The 2001 San Antonio Spurs spent the regular season and two rounds of the postseason looking like they were ready get back on top of the NBA world. In the end, they ran into a historic steamroller in the conference finals, but the Spurs continued to establish themselves as a permanent fixture in the NBA’s elite in 2001.
Tim Duncan was now in his fourth year in the NBA. He had keyed a championship run in 1999, and if not for an injury just prior to the playoffs in 2000, might have led a repeat title and delayed the arrival of the Shaq/Kobe Dynasty in Los Angeles by a year. In 2001, Duncan made 1st-team All-NBA, averaging 22 points/12 rebounds a game and was also 1st-team All-Defense.
David Robinson was now 35-years-old, and no longer the scoring force he’d been in his youth, averaging 14 ppg. But the Admiral could still rebound and he got nine boards a game. Even in his declining years, Robinson still made 3rd-team All-NBA. The big new contributor was Derek Anderson, 26-years-old and providing 16 ppg.
The rest of the Spurs lineup was mostly role players—Avery Johnson, now 35, was being phased out at the point guard spot. Sean Elliot played part-time on the wing, with 26-year-old Malik Rose and 25-year-old Antonio Daniels getting more minutes. Greg Popovich, as he still does today, orchestrated the maximum out of a large group of role players.
San Antonio was 18-10 on Christmas, an early season marked by a split of two games with the Lakers. On November 8, the Spurs beat the Lakers at home thanks to Duncan’s 22 points/17 rebounds, and holding Shaquille O’Neal to 13 points. On the return trip to LA, Duncan played well, at 24/11, but Shaq went for 36/16 and Kobe Bryant lit up the Spurs’ backcourt for 43. It was an ominous foreshadowing.
In late January, the Spurs started a 12-1 stretch and saw their record climb to 35-16, and a nine-game win streak in March further pushed them toward the top of the NBA. They split two more games with the Lakers and ended the regular season at 58-24—the best record in the league.
The Minnesota Timberwolves of Kevin Garnett were the opponent in what was then a best-of-five first round. In a game that fluctuated wildly, both Duncan and Garnett played well, but the Spurs shot 50 percent for the floor while the T-Wolves were held to 37 percent. San Antonio opened with an 87-82 win. The defense was even better in Game 2—Minnesota shot 34 percent, with Garnett just 5-for-13 and the Spurs rolled to an 86-69 win.
Minnesota stepped up and won Game 3, 94-83, pulling away in the fourth quarter. Robinson emerged and took control of the close-out Game 4. Duncan and Garnett were both having tough nights shooting the ball, but the Admiral scored 21 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and the Spurs also got 16 from Daniels off the bench. The 97-84 win sent San Antonio on to the second round.
A war in the state of Texas was next. The Dallas Mavericks, winners of 53 games, had Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley. Even this trio couldn’t stand up to a Spurs defense that continued to deliver stifling efforts.
Dallas shot 37 percent in Game 1 and Nowitzki was forced into a miserable 3-for-13 shooting night. Duncan and Robinson cleaned up the misses, keying a 50-42 rebounding edge for the Spurs in a 94-78 win. Game 2 followed the same script—Dirk shot 4-for-13, the Mavs shot 35 percent, Duncan and Robinson combined for 29 rebounds and an easy 100-86 win was the result.
Any hope the Mavericks had for getting back in the series disappeared in the third quarter of Game 3. San Antonio won the quarter 30-11, blowing open a close game. Duncan and Robinson hauled in 14 rebounds apiece. Dirk was 5-for-15 from the floor, while Elliot kicked in 17 off the bench for the Spurs.
With Dallas on the brink of elimination, Nowitzki was able to find his offensive game, scoring 30 points in Game 4. Duncan had 29, but on 9-for-23 shooting. He still hit the boards hard with 18, but Dallas escaped with a 112-108 win. It just delayed the inevitable. San Antonio came home and built an 11-point lead after one quarter of Game 5.
Dirk went off for 42, but he was a lone warrior, as his team again shot 37 percent, with Finley’s 1-for-17 the big culprit. Duncan had a huge night at 32/20, and Robinson a pretty darn good one, at 16/14. With their easy 105-87 win, the Spurs were headed to the Western Conference Finals.
Los Angeles was lying in wait. After more or less coasting to a 56-win regular season and the #2 seed in the West, the Lakers were peaking in the playoffs. Bryant dominated the San Antonio backcourt in the first two games, lighting it up for 45 points in Game 1 and 28 more in Game 2. The poor shooting performances the Spurs had forced throughout the playoffs were gone now—Bryant shot 51 percent for this series.
The first game was fairly uncompetitive, a 104-90 Laker win. Game 2 was tight, and Duncan had a monster 40/15 night, but Los Angeles still won 88-81. The series was all but over as it went to the Staples Center.
Duncan had outplayed Shaq significantly in the first two games, but the Laker big man flexed his muscles in Games 3 & 4. Shaq went for 35/17 in the third game, combining with Bryant’s 36 to create a 111-72 rout. Shaq keyed a massive 54-33 rebounding edge in Game 4, big in any case, and stunning against a team with Duncan and Robinson. Duncan couldn’t get anything going in either game at the Staples Center, and another rout, 111-82, ended the San Antonio season.
Getting swept out of the conference finals was a tough way to end the season, but it needs to be remembered that the 2001 Laker team was easily the best of the Shaq/Kobe era and for pure playoff dominance, they’re on the short list of the best ever.
It would take a couple years for the Spurs to get back on top, but the 2001 season was able to clearly establish that the 1999 title run was not just the fluke of a strike-shortened season—this was a franchise that was going to continue being in the conversation at the highest level.