It has taken six long years, but the San Antonio Spurs are Western Conference Champions once again.
What a statement they made too.
Their 93-86 victory in Memphis over the Grizzlies ensured a 4-0 series sweep, the first in a conference finals since 1993, when the Nets swept the Pistons to claim the Eastern Conference championship. The Spurs have swept two out of their three opponents in the Playoffs thus far, demonstrating the sort of class and team-unity that has become the benchmark of the Popovich era in San Antonio.
There's just no substitute for experience.
Despite their regular season record of 58-24, many believed the Playoffs would be too much strain on this ageing group, who have been wrapped in cotton wool for most of the season, guaranteeing their freshness for the postseason. It seemed to be a bridge too far last season, blowing a 2-0 lead against Oklahoma City and falling at the final hurdle. With another year on the clocks of their star players, it would take a great deal of effort and man-management to get there again.
This has been a collective effort and every person associated with the organisation deserves tremendous credit, in particular their Head Coach Greg Popovich. When most teams around the league were trading their ageing stars for cap-relief, Popovich kept the faith and built around them. It is hard to find high-character superstars in the NBA who completely buy into the team ethic, yet Popovich has found three. He clearly knows just how precious that commodity is and he has managed them brilliantly.
The trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker continue to astound despite their age and Popovich should take the plaudits for this. He has managed their minutes incredibly, resting them when he felt it was necessary regardless of opponent. This has incurred the wrath of NBA commissioner David Stern on more than one occasion this year, which hardly seems significant now. Popovich always saw the bigger picture with this team and a fine or two along the way was a small price to pay for a Western Conference title. Now they have the novelty of a few days rest as the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers slug it out to join them in the NBA finals.
Parker, in particular, has been sensational. He can now be considered as the best Point Guard in the NBA, a position he could have claimed long ago had it not been for niggling injuries and his off-the-court incidents taking priority. These Conference Finals have been the making of Parker, carrying the team on his back at times and being flawless from the field. Monday nights game was no exception, his 37 points on 15-21 shooting was a joy to behold. Every time the Grizzlies thought they were getting back into the game, it would be Parker who would come up with a big play to dishearten the passionate Memphis crowd.
There are few, if any, guards in the league that can cope with Parker off the dribble. When you add the improvements he has made to his mid-range game over the last couple of seasons, he is as close to the complete Point Guard as you could possibly find. If the French International continues his fine run of form then it would be difficult to see another outcome other than an NBA Championship and a Finals MVP for Parker, given the lack of depth the Pacers and Heat have at the Point Guard position. Parker made good on his promise to send Tim Duncan back to the finals following last years collapse and if they are to win it all, Parker will have to be firing on all cylinders for every second of the NBA Finals.
As for Duncan, his story is the stuff of fairytale. The Virgin Islands native is 37 years of age and is as dominant now as he was when he first entered the league as the first overall pick back in 1997. Duncan is the model of efficiency, now more than ever. With his age comes limitations, something 'The Big Fundamental' is fully aware of. With minutes decreased, Duncan has done an exceptional job of maximising his output of the offensive side of the floor, his 11-19 shooting night for 24 points in game three of the Conference finals the pick of his games thus far in the postseason.
It is Duncan's defense that will be crucial to the Spurs' chances of winning the Larry O'Brien trophy. The job he did guarding Zach Randolph was staggering. Randolph was one of the hottest players in the Playoffs until this series. Coming up against Duncan, Randolph averaged just 11 points in the series, wasn't allowed a moment to get into his rhythm and was completely outclassed by the hall-of-fame bound Duncan. He will have to be at his best in the finals, with Chris Bosh or David West set to provide him with the sternest of tests.
While their ageing stars will gather all the headlines, and rightly so, their roleplayers also deserve a huge amount of credit for the teams rise to prominence. Unearthing gems has been the benchmark of every Spurs team throughout the years and this season has been no different. Kawhi Leonard, in particular, has been nothing short of outstanding. He has thrived playing along seasoned veterans on a nightly basis and has emerged as an indispensible part of the Spurs' future. At 21 years age, Leonard represents the new breed of athlete the Spurs are looking to build around. While their 'Big 3' have been exceptional this year, they won't be around forever. All this experience Leonard is getting will prove to be invaluable when he takes over the reigns as leader of this team. Until then, he can rest assured knowing his perimeter defense is an essential part of the newly crowned Champions of the Western Conference.
The Spurs have shown everyone just how a sports franchise should be run. San Antonio is hardly the fashionable destination New York or Los Angeles is, yet they have managed to be one if the most consistent teams in NBA history when it comes to producing teams capable of winning a championship. The key is unquestionably longevity and consistency, Popovich only tinkering with his squad if he sees fit. It is a plan that has worked so well down the years and now they are back where it seems to familiar, the envy of the Western Conference. Patience and total belief in what you are trying to accomplish always wins out in the end. Traits that a seldom found together in the world of sports.
Just one more mountain left to climb. Trouble is, it could be the steepest one of all.
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_