After winning their fourth NBA championship with Tim Duncan in 2007, the Spurs had been—at least by their standards—in a bit of a dry spell. 2009 and 2010 had each seen the final regular season win total in the low 50s and a playoff exit prior to the conference finals. Good basketball to be sure, but not what Duncan and head coach Gregg Popovich were used to. The 2011 San Antonio Spurs spent the better part of the season back in the league’s elite, before a crashing playoff collapse ended it all.
Duncan was now 34-years-old and starting to slow down a bit, as he averaged 14 points/9 rebounds per game. The Spurs got their offensive production from Tony Parker at the point guard spot, who scored 18ppg and handed out seven assists per night. George Hill provided some young legs in the backcourt and knocked down 12ppg. Richard Jefferson joined Duncan up front and was a double-digit scorer.
Popovich also found rebounding help off the bench. Antonio McDyess was a 36-year-old veteran. DeJuan Blair was a 21-year-old kid. Combined, they chipped in twelve rebounds a game and provided valuable relief for Duncan and Jefferson.
But the lynchpin of the San Antonio attack in 2011 was Manu Ginobili. His final stat line was 17 points/4 rebounds/5 assists per game. Ginobili made 3rd-team All-NBA and keyed an offense that ranked second in the NBA in efficiency.
The Spurs wasted no time and coming out of the gate strong. The schedule wasn’t particularly loaded in the early going and San Antonio split their two toughest games, home dates with the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks, but the Spurs were consistent. By Christmas Day, the record stood at 25-4 and they were a game and a half up on the Mavericks for the best record in the Western Conference.
Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers were the real target though. The Lakers were coming off back-to-back NBA championships and they came to San Antonio on December 28. The Spurs’ defense forced Kobe into an 8-for-27 shooting night. Blair came up big, with 17 points/15 rebounds off the bench. San Antonio delivered a decisive 97-82 win.
Two nights later they went to Dallas and with Mavs’ star Dirk Nowitzki not in the lineup, the Spurs owned the glass. A 50-35 rebounding advantage, combined with 21 points off the bench from Gary Neal, were the reason for the 99-93 win.
San Antonio went east and dropped a couple games, including one in Boston where the Celtics were fresh off an NBA Finals appearance. But by the end of January, the Spurs were rolling at 40-7 and their lead in the West had soared to eight games.
A nine-game road trip in February had the potential to be a stumbling block, but San Antonio picked up six wins. The biggest came at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Parker knocked down 21. The defense again forced Kobe into a bad night, this one 5-for-18 from the floor. The Spurs pulled out an 89-88 road win.
By the beginning of March, San Antonio was cruising along at 49-10 and still six games clear of the field in the West. Perhaps they lost their edge. Maybe the fact they only finished 16th in the league in defensive efficiency started to catch up to them. Whatever, the reason, the Spurs stopped playing basketball at an elite level.
The Lakers came into town for a nationally televised Sunday afternoon game and handed the Spurs an ugly 99-83 loss. Taken by itself, the defeat was no big deal. But San Antonio also lost six in a row later in the month. By the time the season ended, they were still 61-21 and still the 1-seed in the West. But Chicago now had the best record in the league overall. The Bulls, the Miami Heat in their first year with LeBron James, along with the Lakers and Mavericks, all seemed in better shape.
But there was nothing to suggest San Antonio couldn’t regain their momentum. They had what seemed an ideal draw for the first round of the postseason. The Memphis Grizzlies were in the playoffs for the first time in three years. They had never won a playoff series in their comparatively short franchise existence. One of their top players, small forward Rudy Gay, was out.
What the Grizzlies did have was two other terrific frontcourt pieces. Zach Randolph could get physical down low. Marc Gasol was capable of stepping outside and stretching the floor. Mike Conley was an up-and-comer at point guard that could run the show.
Memphis came into San Antonio and shot 55 percent in Game 1. Duncan played well, getting 16 points/13 rebounds, but no one else did and the Grizzlies immediately took away homecourt advantage with the 101-98 win.
The Spurs toughened up the defense for Game 2, got another solid performance from Duncan, this one good for 16/10 and got a 93-87 win. Now they needed to go on the road and reclaim the homecourt edge.
But San Antonio fell behind by ten points at halftime of Game 3. They shot just 2-for-15 from three-point range. Even though Ginobili went for 23 and Duncan continued to deliver, this time 13/11, there was no depth to the production and the Spurs lost 91-88.
Game 4 was more of the same and worse. On top of more cold shooting behind the arc, San Antonio also turned it over 17 times and Duncan had his worst game of the series. A bad 104-86 loss put the Spurs on the brink of elimination.
No one was counting San Antonio out. Even in a 3-1 series hole, they just needed to defend their home floor and find a way to sneak out a road win in Game 6. The backcourt stepped up with an electric performance in Game 5. Ginobili lit it up for a 33/6/6 line. Parker scored 24 and dished nine assists. Duncan hit the boards for twelve rebounds.
But it’s revealing that in spite of this, the Spurs still needed overtime to get a 110-103 win and stay alive. When they went back on the road, the result was shaky defense—the Grizzlies shot 52 percent—and poor rebounding, losing the board battle 43-32. The season ended with a 99-91 loss. Randolph and Gasol had combined to average 35 points/21 rebounds per game in the series. Duncan’s consistency wasn’t a sufficient answer.
The hard end to the season was a bitter pill to swallow, but with the passage of time we know that 2011 did indeed mark the beginning of one last great run for the Duncan-era Spurs. This was the first of four straight years as a serious title contender. They reached the conference finals in 2012, the NBA Finals in 2013, and in 2014 the Spurs captured Duncan and Popovich’s fifth ring.