The San Antonio Spurs had started a new era in 1990, when center David Robinson came in and led them back to prominence. It was expected that the following year would see the team build off that success and take it to the next level. The 1991 San Antonio Spurs spent the entire regular season looking ready to do just that, before a surprising playoff flameout ended the year in disappointment.
Robinson was outstanding, averaging 26 points per game and leading the NBA with 13 rebounds per game. He was named first-team All-NBA center, beating out Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks and Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets for the honor.
The supporting cast made tremendous strides as well. Sean Elliot, the 22-year-old small forward, began to come into his own, averaging 16 ppg. Rod Strickland, the talented young point guard, averaged 14 ppg and dished eight assists a night. The Spurs got solid, well-balanced play from swingman Willie Anderson, at 15 points/5 rebounds/5 assists per night, and forward Terry Cummings averaged 18/8.
What’s more, San Antonio was well-coached, with Larry Brown in his third year at this stop. Brown already had great college success under his belt, taking UCLA to the Final Four in 1980 and winning the national championship with Kansas in 1988. Now he had turned the Spurs from laughingstocks to a contender, with no small amount of help from Robinson.
San Antonio went 55-27 and won the Midwest Division. It was the fourth-best record in the NBA, with only the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls being ahead of them. And there was no reason to think the Spurs couldn’t win it all. The Trail Blazers, whose 63-19 record was the best, hadn’t yet won a championship. The Lakers still had Magic Johnson, but were no longer the dominant Showtime team of the 1980s. The Bulls were still looking to break through for the first time with Michael Jordan.
The playoffs would start against Golden State. The Warriors went 44-38 and were heavily oriented on the perimeter. Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond all averaged more than 20ppg and head coach Don Nelson was known to play four guards at once. Surely, a team like this had no chance of stopping Robinson.
Game 1 of what was then a best-of-five series in the first round went according to script. In fact, even better. Anderson went off for 38 points, while Strickland and Robinson each scored 30. The Spurs won 130-121. If there was a concern it was this—the lead had been 21 points after three quarters and the Warriors scored 49 points in the fourth quarter. And, as it turned out, it was the last San Antonio win of the season.
Robinson scored 28 points and had 15 rebounds in Game 2. He shot 9-of-13. But he also had five turnovers and it was a turnover advantage that Golden State used to steal homecourt advantage with an 111-98 win.
The series went to Oakland and the Warriors’ shooting started to heat up. They shot 57 percent from the floor in Game 3 and their own big man, Sarunas Marciulionis knocked down 21 points in a 109-106 win.
San Antonio was still just one win away from getting everything back to their home fans for a decisive Game 5. But they never got the chance. Hardaway went off for 32 points in Game 4, and Golden State kept reasonable control of the game throughout, winning 110-97.
Robinson had 18 points/14 rebounds in the season’s final loss, and he shot well, at 7/11. But given the advantages the Spurs had inside, it seems that the big man should have had considerably more shot attempts.
The end result was a disappointing ending to a season that began with such promise and spent several months looking to fulfill it. The good news was this—the Spurs were still young, with none of the best five players yet at the age of 30. Surely, better days could still be ahead.