After a five year drought, the San Antonio Spurs are back in familiar territory as they prepare to play for another NBA title.
This marks the Spurs first chance at a championship since 2007, a really long time for a team that knows a thing or two — or three — about hoisting trophies.
"Honestly, it feels like it's been forever since we've been to this point," center Tim Duncan said Monday night after the Spurs advanced with a 93-86 win over the Memphis Grizzlies.
"We've been on the verge of kind of getting here. We still feel like we were in contention, but we can't get over that hump. To get over that hump and get back in the Finals, it's an amazing feeling, honestly."
Tony Parker scored 37 points to lead the Spurs, who finished off their second sweep this postseason for their fifth Western Conference title. The Spurs were just two wins away from a trip to the Finals a year ago before blowing that lead in six games to Oklahoma City.
Parker said he has learned just how tough it is to get there after winning his first NBA title at the age of 21.
"In 2007, we won our third one in five years and you think it's going to keep coming," Parker said. "And I'm 25, and six years goes by and every year it gets tougher and tougher. Every team wants to beat you, and that's why it makes it even more special to go back after all those years playing at a high level with the same coach, with the same big three but changing a couple pieces."
The Spurs now head home to rest and wait for either Miami or Indiana after finishing off the first conference finals sweep since the Nets handled Detroit in 2003. Game 1 of the finals is June 6.
"If we go all the way, it'll definitely be my favorite because it gets harder and harder," Parker said with the Western championship trophy sitting in front of him.
The Spurs now have won six straight in these playoffs, and they did it by handing two straight losses to a team that had been undefeated on their own court in their best postseason in franchise history.
"We will be back," Grizzlies guard Mike Conley said.
Memphis finished off the best season in team history getting swept by the very same franchise that needed four games to knock them out of their first playoff appearance in 2004. The Grizzlies got a standing ovation from their fans as the final seconds ticked off.
Parker had his best game this postseason, hitting 15 of 21 shots and four of his six free throws in the final 29.7 seconds to seal this victory.
"He's been amazing," Duncan said of Parker. "Every year he gets better and better and better. He's been carrying us. You can see tonight he carried us the entire game."
The 37-year-old Duncan finished with 15 points and eight rebounds. Kawhi Leonard added 11 points.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich savored being back in the Finals once again.
"You don't expect that to happen maybe this late in the game with the same group," Popovich said. "It's tough to do, to maintain something that long. But it just shows the character of those three guys and their ability to play with whoever else is brought in around them. They deserve a lot of credit for that."
Memphis coach Lionel Hollins had talked about how his Grizzlies needed to dig deep for something they didn't know they had to take the first step back into this series. They just couldn't outshoot the Spurs and got beaten once again at their own inside game.
"We just never could gain control of the paint," Hollins said. "They controlled the paint."
That the Spurs did as they shot 51.3 percent (39 of 76) from the floor and outscored Memphis 52-32 in the paint, even though the Grizzlies had a 41-34 edge on the boards. Memphis led only briefly and the last at 6-4 as the Spurs took control early.
Memphis stayed close only by getting to the free throw line, making more shots there (17 of 24) than San Antonio took (12 of 13).
The Grizzlies also got a career-high 22 points from reserve Quincy Pondexter, 18 of those in the second half. Pondexter was the only player from Memphis to shoot over .500. Zach Randolph finished with 13 points, continuing his struggles at the line, where he was 5 of 8. Marc Gasol had 14 points for Memphis.
"It's difficult." Randolph said. "I don't know what to say. They beat us. It's disappointing. We lost the series, got swept or whatever."
Duncan had taken care of the Grizzlies scoring the big points in overtime in each of the last two games.
Parker took over this time as he hit 14 of his first 18 shots, and he hit the biggest shot with 9:15 left when he knocked down his lone 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of both Tony Allen and Randolph after Memphis had gotten within 76-73 with fans sensing the most life out of the Grizzlies all night long.
Parker and Duncan took turns making buckets before Parker got hit in the eye by Gasol's outstretched hand after missing a shot. When Parker returned with 4:43 left, Gasol went over to him and Parker told him he was fine. Parker then hit a jumper with 4:13 remaining for an 89-81 lead.
"He was outstanding the whole series, and he controlled the series with his penetration," Hollins said of Parker. "He made shots, made plays. One game he has 18 assists, today he has 37 points. He was huge. But their team played well."
The Grizzlies made one last run and got within three one last time when Gasol scored on a runner in the lane with 48.7 seconds left at 89-86. But Parker finished off the win at the line.
The Spurs took control in the first quarter and answered each time the Grizzlies tried to make a run with either Popovich taking a timeout or Parker hitting another shot. Memphis got its best break of the first half when officials called a 5-second call on the Spurs inbounding the ball and Jerryd Bayless hit a 3 to pull the Grizzlies within 44-38 at halftime.
Gasol's frustration spilled over in the third quarter as he headed to the bench for a timeout when he smacked the press table with both hands. He also went to his knees when officials blew their whistles after he snagged a rebound. Gasol said he would replay this game in his head once in bed, and he sounded ready to get back to work quickly.
"They taught us a lesson how to play at this stage this far into the season, this far into the playoffs," Gasol said of the Spurs. "They taught us a lesson how to execute, how to play, how to read schemes. They taught us a lesson all around. I think we're going to be better because we played against, to me, one of the greatest teams that's been in the past 15 years."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.