Spurs’ ‘wonderful season’ leads to summer uncertainty

By Jeff McDonald

The old champion sat in the corner locker at the FedEx Forum late Friday night, vanquished and spent. He performed his perfunctory media obligations, answering in a low tone a few questions about one of the most disappointing playoff ousters of his Hall of Fame career.

And then, Tim Duncan stood up, walked toward the door and into the most uncertain offseason of his life.

On his way to the bus, the Spurs forward recognized a familiar face and paused with one more thought.

“Looks like we got an offensive tackle,” Duncan said, referring to the NFL draft and his beloved Chicago Bears. “We needed two.”

With the season finished more quickly than anyone could have surmised, and the possibility of a lockout postponing the start of his 14th season, Duncan will have plenty of time to ponder both the future and football.

By becoming the second No. 8 seed in the best-of-7 era to topple a No. 1, the Memphis Grizzlies spoiled what was supposed to be Duncan’s last, best run to a fifth NBA championship.

“With the seeding and the situation, I think we’re a better team than we showed,” said Duncan, who turned 35 this month. “I thought we could have put together a much better series.”

In a brutally effective six-game march, capped with a 99-91 victory in Game 6, Memphis brought an unceremonious end to a season in which the Spurs defied expectations, for better and worse.

Nobody imagined a 61-win regular season, the second-best of the Duncan era, during which the Spurs led the NBA for 70 games. Nobody imagined they would flame out as a top seed in the first round, because it had so rarely happened before.

“It was a disappointing end to a wonderful season,” coach Gregg Popovich said Saturday, after the team conducted its year-end meetings.

For the second time in three postseasons, the Spurs failed to advance to the second round. At four years now without an NBA title, it marks the longest drought of Duncan’s career.

Give the Grizzlies credit. Their hard-nosed defense, led by Tony Allen and Shane Battier and a group of castoffs, flummoxed what had been the most offensively potent team of the Popovich era.

By the end of the series, it didn’t even seem like an upset.

“We lost to a team that played better than us for more of the minutes,” said guard Manu Ginobili, who turns 34 in June. “We went through a great season and got in a position to win 61 games, but we couldn’t maintain that high level.”

In autopsying the season Saturday, Popovich blamed April injuries to Duncan and Ginobili for throwing off the Spurs’ groove heading into the playoffs. The Spurs were 57-13 before Duncan went down, 4-8 after.

“We didn’t really go into the playoffs with that rhythm and that mojo you want,” Popovich said. “We think things could have had a different look if we’d had that rhythm going in, but it never did get there.

“Confidence is a big deal in the playoffs. We thought we could overcome it, but Memphis had to cooperate — and they did not.”

It is difficult to imagine the Spurs having an easier time next season.

With a landlocked payroll, there isn’t much general manager R.C. Buford can do to remake the roster. The NBA draft, in which the Spurs possess the 29th pick for what is considered to be a historically shallow prospect pool, is unlikely to be of much help.

Antonio McDyess, the 36-year-old center who spent much of the series battered by Memphis’ bruising Zach Randolph, plans to retire.

“We’re not going to fight him,” Popovich said.

Duncan is entering the final year of his contract but has the option of forgoing the roughly $21.2 million he is owed to sign a longer-term deal at a lower starting price, as Richard Jefferson did last summer. That could give the Spurs a bit of financial wiggle room to chase free agents.

“There will be some changes, but we never get drastic in that sense,” Popovich said. “Somebody asked me yesterday, ‘We lost, do we blow it up’?? That’s the most preposterous attitude you can have.”

Whatever the offseason holds, winning 60 games again next season will be a tall order, and — in a Western Conference in which the eighth seed can beat the first — simply making the playoffs will be a chore.

The apocalypse scenario for Spurs fans remains a lockout that erases the entire final year of Duncan’s deal, after which he could walk away for good.

Duncan was in no mood to consider that possibility after Game 6.

“I just lost a game,” Duncan said. “I’m not even worried about any of that stuff.”

Between now and the tenuous start of the 2011-12 campaign, there will be time to think about roster overhauls, and time to debate the future and, maybe, to ponder the end of an era.

Too much time, if you ask the Spurs.

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