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The Spurs are back

Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are back in the NBA Finals, despite a late-season swoon that seemed to justify the claim that this team was not of championship caliber. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

My love/hate relationship with the San Antonio Spurs hit its highest/lowest point as the night of Feb. 27 approached the witching hour.

I had just finished a column that all but predicted they would win this year's NBA championship. This was my answer to the many who laughed at me for sticking with this "boring old" team. Heck, over the years, I've even had "First Take" producers discourage me from talking about the Spurs on air because they're such ratings killers. But now ...

I had bled over this column, and I was proud of it. This was how it began ...

DO NOT READ THIS.

This column will be a waste of your LeBron-loving, Kobe-craving time. It will make you sleepy and will give you bad dreams. Read any farther and all you'll be Craven is Wes, as in "Nightmare on Stern Street," with Gregg Popovich as Freddy Krueger.

The NBA's worst nightmare is back again, better than ever, a plague of layups oozing toward ... no, no, NO ... the NBA Finals! Please, God, keep the San Antonio Spurs from dragging ABC's ratings down into their netherworld of humility and ball sharing! The Spurs were responsible for the lowest Finals ratings ever (the sweep of LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007), the second lowest (over the Nets in '03) and even the sixth lowest, over Detroit in SEVEN GAMES in '05.

Just when you thought it was safe to believe Tim "No Dunkin'" Duncan had reached retirement age, HE'S back, 37 going on 27, defending the rim with ground-bound savvy and sheer length that make Dwight Howard look more like Curly, Moe or Larry Howard. Yes, Tim Duncan, the Most Boring Superstar in Sports History, has AGAIN led the Spurs to the NBA's best record. By three games.

Biggest threat to the defending champion Heat?

"The Spurs," TNT analyst Steve Kerr said without hesitation on "First Take" in February, explaining they have just the kind of ball-moving offense that can spread and pick apart Miami's defense with backdoor cuts and weakside 3s.

Cue blood-curdling scream ...

Little did I know it was nearly time to cue my scream. The team that gave me so many on-air bragging rights the first four years of our show was about to haunt me the way it has for the past five. The Best Organization in Sports, with championships in 1999, 2003, '05 and '07, hadn't even been to the Finals in five years. This model of NBA regular-season consistency has too often given inconsistent postseason effort. The Big Three of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker kept validating the knock that they're getting too old and fragile.

That night of Feb. 27, one formality remained: My Spurs needed to finish off a home win over a bad Suns team. Inspired by chants of "M-V-P!" Tony Parker lifted the Spurs to an 11-point lead early in the fourth quarter -- the same Parker I'd been pushing for MVP day after day on TV.

With 3.7 seconds remaining, Ginobili, the man I would pick to shoot the free throws for my life, made the first to give San Antonio a three-point lead. My editor, John Hassan, awaited my column, so my finger rested on "send" as Manu stroked the clinching free throw ...

... which missed.

Long overhand pass upcourt to the Suns' Wesley Johnson, who made a 24-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime. Why didn't Popovich -- the NBA's Belichick, or is it the other way around? -- drop his players back into a prevent defense to eliminate that kind of touchdown pass and force a 50-foot 3-point heave?

That was the beginning of the end of the Spurs as I knew and loved them. Had I jinxed them by writing this tribute? They went 0-for-10 in overtime and lost. We decided to put my column on hold.

I was devastated and felt strangely betrayed. I half-kiddingly took it out on my Spurs the next morning on our show -- OK, a fourth-kiddingly -- and Stephen A. Smith would constantly remind me over the next six weeks that I had given up on them.

Two nights after the Phoenix debacle, Parker wrecked his ankle so badly I was told it wouldn't fully heal until the offseason. That officially killed my column.

A week after that, my Spurs lost at home by 30 -- allowing 46 in the fourth quarter! -- to a Portland team that would finish 16 games under .500. Four nights after THAT, the Spurs lost by 24 at Minnesota, which would finish 20 games under .500. The Spurs would lose 10 of their last 20 and seven of their last 10 -- while losing Ginobili to a torn hamstring and Boris Diaw to back surgery (cyst removal). All bad signs. Contenders don't plunge into the playoffs.

Then, when I least expected it, the basketball gods were good and my Spurs turned back the clock to Feb. 26.

They were extremely fortunate to draw a first-round "bye" -- the decimated Lakers. Parker and Ginobili limped through four straight wins. The Spurs were even more fortunate that Ginobili, who was 1-for-8 from 3 until then, ripped the rainbow that saved them in double overtime at home against Golden State in Game 1. And they were more fortunate still when Parker, who was 1-for-14 from the field, stepped up and sank the 3 that sank the Warriors in the closeout Game 6 at Golden State.

Those two games were why I've often argued that Ginobili and Parker form the NBA's most exciting backcourt. Nearly every night, one or the other will make a shot or pass that makes you say, "Wow, I'm not sure I've ever seen that." And nearly every night, one or the other will go colder than Pop's in-game interviews or go on turnover sprees that will take several more days off my life.

Most experts picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Spurs. But the heavens opened, and a miracle was wrought. Parker's ankle appeared to completely heal. He was suddenly TONY PARKER again, dribbling championship rings around two of the NBA's best on-ball defenders, Tony Allen and Mike Conley Jr., pulling up for automatic midrange jumpers and dominating the paint as if he were 7 feet tall. With 18 assists in Game 2 and 37 points in the broom game, Parker eclipsed LeBron as the MVP of the playoffs so far.

Of course, Ginobili's arctic shooting and four fourth-quarter turnovers in Game 4 again had me screaming at my TV, "Get him outta there, Pop." But at least Ginobili, at 35, appears to be healthy. His late-season injuries often have doomed the Spurs in the postseason.

That's long been my lone quibble with Popovich. Does he rest his players so much that he plants a seed of doubt about how old and fragile they are? Do his teams get so used to pacing themselves that they take their feet off the gas during a playoff series, as they perhaps did last season when they blew a 2-0 lead to Oklahoma City in the conference finals?

Not this time.

I've been re-emboldened to pick the Spurs to win it all because of the rare urgency with which they attacked Memphis in Game 4 -- especially Parker. Memphis, which won four straight in previous rounds against the Clippers and Thunder, gave San Antonio its best shot Monday night. And Parker was just better.

Now Popovich can rest his Spurs because he has no choice. Perfect: Duncan and his braced knee have nine days to rest for a run at his fifth ring in five Finals.

Yet -- full disclosure -- I admit that each of the past two years I thought this team's window had finally slammed shut. If I had been general manager, I would not have stayed the course with the Big Three. But R.C. Buford did. That's why he has been the NBA's best GM for a decade, continually beating the system on a small-market budget by beating rivals' brains out on foreign players. Starters Parker and Tiago Splitter were 28th overall picks, Ginobili the 57th overall. Buford also traded George Hill to the Pacers for the 15th overall pick, which he used on rising star Kawhi Leonard, still 21 years old. Advantage, Spurs.

I also must admit Duncan has occasionally frustrated me with his passive passion. Yes, I have yelled, "Just DUNK it, Tim!" Yet I'm often surprised to find -- huh? -- Duncan had 19 and 12? Duncan, at 37, just made first-team All-NBA for the 10th time in 15 seasons and remains the NBA's best center (don't give me "power forward"). Yes, the same Duncan who, without complaint, allowed Popovich to bench him down the stretch of the closeout game at Golden State.

More from that Feb. 27 column ...

For years I've heard that if the Spurs played in New York Duncan/Ginobili/Parker would be endorsement superstars. San Antonio is only the 37th-biggest TV market. Yet Oklahoma City is 45th, and last year Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden might as well have played in New York as they landed so many national ads.

Maybe it isn't so much about where the Spurs play as much as where their stars are from. Duncan grew up in the Virgin Islands and rarely shows emotion. Parker's father played basketball at Loyola of Chicago then professionally overseas, where he met Tony's mother, a Dutch model -- and Tony was raised in France (as were teammates Diaw and Nando de Colo). Ginobili is from Argentina, Splitter from Brazil.

For sure the Spurs are low on cool, athleticism, ego, edge and police blotter. They don't fight (each other or opponents), don't call each other out, don't trash talk -- and rarely trend. The few times you'll see a Spur on "SportsCenter's" Top Plays -- often a LeBron-athon -- is when that Spur is getting dunked on, probably during a game the Spurs won easily. They don't make superhuman video-game plays like the Heat, Thunder or Clippers. They conduct clinics on opponents. For most kids outside Spurs Nation, the Spurs are worse than homework ...

The NBA's worst nightmare is back. Mine has ended.