SAN ANTONIO – Tim Duncan arrived as the No. 1 overall draft pick, back in summer 1997. Tony Parker arrived four years later, as the who-cares 28th pick in the draft. Manu Ginobili showed up a year after that, summer 2002, when he was 25 years old, three years after being drafted 57th overall in the ’99 draft.
They’re together still. The ageless Spurs. Duncan, Parker, Ginobili. Twelve NBA seasons together. Three NBA championships. An NBA-record 111 playoff victories together as a trio.
Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have helped take apart the Thunder through two games of the Western Conference Finals. The trio has averaged 53.5 points, 14.5 rebounds and 14.0 assists while shooting 54 percent from the field.
Numbers not so different from the 2012 West finals, when the ageless Spurs averaged 57.0 points, 17.4 rebounds and 12.3 assists in a six-game series loss to the Thunder. Or the 2007 NBA Finals, when they were seven years younger than now and averaged 60.5 points, 17.3 rebounds and 9.5 assists in a sweep of the Cavaliers. Or the 2005 NBA Finals, when they were nine years younger than now and averaged 53.1 points, 22.4 rebounds and 9.6 rebounds in a seven-game conquest of the Pistons.
“We are so lucky to have landed in a franchise like this, with a coach (Gregg Popovich) like this, having the opportunity to stay all career in the same city,” said Ginobili. “Doesn’t happen very often. For three guys, at the same time, it’s very unique. If you add the fact it’s the same coach, too, I don’t think you ever have that.”
It’s no fun playing against the Spurs. They are very difficult to beat. But perhaps there’s a silver lining for the Thunder. Perhaps the Thunder’s own big three will be inspired by another up-close-and-personal series against Duncan, Parker and Ginobili still going strong after all these years, still flying the San Antonio banner 12 years after they came together, 11 years after their first championship and who knows how many years after pundits started saying they would break up or grow old.
Perhaps Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will continue to embrace unity. Come to believe they are better together than apart. Come to realize that something special is not guaranteed in the NBA, and once you find it, you don’t leave it.
“I feel very lucky and blessed to be healthy and playing all those years and having another opportunity to try to go to the NBA Finals,” Parker said. “We take nothing for granted. We know how lucky we are, and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Durant and Westbrook are 25. Ibaka is 24. A little on the young side to think about legacy and long-term future. Except that Durant’s MVP speech a few weeks ago still resonates, in which Durant repeatedly talked about being a part of something special. A team. An organization. A city. A state. That’s straight out of the Spurs’ handbook.
The ageless Spurs weren’t always aged. They were in their 20s when they made multiple decisions to stay in San Antonio. Sometimes taking less money. Always sharing the spotlight. It’s a decision Durant will have to make in 2016, when he will be 27, and Westbrook and Ibaka will have to make in 2017, when they will be 27 and 26, respectively.
And the playoff plagues – Westbrook’s torn meniscus in 2013; Ibaka’s strained calf now – are a blessing in a way. They have given every Thunder a chance to view what life is like on a diminished team. It ain’t pretty.
Popovich, the Spurs’ coach since 1996, doesn’t claim credit for the San Antonio organization. He says the Spurs are the beneficiary of unique players.
“I think it’s totally dependent on the character and the quality of the players’ mindsets,” Popovich said. “I can’t will that onto somebody. Sure, I’m a maniac, and I’m going to stick to it, because I’m just built that way. Could be right, could be wrong. But I’m not out there playing every day … to have that dedication and that fortitude to come back every year and be the best team you can be by playoff time, it takes character and mental toughness.”
The Spurs’ trio fended off all invaders. Bigger-money contracts. Chances to be The Man in Denver (Ginobili) or Atlanta (Parker) years ago. General restlessness. They keep coming back, year after year.
It’s hard to win in the NBA. The Spurs know that better than anyone. An NBA source said the ageless trio doesn’t talk about it much, but they are very proud of their legacy, proud of always having a chance to win. Proud that they’ve done it in San Antonio, outside the spotlight of New York or Los Angeles or the drama that goes with the Heat. Proud that perseverance has put them back in the pole position to win an NBA title this season, seven years after their last championship.
“We enjoy playing with each other,” Ginobili said. “We appreciate what we have. We’ve never had issues between each other. That is something that has happened before at other teams. Each one accepted our roles. We did well with each other. We never look to go somewhere, or try new things.”
The Thunder hopes its own special trio is inspired by the ageless Spurs.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.