he puts Harrison Barnes on the floor with an inhuman behind-the-back the dribble. As Ginobili finishes that crossover, it seems inevitable that his shot is going in. He's Manu Ginobili, after all—the semi-awkward, euro-stepping genius who's been hitting beautiful and impossible shots his entire career. He's still got it, you think as Barnes goes tumbling to the ground. This shot is money. This is what he does.
Except this isn't what he does anymore. In that moment, age seemed to have finally caught up with Manu and the rest of the Spurs. Watching last night's game, it was hard to believe that this Spurs team was the same one that pushed the Thunder to their limits last year. The Warriors are good and young and spunky, but they are far from transcendent, and their superstar spent most of last night hobbling around the perimeter without the ball. Last night, for the first time in what seems like an eternity, the Spurs found themselves in a playoff game that they should have won, but simply couldn't. It will take some getting used to, but the Spurs might not be the Spurs anymore.