It was a time of change for the 2004 San Antonio Spurs. Even though David Robinson had been displaced by Tim Duncan as the best player on the team five years earlier, the retirement of “The Admiral” after the championship run of 2003 still marked a crossing point in Spurs history. San Antonio had another strong season in ’04, but with a little bit of transition and the rival Los Angeles Lakers beefed up, the Spurs bid for a repeat title came up short–with no small assistance from a controversial call that may have significantly altered history.
San Antonio gave more playing time to Manu Ginobili who stepped up and averaged 13 points/4 rebounds/5 assists per game. The Spurs relied more on younger players in Hedo Turkoglu and Rasho Nesterovic, along with 21-year-old Tony Parker who was now in his third year as the starting point guard.
Parker averaged 15 points/6 assists per game. They also added a veteran renowned for his clutch skills, Robert Horry, known to one and all as “Big Shot Rob.”
And of course it all came back to Duncan. The great power forward didn’t win a third straight MVP award, but he did average 22 points/12 rebounds a game, showcasing the ruthless consistency that kept the Spurs stable.
San Antonio needed stability early on. They started 9-10, and that included three losses to the Lakers. After their run of three straight titles from 2000-02 had been stopped by the Spurs, Los Angeles made major upgrades. They added Gary Payton at the point and got power forward Karl Malone out of Utah to join Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
It was a virtual Dream Team lineup, and that made the Friday after Thanksgiving a black one in San Antonio when they blew out the Spurs. The Lakers also won a double overtime game, and further stole a game in San Antonio when the Spurs blew a fourth-quarter lead.
Led by Duncan and head coach Greg Popovich, the Spurs righted the ship. They won 17 of 18, then played consistent basketball and closed the year with an 11-game win streak, including finally beating the Lakers on the road.
Every win mattered in this year’s Western Conference—San Antonio’s 57-25 record was the West’s second-best, edging out the Lakers by a game and the Sacramento Kings by two games, while the Minnesota Timberwolves and MVP Kevin Garnett were the top seed.
San Antonio drew the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs. It was the first postseason appearance—indeed the first winning season—in franchise history for Memphis, going back to their origins in Vancouver in 1996 and eventual move to Memphis for the 2002 season. The Grizzlies had Hubie Brown on the sideline and Pau Gasol in the low post.
It wasn’t nearly enough against the Spurs. The San Antonio defense held Memphis to 35 percent shooting in Game 1 and 36 percent shooting in Game 2. Both games were blowouts, 98-74 and 87-70. Game 3 was the Grizzlies’ chance to make a series of it, and the game was tight into the fourth quarter.
But rebounding was the difference. Both Duncan and Gasol got their points (22 & 18 respectively), but Duncan got 13 rebounds, while Gasol got five. The team-wide edge for the Spurs was 48-31 and they escaped by a basket. The veteran Spurs didn’t let Memphis off the mat, coming out strong in the first quarter of Game 4. Parker scored 29 points, Duncan had 26 and Horry was reliable off the bench in closing the series, 110-97.
Los Angeles was up next. This was the round the Spurs ousted the Lakers the prior year. Los Angeles had eliminated San Antonio in this round in 2002 and in the conference finals in 2001. A potential battle in 2000 had been derailed by an injury to Duncan prior to the playoffs. This was the great rivalry of the early ‘00s and it was time for another edition.
Duncan dropped 30 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in Game 1. The Spurs held the Lakers to 38 percent shooting and used a strong fourth quarter to win 88-78. They further defended their home floor in Game 2, blitzing the Lakers with a strong first quarter. Parker scored 30 points, while Shaq was the only Laker who seemed aware there was a basketball game going on.
Phil Jackson got his LA team motivated for the trip west. Game 3 saw the Spurs as the team down early, while Duncan and Parker shot a combined 8-for-26 in a 24-point Laker win. San Antonio then missed some opportunities to take firm control of the series.
The Spurs led Game 4 by ten at the half, but lost the ability to contain Bryant at the worst possible time. Kobe went off for 42 and Los Angeles rallied to win 98-90. Game 5 was a crusher. Trailing by sixteen points with 3:59 left, the Spurs went on a 26-7 run and took a three-point lead. Then the Lakers got back up by a point when an amazing sequence of events went down.
Duncan got the ball and shot an off-balanced twenty-footer. With less than a second left it went in. San Antonio had a 73-72 lead. Los Angeles took it out at midcourt. Derek Fisher caught the inbounds pass, spun and hit an 18-footer to win it. San Antonio was furious, believing the clock had delayed in starting. It’s officials who start the clock via a wireless device, not the hometown scoreboard operator.
The Spurs filed a protest, but any league upholding the protest is unlikely, and certainly not David Stern’s NBA when the marquee team in a series needs a win.
Beyond the controversy, Parker had shot poorly in Game 5, going 7-for-23. Unfortunately for the Spurs, his problems persisted in Game 6, with a 4-for-18 night. San Antonio was still within three points at the start of the fourth quarter, but Bryant finished with 26, Shaq had 17 points/19 rebounds and the Spurs season ended with an 88-78 loss.
The Game 5 ending looks even bigger in light of how the rest of the playoffs unfolded. Los Angeles knocked off Minnesota in the conference finals and there’s no reason to think the Spurs would not have. The Lakers then came undone at the hands of the Detroit Pistons and there’s no reason to think San Antonio would have. Given that the Spurs would beat the Pistons for the 2005 NBA title, did a clock dispute derail a three-peat?
We’ll never know and it gave what was still a really good season for the 2004 San Antonio Spurs a bad taste for an ending.