He rested his key players early and often in the regular season, even putting them on a plane once, annoying some fans and angering the league. But, once again, we see clearly that Gregg Popovich knew exactly what he was doing.
Did you see how refreshed Tim Duncan looked throughout the playoffs, especially against a beastly interior team like the Grizzlies?
How about that Tony Parker -- darting, slashing, popping shots, chasing down balls and his man on defense, finally finding the energy to drop 37 points Monday to eliminate Memphis?
And Manu Ginobili, the often-injured but valuable sub, did he reach for a body part over the last few weeks? No, all he did was go for the jugular, like the rest of the Spurs in this two-month march to yet another Western Conference title and their first NBA Finals appearance since 2007.
"They're still healthy and a lot of people think the grass is greener on the other side, if you change the coach, change the system … if you stay the course and have leaders who are quality people, you follow them as long as you can. I've been hanging on Timmy's coat-tails for a long time now," said Popovich.
The Spurs dismantled the Grizzlies quite thoroughly with a sweep that nobody saw coming, mainly because they stayed healthy and frisky and … hungry. It's a credit to their coach, who drew it up nicely over the previous seven months, thumbing his nose to anyone who disagreed with his way of preserving his Big Three for the stretch run. After watching the Spurs come up short over the past few years partly due to injuries, it was the only way for Popovich and his team to survive the rugged West and give themselves a chance to win a fifth NBA title. The first one was 13 years ago for Pop and Duncan. That's quite an accomplishment for the coach, player and organization, and they showed once again why they're considered the class of the NBA.
After the buzzer sounded in Memphis, the Spurs tackled Duncan, now 37 but still moving and playing like a much younger power forward, and won for the sixth straight game.
"I promised Tim we would get back to the Finals and a chance to win the whole thing," said Parker. "I think everyone on the team, we really wanted to do it for him."
The Spurs play like a t-e-a-m perhaps quite like no other. It starts with Duncan, obviously; he and Parker and Ginobili are all on the same page. And have been for almost a decade together. The real development is how the surrounding cast has blended in so well and so quickly: Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, etc., etc. With the possible exception of Leonard, the supporting cast might have trouble finding minutes if they played for a number of other contending teams. On the Spurs, all have a role and they embrace it. You don't see or hear about internal strife on the Spurs and players whining about minutes. When that happened last month, the Spurs cut Stephen Jackson, who suddenly didn't fit the system any longer. It shows how much respect they have for Duncan and, mostly, Popovich.
"We don't depend on one guy," said Popovich. "We depend on everybody."
Well, they leaned quite heavily on Parker lately. After surviving an initial takeover threat from Steph Curry in the previous round, Parker has been a top-five player in the NBA playoffs, and his mastery of the Grizzlies in Game 4 was the performance of the post-season for the Spurs.
"He's had a lot of good games but this one was up there," said Popovich. "I said it all year, I thought he was better than any point guard in the league."
Their return to the Finals won't be applauded by everyone. Appreciated, yes. Not unanimously welcomed, though. Six years ago the Finals drew record-low ratings with the Spurs. Actually, each time the Spurs played in the Finals, most of the country yawned and reached for the remote. That could be the case again, because the Spurs once again aren't bringing dunkers or ball-handling wizards. Those players and teams are sitting at home. Those players and teams lost to the Spurs, who are a lot like they were in 1999 when they won the first of four titles with Duncan.
The other snicker about the Spurs is how they earned their "model franchise" label by being lucky enough to draft David Robinson and Duncan. That's like having Joe Montana followed by Steve Young. Both times, the Spurs suspiciously sank low enough to draft high enough. And it's probably true the franchise wouldn't have any shine or maybe any titles if not for that double stroke of fortune.
But the Spurs are the most copied team in the league because of how they handle their business. Their stable from the owner down. Popovich is in his 17th year, the longest tenured coach with one team in professional sports. R.C. Buford is still the general manager. The Spurs found Parker late in the first round and Ginobili in the second. Actually, with the exception of Duncan, none of the Spurs were plucked with high lottery picks (not counting Tracy McGrady) or purchased through a big-money free agent signing. That's why they are a model to be followed.
Interestingly, teams call the Spurs whenever they need help. The Spurs have trained the general managers for the Magic, Thunder, Hawks, Pelicans and Jazz and the coaches for the Magic and Cavs. That's the ultimate sign of respect.
Any of those teams would be so lucky to reach the Finals five times in 14 years with the same coach and same franchise player. But some things can't be copied.
Meanwhile, the Spurs are reaching for another ring. Healthy and rested and ready.