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The Spurs' culture won't leave, even if Tim Duncan finally does

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The Spurs lose the same way they win. Their way of life will continue on even if the star atop the pyramid departs.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- There was one play in the fourth quarter that could have summed up the night for Tim Duncan and the Spurs. It was the one where he drove down an open lane, only for his layup to be viciously rejected at the rim, killing San Antonio's comeback attempt for good.

It was a moment that shined a harsh spotlight on Duncan's basketball mortality and also encapsulated Duncan's own humanity. A 40-year-old who fought off retirement longer than most, but could finally be coming to an end.

But there's a better moment to use that describes San Antonio and their longtime star. The third quarter had ended with the Thunder up 91-65 and the Spurs were a quarter away from their season ending in dissatisfaction. Gregg Popovich walked to Duncan, asking him if he wanted to stay in the game.

"I always want to play," Duncan responded.

And so he does, playing the entire fourth quarter and staying in even after Serge Ibaka's block snuffed out any last hopes of a spirited San Antonio comeback. Predictably, he didn't clearly answer a question about retirement, saying, "I'll get to that (decision) after I get out of here and figure life out."

And then Duncan left, maybe forever.

Duncan could not embody the Spurs' ethos any more than he already does. San Antonio doesn't act and talk like this because they have to -- plenty of teams have won championships by playing flashy and loud. No, it's a conscious choice, influenced by the head coach, the players and even the city itself.

The 113-99 loss in Game 6 on Thursday wasn't the way San Antonio planned for its season to end after a revamped roster led to 67 wins. But Tony Parker has been around too long to be disheartened by the unexpected.

"Since 2012, I don't really try to understand any more basketball," Parker said.

In 2012, San Antonio led 2-0 against Oklahoma City before losing four straight. The next year, the Spurs lost to the Miami Heat after Ray Allen's unforgettable three from the corner. And 2014 redeemed all that, with San Antonio torching the NBA with some of the most dominant play we've ever seen en route to their fifth NBA championship.

"I've been in the NBA for 15 years, to the conference finals half of my career, five NBA Finals," Parker said. "Sometimes, it's not meant to be."

This is the particular mindset -- basketball fatalism, essentially -- that has shaped San Antonio's culture. Wins are great and losses aren't, but it's just basketball. Duncan's decision on whether to retire, plus Manu Ginobili facing the same choice, are treated the same way. If either of them decide that this is it, we're more likely to find out through a press release than a press conference. Certainly, it's no mistake that they avoided elaborate retirement tours.

"We all enjoy playing with other (and) we've all accomplished amazing things," Ginobili said. "We won 67 games, and of course it's disappointing when you don't end up winning the last game, but only one team can do it. In 14 seasons in my case, it's happened a lot of times. But I'm still proud of having played with those guys for so many years and win so many game."

If those two do slip away into the night, San Antonio will be fine. Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge have their future set, both on the court and through their Spursian mentalities. Aldridge wasn't like that in Portland, but he has learned this year to adopt those same principles.

But during the game, even headed into the fourth quarter when every seemed so final, it seems likely that San Antonio's thoughts still refused to stray towards the future. "Go for it," Popovich said, responding to Duncan's confirmation that he wanted to stay in the game to start the fourth quarter.

Down by 26, the Spurs put their heads down and fought back into the game, with Duncan leading the way. With 3:45 left in the game, they cut the Thunder's lead to 11. The comeback unraveled from there, a final obstruction too far to clear.

"He fought to the end. That's Timmy," Danny Green said. "I'll take him over anyone, any day, to fight with that dude in the trenches.

It didn't cross Green's mind that he might be playing his final game with Duncan, he said. Instead, he was just enjoying the moment. The Spurs' psyche doesn't allow rampant speculation, after all. Just facts. Only what they know to be true.

"For the last seven years, you've asked me," Parker said, smiling at a reporter who asked about Duncan and Ginobili's potential retirements. "Every year is the same thing with us."

Every year is the same. Some of them end differently, in celebration or disappointment. Some of them bring challenges of new players or emerging rivals. But in the end, they're all the same. That's how San Antonio thinks. It's how they operate. It's who they are.