We've all looked foolish for the Is the sun finally setting on San Antonio? thing so many years in a row now that there's an invisible phone book-sized volume of hedges and mealymouthed qualifications and built-in escape routes affixed to the front of each new iteration of it. You just nod in its direction, at this point: Yes, it's the Spurs, who treat the one-way flow of time itself as optional, but .... See? I've just done it again. You can almost hear the "but" coming around the bend.
They're still treating the regular season with the same half-interest as in all recent years, resting their good players frequently, sometimes for slight-seeming injuries and sometimes for no injuries at all. They're still impishly weighing the occasional nationally televised road game against the medium-term value of giving long minutes to their reserves, and prioritizing the latter. They've still formed up like Voltron a few times to knock the dick off some Western power or another. A first-round matchup with the Spurs—the reward for the West's second seed, at the moment—still seems like a gag gift nobody really wants.
But ... watching the Spurs in this season's first few months, even as a wised-up veteran of previous bouts of premature eulogizing, hasn't been quite the same as seasons past. They've spent more than half a decade—longer than the entire lifespan of most contending cores—as the grizzled old lions who maybe have one last deep postseason run in them, but this actually did feel different, less like it might be San Antonio's final run than like the slow realization that San Antonio's final run already happened. The difference has been Tony Parker.
For the first time, he's seemed old. After missing most of December, he spent January and February moving like he was dragging his feet through eight inches of water. He couldn't get to the rim or the free-throw line, or stay in front of anybody on defense. He even looked doughier; you could see hints of the pear-shaped dude he'll be 10 years from now. Everybody who lasts deep into the playoffs wears down, and slows down, a ton by the time they're over—but then, everybody mostly recovers back to normal over the offseason. Only this time, Parker didn't, and the effect was like he'd been replaced by some other, slower, shittier dude. Like Austin Rivers! It's been alarming.
Over the years, and even more than Tim Duncan, Parker has been San Antonio's Dorian Gray. Part of what makes the annual rite of gawking over Duncan's unchanging per-36 numbers so much fun is that we've all watched him get visibly slower, stiffer, and more earthbound over time, while the white hair gains a foothold in his scraggly beard formations. Every season, Duncan's continued steady production is more plainly and unmistakably impossible than the year before, and then you look, and—hey whoa!—he's still Being Tim Duncan, at the same rate as ever, and it's funny and awe-inspiring in equal measure.
Meanwhile, apart from maybe a stray crow's foot, Parker has never really shown any signs of erosion prior to this season. Visually and by the numbers, he was the same dude, every year, like he had a genetic immunity to time. And so instead of celebrating his contravention of the aging process the way we do with Duncan, we all kinda forgot he was subject to it in the first place. And then all of a sudden, this season, he looked like, well, about what you'd expect a veteran of 13 NBA seasons and 196 playoff games to look like. If he was the last of the Olde Thyme Spurs to get there, he sure as hell looked like an old guy, at last.
The bottom seemed to fall out a couple weeks ago, when Parker scored a combined—combined!—nine points on 3-for-21 shooting (once more for good measure: combined) in three straight miserable road losses against the Warriors, Jazz, and Blazers. This was it. Our eyes had not deceived us over the preceding two months. Tony Parker was washed up, and the Spurs were dead. Even if they hung onto one of the West's last couple playoff spots, it'd be an empty, ceremonial affair, the basketball equivalent of a 21st century Mötley Crüe tour.
Then again ... maybe not!
That's Tony Parker hanging 32 very Tony Parker-ish points on the Bulls last night in a 116-105 Spurs win. That cruel, gorgeous spin move he puts on a desperately backpedaling E'Twaun Moore at around 0:18—hey, we know that guy! That's Tony Parker! Darting, slashing, whirling, Eurosteppin'-ass Tony Parker! He even looks slimmer than he did a month ago.
Apart from an abbreviated six-point performance in a blowout win over the Suns, a game he mostly watched from the bench, Parker's been, y'know, himself, these past two weeks. It's like that nightmarish three-game stretch woke him up; the saggy old slow-footed zombie stepped behind a curtain, molted, and leapt back out as the unguardable dervish who spent the past decade carving defenses to ribbons. And just like that, the Spurs are rejuvenated, too: last night's win was their fifth straight, none of them close.
It's a tiny sample size, especially measured against the two months Tony Parker spent impersonating Eric Snow. Maybe he'll re-die next week; maybe we're seeing what we want to see, and the Spurs really are finished. Or, maybe they just held on to the switch a few beats longer this time, flipping it after their annual Rodeo Road Trip rather than during it. Maybe they suckered us again. Who'll complain? The champs are out here swinging; time is still the favorite, but maybe don't bet the farm just yet.
Photo via Getty