A Team For All Time Crashes Me-First Culture
If you’re looking for a silhouette, a defining Instagram that captures this celebration of team and time and Tim, consider that the Spurs weren’t really celebrating for a while. Loyal to their respect for the game, the opponent and the very thread that has weaved through five championships, they refused to hug, shout and unleash their joy until the final seconds were draining off the clock, despite a 20-point lead inside an arena that was about to boil over with or without air conditioning.
The suspense was over hours earlier, days earlier. Still, they wouldn’t party until it was the proper time, until Tim Duncan started smiling and Gregg Popovich stopped scowling and the purest essence of what we strive for in every workplace — chemistry, character, unity, purpose, camaraderie — had resulted in glory for the fifth time in 15 years. If the Miami Heat were about wrapping talent around one megastar, the Spurs were about wrapping a system around a dozen interlocking parts. And when the talent beyond LeBron James suddenly turned old, soft, feeble and pretty much useless, a method that isn’t supposed to work in the era of opt-out clauses and luxury taxes — hell, a method that isn’t supposed to work in the 21st century — came to fruition in a beautiful exhibition of sport as poetry, art and classical music.
This wasn’t a basketball team as much as a symphony orchestra. Oh, it carried a common sports theme — redemption for an excruciating loss in last year’s NBA Finals — but it was dignified yet forceful manner in which the Spurs exacted revenge that secures their place among the most endearing and enduring teams in sports history. Not only were they meticulously coached by a demanding but somehow lovable SOB, they were in lockstep with Popovich every step of the journey, from the night last June when they walked off the court in Miami after blowing the final two games.
“I’ve said many times, a day didn’t go by where I didn’t think about Game 6,” Popovich said. “So I think, just in general, for the group to have the fortitude that they showed to get back to this spot, I think speaks volumes about how they’re constituted and what kind of fiber they have.”
If the Lakers were about show business, the Bulls were about Michael Jordan and the Celtics were about mystique, the Spurs are the anthesis of all that. Gather up the greatest performances of those teams, and you’d be hard-pressed to find video proof of anything topping the Spurs’ near-perfection of the last three games. Tactically, they realized they were deeper, healthier, hungrier and better than last year — advantages that became shockingly apparent as the Heat crashed under the weight of fatigue, high expectations and waning desire in the last three games. After winning four NBA titles in eight years with the Hall of Fame triumvirate of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, the Spurs could have accepted annual too-old assessments and moved on. Instead, with Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford scouring the globe for talent easily adaptable to roles within the system, they remained title-competitive. And now, with The Big Three augmented and sometimes one-upped by the younger likes of Kawhi Leonard — your Finals MVP, ladies and gentlemen — you’re looking at a team that not only erased last year’s disappointment but might have more rings in the future. That’s how impressive they were in sensing the opponents’ vulnerability, neutralizing a dispirited LeBron James and running and passing and thinking the Heat into oblivion.
Everyone was left to fawn. And I mean everyone.
“They played exquisite basketball this series and in particular these last three games and they are the better team. There’s no other way to say it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
“They played the best basketball I’ve ever seen,” Heat star Chris Bosh said.
“When you exert that much energy versus a team like this,” James said, “who continues to move, who continues to get into their sets, continue to use the 24 seconds and move the ball, and move the ball, and move the ball, and they make those shots at the end of the shot clock, it takes a lot of energy from you doing that.”
“You showed the world how beautiful this game is,” commissioner Adam Silver said during the trophy ceremony.
As Silver handed the golden hardware to Spurs chairman Peter Holt, Popovich stood behind the stage, by himself, wanting the players to have the credit. But he exploded with glee when perhaps the most impressive of all his projects was named MVP. Leonard was acquired three years in a draft-day trade that cost the Spurs a popular player in the locker room, George Hill. His talent was unquestioned, but some scouts wondered about his low-key temperament, where he was at emotionally after the shooting death of his father at the family’s car wash in Compton, the gang-charged neighborhood south of Los Angeles. The answers came emphatically over the last week, when Leonard took over offensively and helped slow down James on the other end. He was named MVP on Father’s Day.
“It’s a very special meaning for me, knowing that he’s gone and I was able to win a championship on Father’s Day,” said Leonard, per ESPN. “But I mean, I’m just happy just winning the championship. Like I told you all, my dad died six years ago, and I really wasn’t thinking about him that much.”
The development of new parts — Leonard, big man Tiago Splitter, versatile veteran Boris Diaw and shooters Paddy Mills and Danny Green — make it likely Popovich will stick around. With this group, why not dream of another title or two? The future will revolve around Leonard, of whom Popovich said, “He’s a great learner and he’s super competitive, has a drive to be the best that’s really uncommon in our league. He walks the walk. I mean, he’s there early, he’s there late. He wants more. He wants me and the coaches to push him. So I just talked to him about not being in that defer sort of stage. The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu, you play the game. You are the man.”
Ginobili, in particular, performed like he’s 10 years younger, overcoming his struggles last June with a monster series — and a monster dunk over Bosh that established the damage the Spurs planned to inflict. As for Duncan, maybe it’s time. Going out on top would be the most deserving ending for one of sport’s regal people, a man who cut through the scandals and petulance of the last two decades to keep working, keep winning and keep taking less than maximum deals so management could pay everyone else. More than anyone else, including Popovich, Duncan took the Finals loss to heart. So he knows what winning again means.
“Amazing,” Duncan said. “It makes last year OK.”
He sounded conflicted about coming back. “Just the close of a career. I know it’s coming to an end,” Duncan said. “Don’t know if I’ll ever have a chance to do this again. My kids and all we’ve been through, just a real emotional time.’’
Said Parker: “I know he’s got one more year on his contract, and he loves being with us, loves playing basketball. Either way, whatever he decides, I’ll support him. But if I have to choose, obviously, I would love him to keep going. I love playing with him.”
Love was a common theme in the post-game party. If winning came easily to the Spurs this time, maybe it’s because the joy is so evident. Way down yonder in South Texas, there are new controversies, no scandals, no cliques, no rifts. This is a team of remarkably sustained success at a time when championship teams often are one-and-dones.
“We’ve been on our last run for the last five or six years from how everyone wants to put it,’’ Duncan said. “We show up every year, and we try to put together the best teams and the best runs possible because what people say doesn’t matter to us. As long as we feel we’re being effective, we’re going to stay out here and we’re going to play. We feel like we can be effective, and we have been.”
To describe the Spurs as “effective’’ is the ultimate downplay. Closer to the truth, they should play their games inside a museum. They are that exquisite, that unforgettable.