I cannot make a case for a team mired in dysfunctional doo-doo, the Indiana Pacers, who stopped playing defense and can’t stand each other and have a non-descript coach — tell me something about Frank Vogel other than his first and last name — who can’t figure it out. “I went to him and told him that we needed to clean everything up,’’ said team boss Larry Bird, who claims to support Vogel “100 percent’’ but will fire him with a loss in the second round.
Nor can I make a case for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who, despite the NBA’s only mass pre-game prayer involving the entire arena, are too dependent on the thrice-surgically-repaired right knee of Russell Westbrook. Oh, and did you know that Kevin Durant, in announcing himself as one of basketball’s greatest all-time scorers, has played 13,868 minutes so far this decade? Wear and Tear are not allies for a team that depends on those two players for more than 50 percent of its scoring output, not in a murderous Western Conference likely requiring them to get through the Grizzlies, Clippers and Spurs.
Nor can I make a case for the Miami Heat, who won’t win a third consecutive championship because Dwyane Wade won’t stay healthy for eight consecutive weeks — he could have an issue with either knee, a hamstring, an Achilles or all of the above. Chris Bosh has yet to assert himself as a reliable, every-night star to support LeBron James, who has played an exhausting-merely-to-ponder 14,033 minutes this decade, not including the London Olympics. The rest of the playoff roster is aging or iffy. “They have a lot of guys who are not in their prime right now and their ability to consistently play well individually is just not there,” said Jeff Van Gundy, the ESPN analyst. “And then you have the health issues that to me, if they didn’t have some of those health issues, they’d be the favorite.’’
To win the NBA championship, I cannot make a case for a single team in the Eastern Conference, which seems a better fit as the NCAA East Regional, with the Atlanta Hawks set as 10-point underdogs against UConn. And I cannot make a case for any team in the Western Conference but the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers, while realizing the echo of one thought — the Clippers in the NBA finals — needs at least one more year just to resonate rationally in any civilized world. Thus, I’m taking a walk on the wild side and picking the Spurs to win it all, which surely does not excite anyone at ABC and probably excites no one but hoops purists and people who hate sideline reporters.
Yet we all should shed our disdain for familiarity and small-market tedium and realize the Spurs are an American treasure. If they win their fifth championship, they will have won at last one in each of three decades, a continuation of excellence that is almost impossible to sustain these days in professional sports. It’s a tribute, of course, to Gregg Popovich and a wonderfully enduring system that rewards oneness and professionalism and defies the idea that titles are built on starpower. The Spurs have future Hall of Famers in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and they have a future cornerstone in Kawhi Leonard, and they have all sorts of creatively insertable pieces such as Danny Green, Marco Belinelli, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills. But they do not have stars. The star is the Popovich system, which bores the American sports audience but shouldn’t.
Lest you think the Spurs are robots, puppeteered by a dictator whose idea of entertainment is torturing TV reporters, they ARE human beings who still burn at the thought of blowing last year’s Finals in Miami. Somehow, they didn’t protect a five-point lead In Game 6 with 28 seconds left in regulation, letting Ray Allen hit his epic three-pointer. And somehow, Duncan missed a late gimme in Game 7, leading to their demise. Not long ago, Popovich let his guard down to a reporter from the San Antonio Express-News, admitting how his first-ever loss in an NBA Finals has stuck with him.
“I think about Game 6 every day,” Popovich said. “Without exception. I think about every play. I can see LeBron’s first shot, and the rebound, and the second … I’ve been quite lugubrious.”
Definition of lugubrious, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary programmed into my MacBook: “Looking or sounding sad and dismal.’’
Rather than sulk and fade, the Spurs compiled the league’s best record — helped by a 19-game winning streak in the final weeks of the regular season — and will have the Game 7 home advantage they didn’t have against the Heat. They also will have, in Leonard, a player who should continue to emerge as a force in this postseason. This is not another supporting-cast member hailing from another land, which describes many players on a roster expertly shaped by Popovich and R.C. Buford. Leonard is a stud, with Popovich going so far to call him an emerging face of the franchise. No one doubts that Parker is still this team’s most important player, but when Leonard wasn’t out with a hand injury, the Spurs were 54-14 this season.
“I’ve been working hard to be one of the focal points in the NBA, one of the top guys. For him to say that and see that I could be the face, it just brings joy to me,” Leonard said of Popovich’s praise. “I’m just happy that someone else sees it other than myself.”
A Spurs-Clippers final in the West would pit The System against basketball’s New Hollywood, where Blake Griffin and Chris/Cliff Paul make as many TV ads as they win games. Doc Rivers has the Clippers on a championship path, having turned Griffin into a complete player and DeAndre Jordan into a two-way big man. But they aren’t ready yet. By process of osmosis and elimination, then, there is only one team capable of winning the championship. And with the motivation of failure bubbling in their bloodstream, the Spurs are more dangerous than usual. Popovich tells a story about his daughter, Jill, and how she lectured him while he was immersed in self-pity last summer.
“OK, Dad, let me get this straight: You won four championships, and you go to a fifth Finals. Other coaches lose all the time. But poor Greggy can’t lose because he’s special. Can you please get over yourself? End of story.’’
Actually, that was the beginning of the story, with a far less lugubrious ending due in June.