The San Antonio Spurs had won the first championship of the Tim Duncan era back in 1999, but the previous three seasons had been dominated by the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. The 2003 San Antonio Spurs made two big additions—20-year-old Tony Parker and 25-year-old Manu Ginobili, to strengthen a cast where 37-year-old center David Robinson was in decline.
Duncan was still the heart and soul, and he averaged 23 points/13 rebounds per game, en route to his second straight MVP award. Parker scored 16 ppg and handed out five assists, while Ginobili kicked in offense off the bench. Stephen Jackson was a key scorer with 12 ppg, while Bruce Bowen and Malik Rose provided further depth for head coach Greg Popovich.
The season-opening game was an 87-82 win over the Lakers, although without Shaquille O’Neal in the lineup, it really didn’t say much and the Spurs began the year at a sluggish 12-9 pace. They went on to defeat Los Angeles with Shaq on the floor, 95-88 and got their record to 28-16 by January 25. Then a 13-1 stretch, another win at LA got the Spurs rolling. They put together a 12-2 run down the stretch, beat the Lakers one more time and with a 60-22 record, had the top seed overall going into the postseason.
San Antonio opened the playoffs with Phoenix, a talented offensive team that included Amar’e Stoudamire, Shawn Marion and Stephon Marbury. The Suns showed that wouldn’t just roll over for the favorites. Parker struggled to a 2-of-13 night in Game 1 and Phoenix stole a road win in overtime. Game 2 was tight in the fourth quarter, but 23 points helped get the Spurs a must-win game that tied the series.
Duncan dominated the glass in Game 3, and Parker atoned for his Game 1 woes, shooting 12-for-21 and scoring 29 points. San Antonio won 99-86 and reclaimed homecourt advantage, even though Phoenix used a strong fourth quarter to nip out an 86-84 win that evened the series two games apiece.
Rose came up with a huge performance off the bench back home for Game 5, going for 27 points. Duncan went for 23/17 and the Spurs won 94-82. Duncan shot poorly in Game 6, struggling to 4-for-12, but in a game where neither team shot 40 percent, the Spurs’ star focused on rebounding and cleaned up on the glass with 20 boards. A tight 87-85 road win sent San Antonio to the second round.
A familiar foe was waiting. The Lakers had knocked the Spurs out in this same round a year ago, and in the conference finals in 2001. They were aiming for a fourth straight title, something that hasn’t happened since the Bill Russell-era Boston Celtics.
Duncan opened the series with a great all-around game, 28 points/8 rebounds/8 assists. Kobe Bryant scored 37, but it came on 16-for-38 shooting and the Spurs won 87-72. Then they took the second game, as Bowen drilled seven treys and Ginobili came up with the first big playoff performance of his career with 17 off the bench. The 114-95 win sent San Antonio back west in command.
Los Angles took command right back in Game 3, as Duncan was the only Spurs’ starter in double figures as the Lakers won 110-95. The defending champs then won a tighter Game 4, 99-95. Even though Duncan knocked down 36 points and Shaq was 6-for-17 from the floor, Bryant poured in 35 and O’Neal still hauled in 17 rebounds.
San Antonio held off a Laker rally to win Game 5 by a 96-94 and it set up the passing-of-the-baton moment at the Staples Center. The series was shaping up as a home-team-holds-serve battle, but Duncan simply took matters into his own hands. He shot 16-for-25, scored 37 points and pulled down 16 rebounds. The Spurs delivered an unexpected rout, 110-82 and their nemesis was eliminated.
The Lakers might have been the nemesis with the playoff pedigree, but in 2003, the Dallas Mavericks had a better team. They had also won 60 games in the regular season and Dirk Nowitzki was surrounded by Steve Nash at the point, along with Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel.
It promised to be a great series and Dallas came in and took Game 1. San Antonio jumped out to a fast 36-23 lead after the first quarter, but the Mavericks gradually clawed back and then owned the final period. Duncan and Dirk were electric—40/15 for Duncan, with 38/15 from Dirk, but it was the Mavericks who rebounded better and they won 113-110.
For the second time in the Western Conference playoffs, the Spurs were close to their back to the wall in a Game 2 at home. Duncan coming up with a 32/15 in this spot was almost expected, and Rose was again the X-factor, drilling 25 points. San Antonio again got an early lead and this time it didn’t slip away, as they won 119-106.
The series went to Dallas, and Duncan’s 34/24 night was the reason the Spurs dominated the second half and won 96-83. Midway through the fourth quarter something more consequential happened—Dirk sprained his knee. He was gone for the series.
With no one believing Dallas could keep pace, the summoned their will and won Game 4, 102-95, in spite of twenty rebounds from Duncan. But it was the last gasp for the Mavs. San Antonio won Game 5, 103-91 and they finished the job in Game 6, with Jackson knocking down 20 points.
The last hurdle was the New Jersey Nets and electrifying point guard Jason Kidd. San Antonio was a solid favorite to win, as any team out of the West would have been over anyone in the East. The Spurs defense took Kidd out of his game, forcing a 4-for-17 shooting night, while Duncan scored 32 points and grabbed 20 rebounds. The 101-89 win was answered by a big showing from Kidd though—the Nets guard scored 30 points, the Nets forced 21 turnovers and New Jersey stole a road win, 87-85.
San Antonio now faced three road games, with the Finals using a 2-3-2 format from 1985-2013. The defense showed again, holding New Jersey to nine points in the second quarter. Duncan was steady and reliable, while Parker came up with 26 points in an 84-79 that put the Spurs back in control.
New Jersey won an ugly 77-76 nailbiter in Game 4 as the Spurs shot 29 percent, but Duncan and great overall team defense delivered again in Game 5. The big man shot 10-for-18 and scored 29 points, Kidd also had 29, but the Nets as a whole shot 35 percent. San Antonio’s 93-83 win gave them two cracks on their home floor to clinch.
The Spurs trailed Game 6 in the fourth quarter, down six at the period, but took over down the stretch. Duncan went for 21/20 and the aging Robinson smelled the moment and his best game of the playoffs—13 points and 17 rebounds, keying a massive 55-35 edge for San Antonio on the glass. With the 88-77 win, the NBA Finals were over.
San Antonio was a model of consistency through the playoffs, churning out four straight six-game series wins. They weren’t a dominant champion, but every time they needed a win to keep from even being uncomfortable, they got it, and the ability to close out on the road showed the mental toughness this organization has become renowned for in recent years. It was Ring #2 for Popovich and Duncan, and as we all know, they were nowhere near finished.