Spurs go 'old school' to beat Clippers in Game 1 of NBA Western semifinals

San Antonio's version of the 'Big Three' - Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili - led the Spurs' effort Tuesday night against the LA Clippers.

Mike Stone/REUTERS
San Antonio Spurs (l.-r.) guard Manu Ginobili, guard Tony Parker and center Tim Duncan talk during a time out in the first half of their NBA Western Conference semi-final playoff basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers in San Antonio, Texas, May 15.

Methuselah just might have been envious this week.

First, the Boston CelticsKevin Garnett, playing in his 17th professional season, had 29 points and a double-double Saturday en-route to defeating the Philadelphia 76ers.

Tuesday night, the Spurs’ center Tim Duncan, a fourteen-year NBA veteran, racked up 26 points and ten rebounds to light up the highly athletic and youthful Los Angeles Clippers, 108-92, in San Antonio. The Spurs lead the Clippers, one game to none, in the best-of-seven NBA Western Conference semifinal series.

Duncan’s was as age-defying a performance as there’s been in recent memory – as if he just teleported in with H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, or Ali Baba’s flying carpet.

The way Duncan moved all night was worthy of a Balanchine dancer: rolling around on the pine to fight for loose balls and then acrobatically tossing them to teammates, pirouetting in the key to make hook shots with either arm (and on one occasion with his back to the basket), and following those with twenty-foot jump shots as smooth as vanilla ice cream (and just as delicious).

Los Angeles is stacked with star talent like point guard Chris Paul and power forward Blake Griffin. But last night, it was just like another day at the office for the old guys from San Antonio.   

The Spurs’ core of Duncan and guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – who have thirty-three years of NBA experience among them – is nothing if not simpatico. They’ve been together for ten years, and the way in which they move the ball around the court is as effortless as a top spinning on glass.

Add the return of eleven-year veteran Stephen Jackson and the youth of three-point threats Danny Green (15 points Tuesday night) and former San Diego State star Kawhi Leonard (16 points), and this team is more diverse and experienced than any other club in the NBA playoffs.

On the defensive side, San Antonio is adept at shifting, even in mid-possession, from a man-to-man defense to a zone. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s plan ultimately proved perplexing for Los Angeles’ big men – most notably Griffin, who was held to 15 points in twenty-eight minutes, and Kenyon Martin, who added only seven in twenty-three minutes of play.

In fact, a major reason Los Angeles stayed as close to the Spurs as they did was because their bench picked the starters up and carried them - contributing 46 of the team’s 92 points.

History is a big theme in this series, and the Spurs have a lot of it on their side.

At home, the Spurs are 27-2 against the Clippers all time. Not only that, San Antonio, going back to the regular season, is on a fifteen-game winning streak, and have won five consecutive playoff games.

There’s a reason for this – and it has nothing to do with jumping over cars to dunk, or the drama of “The Decision,” or being introduced to adoring fans in the fog of pyrotechnics. This is about low-key, hard-nosed, focused teamwork. And history has shown that the teams that pay attention to this and shun the spotlight often come up on top.

Barring some other veteran teams discovering the fountain of youth or taking in a re-run of Back to the Future, San Antonio looks like the team to beat in these playoffs.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misspelled the 'Time Machine' author's name.]

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