When the Memphis Grizzlies knocked out the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the play-offs this past spring, it seemed like the end of an era.
The Spurs seemed to have taken that fateful step from "veteran" to "washed up" and the team who won three titles in the noughties looked like old news.
When the new season finally started, the Spurs did little to change that notion. They were a middling 12-9 after a month. Their defence, long a source of pride, was a shambles.
When they lost at Milwaukee despite shooting 60 per cent, Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio coach, labelled these Spurs "the worst defensive team we've ever had".
But look where they are now – back on top of the Southwest Division and, at 19-9, the second-best team in the Western Conference.
They have won seven consecutive games, all but the last without Manu Ginobili, arguably their best player. He missed 39 days with a broken hand, but the Spurs somehow were 15-7 without him.
They are contenders again because of Popovich's leadership, Tony Parker's improved play, their reconstituted defence and unexpected contributions from their younger players: Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard.
Along the way, the Spurs have developed a team chemistry that provides nightly dividends.
It begins with Popovich, who has four NBA titles on his CV. Rick Carlisle, the Dallas coach, has particularly strong praise. "I think he's the greatest coach, really ever in this game, because all their guys function within their system at a high level," Carlisle said.
Popovich, naturally, was quick to give credit to the way his team stepped up while Ginobili was out.
"I think Tony Parker has played like an All-Star and Timmy (Duncan) is steady, night in and night out," he said. "Our young guys have really stepped up … have already passed our expectations.
"So I think as a group, they trust each other and really react well to each other. They just have that kind of mentality. They don't stop, no matter what the situation is. They keep playing."
Their best-known players are nearing the ends of their careers. Duncan will be 36 in April; Ginobili is 34; Parker is 30 in May.
Yet on they roll. Even with Duncan averaging only 13.9 points per game, the Spurs are No 8 in scoring. That defence that so concerned Popovich is improving almost by the game; they have held seven consecutive opponents under 100 points.
"That's what we're going to have to bank on," Duncan said. "We're not going to score a bunch of points every night."
Tough for old guys to do. But then, so is playing like one of the league's finest teams.