Spurs face tough road to repeat

Urgent redemption carried the San Antonio Spurs to their 2014 championship. The hourglass we the media flipped on this franchise more than half-a-decade ago was finally real. Real, finally, to them.

The heartbreak of the 2013 Finals dictated it. The title they could practically squeeze until it slipped through their arms was as soul-crushing as anything the Spurs’ core group, now bound by more than a dozen years of blood and sweat, had ever experienced.

Imagine had the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks completed that near-first-round upset a year ago after leading the series 2-1 before getting run in a Game 7 that set the Spurs on their championship course.

Would Tim Duncan have mustered the energy and motivation (even with a final year left on his contract) to do it all over again? Would Manu Ginobili (he also had one year remaining) have? A first-round exit on the heels of their Miami misery might have ramped up the degree of difficulty on those decisions.

Now with championship rings won by Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014, the lone goal left is to repeat. If not now, never.

Which makes San Antonio’s season-finale loss Wednesday at New Orleans, and its seemingly early indifference that dug a 20-point deficit, so inexplicable.

The Pelicans certainly had everything to lose and the playoffs to gain. Yet it’s not outrageous to suggest that the Spurs’ stake in winning that game was equally massive, the difference between another River Walk fiesta, and the long-delayed, but inevitable end.

For Duncan, who will turn 39 on April 25, the day after Game 3, and Ginobili, 37, will again be free agents. 

By losing at NOLA, San Antonio wadded up the No. 2 seed it had gained by winning its previous 11 games and tossed it into the Mississippi.

It turned away homecourt advantage in both the first (and a rematch against No. 7 Dallas) and second rounds.

They first must find a way around the No. 3 seed Los Angeles Clippers, the underdog in this series despite the reversed seeding.

L.A. split the season series with the Spurs, winning the last two. The Clippers’ No. 1-rated offense averaged 114 points in the final three games against the Spurs’ No. 3-ranked defense.

Alas, the Spurs, by virtue of that single loss in The Big Easy, have set out on the much harder road to a repeat than what could have been.

Only the 1995 Houston Rockets, turbo-charged by a deadline deal for Clyde Drexler, have made it all the way through to June’s winner’s circle after starting the postseason as low as the sixth seed.

Of course, it can and should be noted that the reigning champs are no typical sixth seed. They won 55 games. Kawhi Leonard is again playing brilliantly. The Spurs’ vaunted motion offense has been flowing like wine. Finishing sixth is not an indictment of a team that can’t match up with the very best, but rather a testament to a ruthless conference in which seeds 2 through 6 (with the exception of 51-win Portland) were separated by a single game. Houston, with 56 wins, jumped from No. 5 to No. 2 just as the Spurs dropped.

In that other conference, for example, the sixth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks won 41 games.

So it all gets started Sunday night at L.A.’s Staples Center, a matchup that features two of the league’s four current coaches who have won a championship.

Either Gregg Popovich or Doc Rivers will go home after the first round.

Either Duncan and Ginobili will be forced to face their futures  before Cinco de Mayo, or Chris Paul, 10 years in and three years with the Clippers, will again fall disappointingly short of removing his name from atop the list of best players never to advance beyond the second round.

Either San Antonio will survive this challenging first-round series and move on, or this time the sand in the Spurs’ forever hourglass might truly, inevitably run out.

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