The David Robinson era that began in San Antonio with such promise in 1990 had gone through seven years of regular season success and playoff disappointment, before an injury to Robinson resulted in the Spurs going 20-62 in the 1997 season.
But the reward was great—with the #1 pick in the draft, the Spurs took power forward Tim Duncan. Robinson was coming back healthy, and the 1998 San Antonio Spurs were set to usher in a glorious new era for the franchise.
Robinson was now 32-years-old and coming off a broken foot, but the center could still play—he averaged 22 points/11 rebounds per game to go with defensive domination of the interior in 1998. Duncan was a fresh 21-years-old, but showed how ready he was for the NBA with averages of 21/12, and winning Rookie of the Year honors.
The combination of the two gave San Antonio an inside tandem no one in the league could match. Avery Johnson was still a skilled point guard, averaging eight assists per game. The rest of the team was pieced together with role players, from Jaren Jackson and Vinny Del Negro in the backcourt to Sean Elliot—whose game had faded since its high point in the mid-1990s—at small forward, to Will Perdue down low.
Overseeing it all was another new find San Antonio came up with in their lost season of 1997. Eighteen games into that year, the Spurs named Greg Popovich their new head coach and life in the NBA would never be the same.
San Antonio won six of their first seven games, but they were subsequently blown out by the Seattle SuperSonics (today’s Oklahoma City Thunder) and Utah Jazz, the last two Western Conference champions and who would finish with the best two records in the West this season. The Spurs slipped to 10-10 before finding their footing.
A seven-game winning streak was the beginning of a 19-4 stretch, and the overall record grew to 34-14 in early February. The Spurs stayed very steady and consistent, something that would become their hallmark in the Popovich/Duncan era.
They finished with a record of 56-26. But it was only good for the 5-seed in the West. The large shadow of Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls was temporarily covering up the fact that the West was top-to-bottom a much deeper conference. Once Jordan retired at the end of this season, that reality burst into the open.
Thus, the first San Antonio playoff series of the Tim Duncan era would begin on the road, against the Phoenix Suns in what was then a best-of-five first round. If the rookie had nerves, they didn’t show—Duncan put up 32 points/10 rebounds, Robinson posted a 26/15 line and Johnson knocked down 22 points. San Antonio, after trailing by six to start the fourth quarter, took over and won 102-96.
A 108-101 loss in Game 2 evened the series, but the Spurs could clinch the series if they held serve at home in Games 3 & 4. Defensively, even Robinson and Duncan weren’t containing Phoenix’s Antonio McDyess in Game 3, who went for 26/17. But the Spurs shot 49%, Duncan answered with a 22/14 performance and he had more help than McDyess. Del Negro and Jackson knocked down 18 apiece and the Spurs won 100-88.
Game 4 saw San Antonio close the series the way they opened it—by owning the fourth quarter. They trailed at the half, and led by five after three quarters, but took over in the final period, winning the game 99-80. Duncan had a rough game in first close-out spot, but Robinson hauled down 21 rebounds and Johnson stepped out of his playmaking role to drill 30 points on 11-for-15 shooting.
Utah, with the best record in the NBA, was next, with its tandem of John Stockton at the point and Karl Malone at power forward. Duncan was ready for them in Game 1, getting 33 points and pulling in 10 rebounds. But Robinson struggled mightily, shooting 5-for-17, and the Jazz escaped with an 83-82 win.
The trio of Duncan, Robinson and Johnson all were clutch in Game 2, combining for 68 points, and the team as a whole shot 55 percent. But there was no depth to be had—the Jazz bench outscored their Spurs counterparts 42-20 and Utah’s 109-106 win put San Antonio’s back to the wall as the series shifted to Texas.
San Antonio played like a desperate team defensively, holding Utah to 29 percent shooting in Game 3 and just nine points in the third quarter of an 86-64 rout. It gave the Spurs a chance to get back in the series in a big Game 4. But Robinson, who had struggled against this opponent in 1996, again could not get untracked offensively.
Robinson shot just 5-for-13, while Malone went off with a huge game, shooting 17-for-28, scoring 34 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. Utah survived 82-73. The Western Conference semifinals ended back in Salt Lake City in Game 5 with another rough night for the Admiral—he shot 5-for-16, and Duncan only took ten shots in an 87-77 loss.
Without the benefit of hindsight, this was the same old Spurs. A good team to be sure, and nothing to complain about. But from 1990-96, they had won three division titles at a time when the league was only split into two divisions per conference. There had been three more second place finishes. But only once had the Spurs gotten past the second round of the playoffs. 1998 was no different.
Of course we have the benefit of the hindsight, and know that Duncan got his feet wet and that one year later San Antonio would finally be on top of the basketball world. And they would get there four more times (and counting?) with Duncan leading the way.