2012 San Antonio Spurs: A Conference Finals Run

The 2012 San Antonio Spurs were looking for some redemption. A big regular season in 2011 had crashed hard with a playoff flameout. The Spurs spent much of 2012—and much of the postseason—looking like they would get that redemption. Then a sudden turn of events ended an excellent year on a dour note.

Tim Duncan was 35-years-old, but the great power forward still averaged 15 points/9 rebounds per game. Duncan anchored a frontline that relied on varied contributions from Richard Jefferson to Tiago Splitter to young DeJuan Blair to a rookie by the name of Kawhi Leonard.

The backcourt was ably led by point guard Tony Parker. With a per-game average of 18 points/7 assists, Parker made second-team All-NBA. His production was enough to offset the fact Manu Ginobili missed half the regular season. Danny Green, the long-range marksman, also helped pick up the slack in Ginobili’s absence.

With Parker and Duncan holding down the lineup and head coach Gregg Popovich brilliantly orchestrating the role players, the Spurs ranked 1st in the league in offensive efficiency. The defense wasn’t quite that good, but at 10th in the efficiency rankings, it was plenty good enough to win and make San Antonio a legitimate contender for the NBA title.

Labor strife and a lockout delayed the start of this season until Christmas and the regular season was shortened to 66 games. The Spurs opened on December 26 with a 95-82 win over the Memphis Grizzlies—if nothing else, salvaging some wounded pride after losing to the Grizzlies in the first round of the previous year’s playoffs.

But mediocrity marked San Antonio’s play through the end of January. The Spurs lost two out of three games to a non-playoff team in the Houston Rockets. They were hammered at LeBron James’ Miami Heat. They lost by double-digits to Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder. Simply gaining a split with the Dallas Mavericks, the defending champ was the high point. San Antonio was 13-9 going into February, in sixth place in the Western Conference.

A win at Memphis on the final day of January kickstarted an 11-game winning streak that got the Spurs moving. One of those wins was a 107-96 triumph over the Thunder. Seven of the victories came on the road. By the end of February, San Antonio was up to 24-11 and sitting on second place in the Western Conference standings.

The Spurs were still four games back of the Thunder, so they went back to work. San Antonio got a win on the road at Oklahoma City and a one-point win on the road in Boston, where the Celtics were en route to a conference finals appearance. San Antonio ripped off another 11-game winning streak. By April 8, the Spurs and Thunder were in a dead heat for the top playoff seed.

There were three games against a contending Los Angeles Lakers team, led by Kobe Bryant, in the season’s final 2 ½ weeks. San Antonio won twice. With four games to play, the Spurs were 46-16 and the Thunder were 46-17. San Antonio closed strong, with four straight wins. Oklahoma City lost three times. The Spurs finished 50-16 and had the best record in the Western Conference.

San Antonio opened the playoffs against the Utah Jazz. Utah was led by two physical forwards in Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. A 21-year-old Gordon Heyward was coming into his own in the backcourt. The Jazz’s 36-30 record was pretty good for an 8-seed and they ranked sixth in the league in offensive efficiency.

But Utah also ranked 19th in defensive efficiency. Parker and Duncan went right to work at exploiting the weakness. Parker dropped 28 points and dished eight assists in Game 1, while Duncan added 17 points/11 rebounds. The Spurs won 106-91.

San Antonio’s famed balanced reigned in Game 2, with seven players getting between 10-18 points. The defense forced Utah into 34 percent shooting and Duncan cleaned up the misses with 13 rebounds. A decisive 114-83 win ensured the Spurs would hold serve at home.

Rebounding slipped in Game 3, but the backcourt picked up the pace. Parker dropped 27 points. A healthy Ginobili came of the bench to hand out ten assists. Stephen Jackson and Splitter had good games in reserve. A 102-90 put the Spurs a game from clinching.

Utah played defense like a desperate team on their home floor and created an ugly Game 4, one where both teams shot under 40 percent. The Jazz also rebounded like a desperate team, controlling the boards. But what Utah could not do was hit the three-ball—the Jazz missed all thirteen of their shots behind the arc. Meanwhile, the Spurs made their three-point shots count. Led by Ginobili and Jackson, they were 10/22 from trey range. It was enough to close out the sweep, 87-81.

A resurgent Los Angeles Clippers team that had acquired Chris Paul before the season was up in the second round. The matchup between Paul and Parker was a good subplot underneath what had the potential to be a very good series. The Clips also had Blake Griffin at power forward. They had reliable vets in Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler. They had a rising young star in DeAndre Jordan.

The heralded point guard showdown fizzled in Game 1, with Parker and Paul both having off nights. That was fine with San Antonio—Duncan rolled to a big 26/10 line while Ginobili came in off the bench to drop 22 points. The Spurs cruised to a 108-92 win.

San Antonio’s defense forced Paul into eight turnovers in Game 2. Combined with 53 percent shooting from the floor, it was enough for an easy 105-88 win. Once again, the Spurs not only held serve at home, they did it with ease.

On the road in Los Angeles, San Antonio dug themselves a huge 33-11 hole after the first quarter. This series looked ready to get competitive again. Except that Duncan went for a 19/13 game. Parker scored 23 and dished ten assists. And the Spurs kept making Paul’s life miserable, forcing him into 5-for-17 shooting. In a stunning turnaround, San Antonio wiped the lead out over the second and third quarters and then took over down the stretch. A 96-86 win all but sealed this deal.

Duncan and the reserves took over in Game 4. The Big Fundamental posted a 21/9 line, while the Spurs bench outscored the Clipper reserves 43-31. It was the most competitive game San Antonio had faced yet in the playoffs, but it still ended as a 102-99 win and a second straight sweep. The conference finals and Oklahoma City were at hand.

The Thunder were an emerging power making their first real run in the playoffs. Durant was supported by Russell Westbrook. And another young star, James Harden, was the Sixth Man of the Year. It was the battle of OKC’s up-and-comers and San Antonio’s old guard.

The old guard again held serve in Game 1 at home. The defense held Oklahoma City to 42 percent shooting. Ginobili went off for 26 points, another great playoff performance off the bench for the veteran. The Spurs won 101-98.

Some more stringent defense, again holding OKC to 42 percent from the floor, followed in Game 2. Even with a bad night for Duncan, Kawhi stepped up with an 18/10 line, the best performance of his young playoff career. Ginobili had another 20-point game. And Parker? Parker just went off, scoring 34 points on 16-for-21 shooting. A 120-111 win put the Spurs up 2-0 in the series.

San Antonio was now 10-0 in the playoffs. At the start of the postseason the focus had been on LeBron’s push for his first title in Miami. But right now, the Spurs looked every bit the team to beat for the championship. But as it turned out, they would not win another basketball game this season.

Poor shooting and sloppy care of the ball led to a 102-82 blowout loss in Game 3. In Game 4, it was rebounding and defense that failed in a 109-103 loss.

Even so, San Antonio still held homecourt advantage. No serious person really thought they were going to undefeated through the entire playoffs. They simply needed to get home for Game 5 and get back on track.

To some extent, they did. Duncan’s 18/12 night keyed a rebounding edge. Manu kept right on rolling, pouring in 34 points. But Parker was struggling and the turnovers were coming—21 for the team as a whole. Combined with more soft defense, the Spurs lost at home 108-103.

The stars shined on the road in Game 6. Duncan posted a big 25/14 line, while Parker knocked down 29 and handed out twelve assists. San Antonio led 34-20 after the first quarter. If they could just get this road win, a home Game 7 could still make everything all right. But Durant and Westbrook were rising to the occasion. The Thunder were getting to the foul line, while the Spurs were not.

A 25-14 difference in free throw points was the difference. OKC closed the gap in the third quarter and then knocked out San Antonio with a 107-99 loss. The Spurs were going home.

The sudden turnabout after the strong finish to the regular season and the scorching run through 2 ½ rounds of the playoffs was clearly a disappointment. In the moment, it was hard to look past that.

But with a broader historical view, we know that San Antonio’s proud veterans kept coming. The 2012 season is just one part of a strong four-year run that had started in 2011 and saw the Spurs go progressively further in the postseason each time.  In 2013, they made it back to the NBA Finals. And in 2014, they finished the job and won the fifth championship of the Duncan era.