It seemed like the basketball world was turning upward for the San Antonio Spurs when David Robinson arrived in 1990. With The Admiral at center and Larry Brown coaching, the Spurs immediately became a contender. A second-round playoff loss to the Portland Trail Blazers was no shame.
Then came a 55-win season in 1991, but a first-round playoff upset. Things started moving downhill, but it was an unlikely hero—new head coach John Lucas—that turned it around for the 1993 San Antonio Spurs.
Brown had left after 38 games of the 1992 season and the Spurs lost in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year. Jerry Tarkanian, the architect of a great college program at UNLV and winner of the 1990 NCAA title, took the opportunity to coach in the NBA, but his time with the Spurs ended very early in the 1993 season.
San Antonio started 9-11, when Tark was replaced. The Spurs won a game under interim coach Rex Hughes, and then Lucas arrived. He was 39-years-old, a recent former player who had recovered from cocaine addiction. A feisty personality, Lucas inspired the team and they took off.
There was no doubting the talent was there. Robinson averaged 23 points/11 rebounds and three blocked shots per game. Robinson, along with Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston and Patrick Ewing in New York, were the three best centers in the NBA.
Sean Elliot was coming into his own at small forward and he averaged 17 ppg. Veteran help was on hand with two-guard Dale Lucas, also good for 17 a night and forward Antoine Carr. The floor show was run by Avery Johnson, then 27-years-old, and who averaged eight assists per game.
San Antonio won their first four games under Lucas. In January they went on a 10-game win streak. The streak included an overtime win over the Phoenix Suns, on their way to a 62-20 record thanks to an MVP year from Charles Barkley. The Spurs knocked off the Utah Jazz and Portland. After the ten-game streak ended, San Antonio promptly started an eight-game string. They ended the season 49-33 and were the #5 seed in the Western Conference.
The Trail Blazers awaited them in the first round. Portland had gone to the NBA Finals two of the previous three years, including in 1992. They were led by the all-around talent of Clyde Drexler, Kevin Duckworth down low and Terry Porter at the point. Their postseason series win over San Antonio in 1990 had gone the full seven games and taken two overtime wins.
San Antonio hadn’t made the big plays at the big moments when they had their chances in the early 1990s, but for this series, that began to change. They trailed Game 1 on the road by twelve points after three quarters, winning 87-86. Even though Portland took Game 2, San Antonio had the chance to close the series at home—the first round was then best-of-five.
More fourth quarter heroics were ahead in Game 3, as the Spurs reversed a five-point deficit, controlled the final period and won 107-101. Robinson scored 26 points and pulled down 14 rebounds but the bench was the big factor. Willie Anderson came on and drilled 19 points, while J.R. Reid had 17 points/12 boards.
San Antonio had a 15-point lead at halftime of Game 4, before Portland came all the way back and forced overtime. This time though, the Spurs would get it done in the extra session. They won 100-97, with Robinson having an exquisite 20 points/17 rebounds/11 assists. The Spurs had their first playoff series win since 1990.
Now it was time for Phoenix and Barkley. In addition to the league MVP, the Suns had a dynamic point guard in Kevin Johnson and the NBA world looked forward to a matchup of either Barkley and Michael Jordan or Barkley and the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals (it would, of course, prove to be Jordan that came out of the East).
The Suns won the first two games at home without much trouble, but the Spurs came back strong on their home floor. San Antonio shot 50 percent in Game 3, Ellis knocking down 20 points and Carr going from 21, as they won 111-96 and got back in the series. Robinson exploded in Game 4, with 36 points and 16 rebounds, a 117-103 win that evened the series 2-2.
Robinson played well in Game 5 at Phoenix and Game 6 in San Antonio. He had 24/8 in the fifth game and 22/14 in the sixth. But while Robinson was good, Barkley was nothing short of outstanding. His line was 36/12 in Game 5 as Phoenix again won decisively on their home floor. And the MVP went for 28/21 in Game 6, a 102-100 Suns win that ended San Antonio’s season.
Undoubtedly, the Spurs fans were disappointed that four years of the Robinson era had yet to produce a trip as far as the conference finals. But the 1993 team turned around what was an alarming downward trend, provided an uplifting story with Lucas and got a big postseason series win.