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Now jump to this May. The Spurs are holding shootaround at a health club in San Francisco before a conference semifinal game against the Warriors. There is a reassuring familiarity to the scene. Pop sits courtside, legs crossed, frowning. Duncan practices free throws, his form as rigid as ever. Parker is off to the side, talking to a reporter in French. Ginóbili approaches the rest of the media, smiling. He pats one reporter on the back, says hello by name to two others. At 35, his hair has thinned to a fuzz, and he has aged the most visibly of the three. And yet he cannot alter his style of play. So Popovich must quarantine him for stretches, limiting his minutes lest he sprint and tumble and drive and flop his way to another injury. Ginóbili is not a good candidate to morph into a spot-up shooter in his later years, like Allen. Manu knows but one way to play.
Over on one sideline stands Budenholzer. He's now in his 19th year with San Antonio, having advanced from the film room to, in 2007, the lead assistant. Only Pop is longer-tenured. Many times over the years Budenholzer has said he has "the best job in the NBA." And yet, in two weeks he will accept the head coaching job with the Hawks, lured away by former Spurs forward Danny Ferry, now Atlanta's general manager. Budenholzer loves the Spurs, but to stay would be a daunting challenge. Succeeding Pop? Without the Big Three? That may not be the best job in the NBA.
In the meantime, to the surprise of most everyone, the Big Three rallies for one more push. The Lakers never materialize as the threat they appeared to be. The Thunder loses All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook to a knee injury early in the playoffs, turning the West into a wide-open race. After surviving against Golden State, San Antonio sweeps the Grizzlies to land back in the Finals for the first time in six years.
So now it is the Saturday before the Finals begin, the Spurs awaiting the winner of the Heat-Pacers series. It is an off day, and their mentor/leader/drill sergeant heads to the practice facility and is surprised to find Duncan shooting jumpers with assistant coach Sean Marks. Pop tries to shoo Duncan out of the gym. You should be resting, he says. Duncan just stares back. In the end it is he who shoos away his coach.
The 64-year-old Popovich laughs while telling this story on the phone a couple of hours later. He is stir-crazy from the weeklong layoff. He spends his time watching film and arguing with his assistants about how much to do in practice. Should they prep more or rest their veterans? Pop is too consumed to read a book or watch TV or go to a movie. "It's really sick, I guess," he says. "I just go on adrenaline until it's over."
Though he doesn't say it, Popovich surely understands the potential finality of this postseason. While the Spurs may make it back to the Finals in years to come, it is unlikely to be with Ginóbili, Parker and Duncan as their three best players. So Pop takes some time to reflect on all they have accomplished. He lauds their character, how they cheered for teammates and were patient with the endless cast of role players who came in year after year. He calls the three of them "family," talks of how he drinks wine with Tony and Manu and Cokes with Tim. Earlier in the morning he sat in the film room with Ginóbili, discussing how to defend the pick-and-roll against Indiana and Miami, like a couple of old coaches.
"To this day I can't believe it all fit together like it did," Pop says of his trio. "If you say, How did you guys find Ginóbili, you must be really good scouts, my response is, 'Are you s----ing me?' He was a competitor, and we liked his style. But it was the 57th pick. What the hell, let's take a shot. Same with Tony. He was the 28th pick. There's not a lot of pressure there. We didn't know all this would happen in the beginning. It really is a credit to the three of them."
And now the unknown. Over the coming weeks, the three veterans, with their veteran coach, will try to win four more games in the Finals. They will shout in the huddle and debate during practice. They will bust their coach's balls, and admonish the younger Spurs when they fail to rotate or go over the screen or take an open shot. When given an opportunity to throw one another under the bus to the media, they will politely decline.
And in the end the three men will either win their fourth title together or they won't. This will matter, of course, but not nearly so much as the journey that got them here.