- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2011

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - So is this how the San Antonio Spurs‘ dynasty might end?

Not with Tim Duncan hoisting a fifth NBA championship trophy _ a scenario that seemed wholly realistic just a month ago _ but with the top-seeded Spurs ousted in the first round by the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, a franchise that previously never won a playoff game?

“We put ourselves in this position,” Duncan said. “We gotta stay alive.”

Duncan meant this series. But the stakes for him may go even further.

Duncan, at the end what became a terrible 35th birthday, spoke softly after Memphis crushed the Spurs 104-86 on Monday in Game 4, putting San Antonio on the brink of becoming just the second No. 1 seed in NBA history to lose a best-of-seven series in the first round.

Drafting the obituary of the Duncan era has been something of a spring tradition since 2008, a year after San Antonio won the last of its four championships. It remains premature to declare this the last run for the Spurs, whether or not Memphis finishes them off Wednesday.

Yet these Spurs won 61 games. They secured home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They played quicker, became a little younger this season and kept their Big 3 mostly healthy for the first time in years.

If it’s not the last run for the Spurs, at the very least, they seem on the verge of squandering a position Duncan may never see again.

“We got a lot to lose,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “We had an unbelievable season. We were the No. 1 seed in the league for 65, 70 games, playing unbelievable.”

None of that has mattered to Memphis.

“They’re the better team. They won 61 games, and we won 46 games,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. “Their record all year long said they were the better team. As I’ve always said, it doesn’t matter who is this better team during the regular season. When you get to the playoffs, each series you have to be the better team.”

Hollins walked his players through a 25-minute film session in Memphis before the team left for San Antonio. So good a mood was Hollins in, according to guard Tony Allen, that the Grizzlies were bestowed with rare praise from their coach while re-watching their dismantling of the Spurs in the second half of Game 4.

“That was a first,” Allen said.

Hollins is hardly the only one in Memphis in high spirits: the city airport gave the team charter plane a water-cannon send-off before takeoff, before the Grizzlies possibly return late Wednesday night with a spot in the Western Conference semifinals.

“There’s not a media person standing around that would’ve gone and put his house and his paycheck on us being up 3-1,” Hollins said Tuesday. “But that’s why you play the games.”

Dallas is the only No. 1 seed to fall in the first round since the series was expanded to the best-of-seven format. That was in 2007, when Golden State beat the Mavericks in six games after Dallas coasted through the regular season with 67 wins.

Only eight teams have rallied from a 3-1 deficit, Phoenix being the last in 2006. That same year, the Spurs nearly joined the list before losing Game 7 in overtime to Dallas, despite Duncan going for 41 points and 15 rebounds.

Five years later Monday night, on his 35th birthday, Duncan had six points and seven rebounds. The Spurs this season diminished his role while putting together the second-best regular season in franchise history, making Duncan more of a complementary piece alongside Tony Parker and Ginobili.

It’s all been a part of what Spurs owner Peter Holt earlier this season called “going from the Tim Duncan era to the next era.” He said that March 4, and later that night, Holt sat courtside next to Texas Gov. Rick Perry as the Spurs crushed LeBron James and the Miami Heat by 30 points.

That night, San Antonio improved to an NBA-best 51-11 _ already more wins than the Grizzlies would get _ and few teams looked as legitimate championship contenders as the Spurs.

A lot’s changed in one month. But the Spurs don’t have time to change much now.

“We’ll just go play,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

___

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Memphis, Tenn., contributed to this report.


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