The 2015 San Antonio Spurs came into the season on a high—a redemptive championship run in 2014 that provided one more layer of greatness to the legacies of power forward Tim Duncan and head coach Gregg Popovich. The ’15 Spurs were plenty good, but in a competitive Western Conference landscape, they slipped from championship level.
Duncan continued to amaze, and at age 38, the power forward averaged 14 points/9 rebounds and made 3rd-team All-NBA. Tony Parker, the 32-year-old point guard, also scored 14ppg and averaged five assists a night. Danny Green continued to be a reliable three-point shooter, hitting 42 percent from behind the arc and averaging 12ppg. Manu Ginobili was now 37-years-old, but still coming off the bench and averaging double-digit points per game.
The depth of the last two seasons wasn’t as strong. In fact, it might have been fatal, if not for the fact that the player who seemed to be the franchise future, took another big step forward. Kawhi Leonard, now 25-years-old, had his best season at 17 points/7 rebounds. Leonard was also the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year and the biggest reason the Spurs ranked second in the league for defensive efficiency.
San Antonio muddled out of the gate early on, going 5-4. But included in that stretch were wins over contenders in the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. Then the Spurs got hot. They won eight in a row, including a 92-90 win at Cleveland, where LeBron James had just gone via free agency.
Consecutive losses to playoff teams in the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers, both in triple overtime, slowed the momentum. And in December, the Spurs went cold. They lost five of nine games, a stretch that ended with a 114-106 loss to Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder on Christmas Day. San Antonio’s record was 18-12—not bad, but only good for seventh place in the Western Conference standings.
San Antonio won nine of eleven games during January. In February, they gave back what they had gained, with 4-5 stretch. They entered March with a 36-23 record, still seventh in the West.
The February-March timeframe had been when the Spurs heated up in previous years and 2015 proved no different. They ripped off 19 wins in 22 games. While Golden State was running away with the top seed in the West, the race from the 2 thru 6 spots was wide open. San Antonio entered the final game of the regular season at 55-26 and could land anywhere on that 2-6 ladder.
The regular season finale was in New Orleans. The Pelicans, led by Anthony Davis, were playing a win-or-go-home game. Those stakes, combined with the wide range of landing places for the Spurs, gave the game an intensity rarely seen in the NBA regular season.
New Orleans came out fired up and put San Antonio in a 34-19 hole after the first quarter. The Spurs crawled their way back into it, but lost 108-103. A 55-27 record would have been good for the 2-seed in the East. In the West, it left San Antonio at #6 and a long road back to the Finals.
The Clippers were the first-round opponent. With Chris Paul at the point, along with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan up front, the Clips were a title contender. So were the Spurs. A really good team was going to be knocked out early and this series was at the top of every NBA fan’s watch list in the opening round.
Game 1 played to the same script as the regular season finale. San Antonio was down 30-18 after a quarter. They got back into the game, but lost 102-97, thanks to 37 percent shooting from the floor. But they only needed one win on the road and in Game 2, the Spurs got it. Duncan stepped up with 28 points/11 rebounds. Kawhi added 23/9 and the 111-107 overtime win gave San Antonio control of the series.
Kawhi kept rolling with 32 points in Game 3 and a stirring defensive effort keyed a 100-73 blowout. The Spurs had the chance to drive in the knife in Game 4. Duncan did his thing with a 22/14 line. Kawhi added 26/7 and Parker scored 18. But the defense, so good all year, went soft and allowed the Clippers to shoot 54 percent. A 114-105 loss put homecourt back in LA’s hands.
Duncan just kept right on rolling, with a 21/11 line in Game 5. Even though Kawhi had a bad night shooting, the Spurs as a team went 11-for-23 from behind the arc. Patty Mills came off the bench to hit all four of his three-point attempts. Meanwhile, the Clippers were a miserable 1-for-14 from three-point range. Another 111-107 win gave the Spurs a chance to clinch this series at home.
But again, the Spurs could not drive in the knife on their homefloor. An all-around mediocre performance was punctuated by missing nine of 21 free throws. San Antonio lost Game 6, 102-96. If they were going to win this series, it would have to be in a road Game 7.
A national audience watched a great series be settled by an epic game. Duncan went off for 27 points/11 rebounds. Parker scored 20 points. But Kawhi did not play well, while Griffin did for the Clippers. And Chris Paul was coming through with 27 points of his own. When Paul hit a jumper just over the outstretched fingertips of Duncan with one second remaining, the Spurs were beaten, 111-109.
Losing any series like this is tough, especially in the first round, but there were plenty of reasons San Antonio fans could be at peace. Golden State was coming into their own as a powerhouse and it’s unlikely the Spurs could have stopped the Warriors from their eventual NBA championship. What’s more, Leonard had emerged. Even when Duncan finally declined and retired (if that ever happened), the future seemed bright.