LOS ANGELES When the chance came to close out the Clippers on Sunday night, the San Antonio Spurs had to stop Chris Paul, who had been the NBA's best closer this season and finally was starting to play like it in this series.
So coach Gregg Popovich turned to Danny Green, who spent the fall playing in Russia, which was considered an improvement from last season when he was waived by Cleveland and languished in the D-League.
Naturally, Paul never stood a chance.
Green, with his long reach and quick-enough feet, smothered Paul twice, once forcing an uncharacteristically wild pass that resulted in a turnover and then forcing an acrobatic shot that barely grazed the rim. The misses allowed San Antonio to survive, 102-99, clinching the series with their 18th consecutive win.
The Spurs, in this series, burnished their reputation as the smartest team in the NBA. The Clippers owned the spectacular, be it alley-oop dunks or jaw-dropping acrobatics. But the Spurs once again won the game of details, whether it was Tim Duncan's passes to cutters for a crucial pair of layups, or the intentional fouling of Reggie Evans and DeAndre Jordan, who made 2 of 6 free throws.
But that edge also is apparent in how the Spurs, who have looked past their prime in recent years, have been re-imagined into a deep, versatile cast that surrounds Duncan (21 points Sunday), Tony Parker (17) and Manu Ginobili (11) so seamlessly that the Spurs look like the surest bet to win the NBA title.
In Game 4, it was Green's turn. He had 14 points, six rebounds, four assists and a steal along with the responsibility of defending Paul, who was rejuvenated with 23 points and 11 assists.
But on other nights, it has been Kawhi Leonard, the rookie from nearby Riverside whom the Spurs envision as the next Bruce Bowen, a lockdown defender who can hit 3-pointers. Or forward Boris Diaw, overweight and languishing in Charlotte, who has had a renaissance since landing in San Antonio after his release from the Bobcats. Or Tiago Splitter, the second-year forward who no longer looks out of his element.
This has led to a transition from the Spurs as a group that would grind teams down with their defense and half-court execution to a team that runs at every opportunity often straight to the 3-point line and gets stops when it needs to, as the Spurs did Sunday.
"Defensively, we've been able to turn it up at different points in the game," Popovich said. "That's not usually something that we're used to. We're used to being a darn good defensive team for 48 minutes, but that's not who we are anymore."
The last time the Spurs reached the Western Conference Finals, in 2008, they surrounded Parker, Ginobili and Duncan with a geriatric cast. Michael Finley, Brent Barry, Kurt Thomas, Fabricio Oberto and Bowen all were well into their 30s and while they were sage, they also were on their last legs.
The Spurs wheezed past New Orleans to reach the conference finals, but the Lakers blew past them in five games. San Antonio hadn't won a second-round game since until this series.
"It's good to face your problems and we knew we had to get younger; not just younger but more athletic on the perimeter," Popovich said. "We couldn't just depend on Manu and Tony all the time."
Over the past decade, the Spurs' excellence has been defined by its star trio and Popovich, but also its front office, which is led by general manager R.C. Buford and, like the players on the court, seems to be moving one step ahead of the competition.
Nobody has unearthed more gems outside the Untied States. Besides Parker (France) and Ginobili (Argentina), they have drafted Splitter (Brazil) as well as others whose rights they eventually dealt: Leandro Barbosa (Brazil), Luis Scola (Argentina), Ian Mahinmi (France) and Goran Dragic (Slovenia).
They unearthed Gary Neal, unheralded at Towson State and playing in Europe, and George Hill, an IUPUI guard who was dealt to the Pacers for the draft rights to Leonard, who was taken with the 15th pick.
That pick, though it technically is considered Indiana's, is the highest San Antonio has had since choosing Duncan first overall in 1997.
"They do a great job of exhausting all resources to improve their team," Clippers general manager Neil Olshey said. "The only no-brainer on their roster was Duncan. They've found guys in the draft, as free agents, through trades, in Europe, in the D-League. And the other thing they do is put in as much time and effort on the 13th or 14th guy as they do on their starters, and it shows."
Buford, who collaborates with Popovich, also has an excellent team: assistant general manager George Lindsay, who scouts Europe; vice president of basketball operations Danny Ferry, the former Cavaliers general manager, and longtime college basketball scouting director George Felton. Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti and New Orleans general manager Dell Demps each have worked under Felton.
A rare mistake, the trade for Richard Jefferson, was rectified by the drafting of Leonard and dealing Jefferson for Stephen Jackson, who was on the Spurs' title team in 2003.
"Because we have the same coach and the core group of our players for a long time, it's easier to know what's going to work and what's not going to work," Buford said. "The key is continuity."
But with the recent years' playoff drought the five years between titles is the longest in Popovich's 17 seasons questions were raised about whether the Spurs should deal one of their cornerstones and start rebuilding. Especially after last season when, with Ginobili hampered by injury, they were upset by eighth-seeded Memphis in the opening round, despite leading the league with 60 victories.
"You have to look at your alternatives," Buford said. "If we're not going to be there, where are we going to be? Where we're positioned with the tax and the cap, going after a high-level free-agent play, we weren't in a position to do that. The players we had on the floor, we liked better than what we thought we could do through the trades that were available to us.
"I think we explored opportunities, but we explored opportunities in the past. We're still a team that won 60 games. It wasn't a failure of a group together. It was an inopportune time to be unhealthy and it may not have been the best matchup for us, especially at a time when we weren't healthy."
A year ago, it might have seemed like denial. Now the Spurs, on the court and off, seem like the smartest guys in the room.