- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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DALLAS -- The NBA Finals are one victory away for the San Antonio Spurs, which seemingly means that the suspense has essentially been drained out of the Western Conference finals.
Except that the Spurs, to a degree, are surprised to be this close.
Right, David Robinson?
"To a degree," Mister Robinson said, "yes."
The comment does need some context, but the venerable Admiral makes the concession readily. The admission comes when Robinson is asked if he saw his final season as a possible championship season back in October. Or even December. Robinson can't conceal his surprise.
"I didn't know we would be this good," Robinson admitted. "... The kind of depth we have now, no one could have predicted it."
Props to Robinson, always a gentleman, for always telling the truth. NBA bravado normally dictates that a team spokesman like Robinson must say he believed all along that the Spurs would be here, five wins shy of their second title in a half-decade.
Instead Robinson -- along with Tim Duncan -- doesn't deny that the Spurs' in-house projections were not championship-geared when they convened for training camp. Not with so much youth around the 7-foot fixtures. The big jump back to elitism was supposed to happen this summer, when San Antonio management is poised to use the salary-cap space left behind by Robinson's forthcoming retirement to sign another All-Star.
Of course, if a wave of honesty washed over the league, these kind of admissions would be coming from all four teams that reached the conference finals. Not a single group from this foursome -- San Antonio, New Jersey, Dallas and ousted Detroit -- can claim that it saw itself as a championship favorite when the season began.
The Nets are probably the closest, having reached the Finals in 2002. Yet in today's NBA, being Beast of the East doesn't exactly generate much street cred. Especially after the Nets failed to win 50 games, dragged down by a second-half malaise and unable for much of the season to integrate their supposed missing piece.
New Jersey traded two starters (Keith Van Horn and Todd MacCulloch) to get Dikembe Mutombo, who should finally get to play some if the '03 Finals ends up matching San Antonio and New Jersey. The Nets have secured their place in the title round with 10 straight playoff wins, but a glimpse into their deep-seated mindset was provided by Jason Kidd after Saturday night's sweep-completing victory over Detroit. Still waiting to officially see who the Nets will be facing in the Finals, Kidd didn't hesitate to say that a title "will still be a long shot" because of the West's longstanding supremacy.
The West is so deep that Dallas never saw itself as more than the league's third- or fourth-best team, even as it opened the season with a 14-0 burst. Winning 60 games for the first time in franchise history was not their preseason goal. The Mavericks were merely seeking progress, defensively and in the playoffs, with the hope that they could upgrade this off-season after a fruitless foray into free agency last July. That's because the Lakers and Kings were widely forecast to meet against in the West finals, which have come to be regarded as the unofficial NBA Finals because of wide gulf in talent between the conferences.
It was only recently that the Mavericks saw themselves as a potential Team O' Destiny. First they avoided the Lakers in the first round on the last day of the regular season, when the Spurs held Duncan out of the season finale and Portland lost to the Clippers. Then Portland lost Scottie Pippen (briefly) and Derek Anderson (permanently) to injuries in the teams' first-round matchup, helping Dallas win in seven after nearly blowing a 3-0 lead. Then Chris Webber's knee gave, enabling the Mavericks to topple Sacramento in another seven-gamer, prompting Nick Van Exel to say: "I keep telling the other guys, things happen for a reason. This whole playoffs has been unbelievable."
Nowitzki's injury naturally changed that outlook for Dallas, but his absence won't allow the Spurs to change their story now about what they envisioned for the season. As covered in this cyberspace on the eve of the playoffs last month (after each team unexpectedly posted the best record in their respective conferences), San Antonio and Detroit were potentially history-makers -- teams that could actually have ended up facing each other in the Finals while positioned financially to be among the most active in the league after the season to upgrade their rosters.
Teams with a future somehow sunnier than the present, in other words.
Detroit backed up that characterization strongly on Thursday, on the same night it slipped behind the Nets, 3-0, in the East finals. The Pistons landed the No. 2 pick in the draft that night, via Memphis, in the league's annual lottery drawing. The ability to draft Darko Milicic next month, along with a payroll that falls below the luxury-tax threshold -- thus giving team president Joe Dumars some wiggle room to be aggressive in trade talks -- is why Dumars couldn't conceal a few smiles even as the Pistons were in the process of getting broomed. Detroit made it to the conference finals without a dependable lead scorer and, if scouts throughout the league are correct, is about to draft a future difference-maker to help solve its big problems.
"It was a great year for the boys from Motown," Dumars said, "and it just got even better."
The Spurs' scenario, mind you, continues to be an all-timer. With a second-year point guard (Tony Parker) and even less polish on the perimeter (Manu Ginobili and Stephen Jackson), San Antonio still managed to pip the Mavericks for the top seed in the West, and then go on to become the team that halted the Lakers' run of three consecutive championships.
It all happened while Spurs honchos Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford were planning for a free-agent run at Jason Kidd with the millons they've saved up ... or Jermaine O'Neal, if there's any hope of prying O'Neal away from Indiana ... or perhaps a gaudy bid on one or both of the Clippers' highly coveted restricted free agents, Elton Brand and/or Lamar Odom.
What happened is that all the pieces starting snapping together, after two months of mediocrity. Shortly into the new year, Pop was telling his players: "Why not us?" Parker kept developing and the coach, after continuing to ride him mercilessly, relented somewhat to get Parker focused more on scoring than passing. The Spurs grew increasingly dangerous the more Parker scored, and the quick adaptation of Ginobili, Jackson and Bruce Bowen to major roles made San Antonio the top team in the league after the All-Star break.
"I was here two years ago when the Lakers just mopped the floor with us, and the team didn't look that different to me in October," said Spurs veteran guard Steve Kerr. "I didn't really see (a championship) as a possibility until January or February. Tony really started to play well, and Manu started to come back from his (ankle) injury, and I could see how much more explosive we were."
Duncan conceded that he, too, didn't expect Ginobili and Jackson to be major contributors so quickly. "There's no way to (anticipate) that," he said.
Indeed. Duncan emerging as a better-than-ever Duncan is fairly predictable. The great ones generally keep getting better. Yet the Spurs couldn't have known than their offense and defense would become so aggressive so quickly. All those athletes, with Duncan and Robinson behind them, have the ability and freedom to push way up on the other guys, causing problems for Kobe Bryant and the free-wheeling Mavericks and everyone else they've seen.
The Spurs also couldn't have known that this would be their year of good fortune health-wise. In each of the past three postseasons since their 1999 championship, San Antonio has been forced to tackle some or all of the playoffs without a key figure: Duncan and Sean Elliott in 2000, Anderson in 2001, Robinson in 2002.
This spring, the other teams are suffering the setbacks, helping the Spurs get even further ahead of schedule.
"It's exceeding our expectations right now," Duncan said of the season, "but you don't want to set a limit on what your team can do."
Now we know why.
4dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann