You know this season has been really bizarre when the supposedly old and decrepit San Antonio Spurs have the best record in the league; two franchise players ('Melo and D-Will) get traded in the midst of the season; the usually boring and slow Spurs are scoring more than ever; Boston trades away it's man-child enforcer and possibly championship X-factor (Perk); and the Spurs and Heat are only facing each other now with about three-fourths of the season already finished.
While I prefer to be an optimist, I've shown some pessimism as to why the schedule has been structured this way. I think the schedule makers have given the new-look Miami Heat enough of an allowance in their schedule to get better as the season comes along. Assuming that if they indeed meet expectations and blitz through every team in sight, they'd then go up late in the year against the NBA's old guard, the Spurs. It makes for a perfect story -- the New Big Three, dismantling the Old Big Three, a group that's been together for almost a decade and won it all three times. A changing of the guard, if you will.
That would've been quite the set up, wouldn't it? But fortunately for us Spurs fans, the opposite has happened this season, and I'm not the least bit complaining.
A Historical Preface
(a.k.a. This doesn't really concern the game, but I'm gonna write it anyways so be warned)
I'm not a big history junkie. In fact, I believe I didn't have a good track record of grades when I took up History classes. I even remember my second year in college, when I slept through an entire meeting and the professor told me to stay after class, then gave me an earful. That I was already in college and still got that scolding was pretty embarrassing. At that time I thought to myself, geez, this is so high school.
However, there are some pieces of history that really interest me, particularly those related to basketball. Days before this supposedly colossal showdown, I've been thinking about some historical parallels to both the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat. It also helped that reading Free Darko's The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History made me reflect on all sorts of things, most especially how today's superstars have evolved, but in reality, are actually still not too far off from their predecessors.
A few months ago, I came across a story from Bill Reiter, FoxSports' version of Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski if you will, comparing LeBron James to the ultimate stat-stuffer yet perennial underachiever Wilt Chamberlain. You might think it's ridiculous from a positional standpoint -- Wilt's a dominating center more akin to being compared to a Shaquille O'Neal, while LeBron is more Oscar Robertson but a faster, tougher, more breathtaking triple double waiting to happen.
Still, their similarities, more than the differences, in some aspects are somewhat frightening. Both came into the league with a sizable hype machine surrounding them, and both didn't disappoint as they immediately changed the basketball landscape. As a 21-year old amateur player, Chamberlain had already graced the pages of publications such as Time, Life, Look and Newsweek, while the high schooler LeBron posed and paraded for SLAM, ESPN, and Sports Illustrated. Their games are vastly different, but you probably wouldn't be burned at the stake that quickly if you said LeBron can score 100 points in today's guard-centric era. Meanwhile, Wilt is also capable of all-around brilliant performances, none more perplexing yet astounding piece of history that was the year when he led the league in assists (Not per game, but total. Still, that's impressive). Playing the center position, no less.
But the big question still looms large, at least for LBJ: can he win not only the big one once, but multiple times?
Wilt had two rings, but somehow critics still see his career as a failure. They find it hard to fathom how a player so talented could not establish a dynasty -- he could very well be a more polished version of his nemesis, Bill "The Mofo" Russell, if he wanted to win as badly as Russell did. Wilt also formed early versions of the league's Big Threes, teaming with versatile forwards Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham with the Philadelphia Warriors, and later on with the Lakers, "The Logo" Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
LeBron is now in his seventh season but in Year One of his new triumvirate with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Take note that Wilt didn't win until his tenth season, but Michael Jordan won in his seventh. For all intents and purposes and as a means to transition to something finally Spurs-related, Tim Duncan got his first during his second season.
It's not peddled as much in the Internets compared to, say, Kevin Garnett shouting like a fumbduck that "Anything's posssaaaabbbuuuulll!" when the Boston Celtics won the title, but I consider it one of the more poignant NBA memories of the past decade. There was Tim Duncan, basking in the glow of his fourth title and yet still humble and gracious enough to realize that a new world order might be coming. How many players who just won it all could be so insane to say to the opponent he just whooped that it's going to be his league in the next few years?
Actually, if you want to spin the message in just one of many ways, Duncan waxed prophetic at that point. A few years after the Spurs' last championship, we are now perhaps too exposed to the radioactive press machine that is LeBron James -- The Decision, The LeBrons, MVPuppets, "Global Icon", the Heat Index -- the NBA has indeed become LeBron's league. Championships not withstanding, of course.
I'm somewhat of a believer that history repeats itself -- not in predictably exact ways, but in more developed forms that serve as a reminder of the past. Duncan for me is the repeat history -- a reincarnation, if you will -- of Bill Russell, but even Russell could be seen as the repeat history of the NBA's first true winner, George Mikan.
But if history does repeat itself, it gives enough leeway to ensure that the newer event can add in things to allow it to create its own distinguishable mark, in its own time. Tim Duncan inherited Russell's quiet passion for winning and dedication to the very heart of team basketball -- making others around him better -- yet did away with Bill's vocal struggle against pressing issues, at that time, the racial binds during his era. However, when you want to look up history and check for players who played without much flash and fanfare but won and won often, Russell and Duncan will be the two names that appear at the top of the list. They are inevitably connected that way, much like how 'Bron is joined at the hip to Wilt's underperformed career, at least for now. Only until after a few more years can we see if history indeed leaves a much bigger allowance for James to completely distance himself from Wilt's circus, and maybe, just maybe associate himself closer to the winners' circle with Tim and Bill.
Where I Start Talking About THE Game, a.k.a. The Timbo Point
If there's anything good that came out of The Decision, it's that LeBron and friends managed to unify people's dislike (I typed "hate" at first, but found it too strong) for the prototype egotistical athlete, and channeled it upon their team. As unassuming a fanbase as San Antonio has (I'd like to think that most fans have taken on the demeanor of Timmy but I could be wrong), even they couldn't help but get caught in the sensation of raining boos on the SuperFriends. You better believe that this game carried A LOT of weight on the minds of the Spurs, otherwise we wouldn't even see Tony making a miraculous comeback from a supposed month-long injury. But hey, at least he didn't do a Paul Pierce -- act as if his leg got shot, go out on a wheelchair and then suddenly come back healthy as ever. Willis Reed does not approve.
Sixty two games, fifty wins and only eleven losses in and admittedly, questions still lingered about the Silver and Black. Their franchise record-breaking run has been anything but similar to the Chicago Bulls' 72-10 romp, which seemed more like a long victory parade to a surefire championship at the end. No, these Spurs, despite having won against every team except Miami and Boston at this point, still provided plenty of question marks. Are we too old and over the hill? Is Duncan a mere shell of his former GOATPuff self? Can Manu Ginobili keep up his brilliance for an entire season without breaking down? Can Tony Parker return to All-Star form? Can the team stay healthy all throughout? Are we too undersized? And again, are we too old and over the hill?
Well, there's nothing like a nationally televised game -- against the most high-profile team in the league, no less -- to bitch slap the naysayers.
The First Quarter To End All First Quarters
The game couldn't have started any better for the validation-seeking Spurs. Manu opens up the scoring with a crafty read off the opening jump ball that leads to a breakaway layup, then confidently splashes in two threes to obtain a 9-2 lead. However, most Spurs fans' nightmares of seeing Chris Bosh rise out of his slump seemed to be coming true after Bosh hits a few jumpers over the admittedly lax defense of undersized DeJuan Blair. Add to that a furious slam by LeBron in the opening minutes, and it's as if you could hear every Spurs fan collectively clearing their throats, getting ready for the inevitable Miami Point Machine to blow the good guys out of the water. Except the opposite occurred.
Ginobili would typify the home team's brilliant, sparkling, radiant, and near-flawless performance from downtown by making his third three-pointer just six minutes into the game. The ensuing three-point barrage throughout the contest looked like a big sign with neon flashing lights saying that the Spurs not only are the best long-distance shooting team in the league, but that the NBA made a grievous mistake not putting a certain Ginger in the All-Star three-point contest.
With the good guys up 17-11, Matt Bonner, he of Medium Fundamental, Coach B and Sandwich Hunter fame, announces his entry to the crime scene by making his first corner three of the night, and then two minutes later, sends home another long bomb putting the Spurs up 25-11 and fully announcing the rout. I noticed that for this game, Pop decided to station Bonner more on the corner as opposed to his usual shooting spots on the left and right quarters or on the middle, which is mainly due to his pick-and-pop plays with the guards. This wrinkle worked like magic, as Ginger drained three out of four threes in the corner and set him up in a good rhythm to make more shots in other spots beyond the stripe.
When the smoke from all the three-point grenades cleared, league-best San Antonio found itself looking down on a rattled and obviously still shaken Miami squad with a 36-12 margin after the first quarter. The Spurs were at their most effective in forcing the SEGABABA-riding Heat to contested midrange jumpers, and when James and Wade decided to venture into the paint, the Spurs' quick-shuffling defense forced the twosome into offensive fouls. Wade and James both got 2 early fouls, which practically spelled doom for a depth-challenged Miami team that rivals Shallow Hal's shallowness, if that was even humanly possible.
So much for having no swagger, too, as video and reports post-game caught and apparently lip-read Duncan saying "game over" as the quarter wound down to a close. Looking at the gif and after just posting the video of him and LeBron in 2007, somehow I find this hard to believe. But if it's indeed true, then maybe it's good that even the Heat has stoked the competitive fire not usually publicly seen in Timmy. More bad news for El Heat, I guess.
Lost In Point Guard Translation
As immaculate the union of the Spurs' offense-on-steroids and trademark lockdown defense was during arguably their best first quarter of the season, it didn't last long. Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra wanted to shake things up, and he found a temporary panacea to the home team's sick shooting display by designating LeBron at the power forward spot. The move paid dividends as James repeatedly crashed the boards and muscled his way into putbacks -- something which Bosh should be regularly doing, by the way.
Miami was also able to finally get their legs under them, thanks to solid play by the Mike and Mike tandem of Mike Miller and Mike Bibby, and the sudden drop in the Spurs' early defensive tenacity. Whatever the Spurs took in before the game, it sure looked like it offered effects of a serious crash in your body system. Miller drained two straight threes while Bibby, defensively putrid as he is now, quarterbacked the offense ten times better than what Mario Chalmers and now displaced Carlos Arroyo have done throughout the season. M&Ms and a dose of the King allowed the Heat to stay in the game, trimming the lead to as close as 12 points. Miami would end up recovering from a lackluster first quarter to a spectacular 38-point second quarter, easily the most points the Spurs have given up this season.
A Visual: Parker blows past Mike Bibby.
On this day, however, Tony Parker was not to be denied. In an era where guards and forwards and centers who play like guards are the toast of the league, Parker remains in the rearview mirror of the discussion on great guards, if not only for his rings and early season split with Eva Longoria. TP showed, to me at least, how much he has grown his game, and maybe if he wasn't out for two games, I would've looked over him and continued heaping praises on Manu and Tim. But not this time.
Parker played a very cerebral match and just flat out showed the Heat how great it is to have an elite point guard running the show. TP got to the teeth of the defense at will, and while he could've finished more than his share of paint excursions, he willingly got the ball out to wide open shooters, as if to slap it to Miami's faces that "Hey, I can easily score two, but getting the three will be more psychologically devastating." He was likewise very much aware of the times in the game when he should give up the ball to Gino and allow The Sickness to create, and also when to give the ball to a facilitator like RJ at the top of the key, then curl around a set of screens, receive the ball on the run and again suck in Miami's defense. This cold-blooded, calculating version of Parker was just as equally scary as it is enjoying to watch. And he didn't even have his jumper going.
Even Ericka Dampier, the designated "Parker Stopper" (or should I say Cuban axe murderer), couldn't slow TP down with a blatant flagrant foul 2. First of all, Damp should be suspended after what he did, and second of all, he is an asshat. That is all.
Ever Wonder What Lightning In A Bottle Looks Like When Unleashed? The Heat Are Witnesses.
With the lead down to 12 entering the second half, Coach Spo figured it's the best time to unleash his most offensively capable lineup featuring the Three Stooges, Mini Me and Not-Quite-Miller Time. At this point, LeBron at the 4-spot continues to be a viable option, and one that posed a dangerous threat to the Spurs. Perhaps if it was any coach, they would've panicked and shuffled their lineup to match up to a quicker Heat five. But Popovich is not just any coach. He stuck with his starting five to start the half, but caught Miami unawares with his own unique match up -- still insisting that RJ guard LeBron, while Blair covered Mike Miller. This strategy worked enough to keep the Heat offense at bay, while providing the Spurs some stability as Pop showed supreme confidence in his starting unit.
There was a certain play during the 3rd that I thought could've been a turning point against the Spurs -- Manu anticipated a Heat pass, stole the ball but tapped it a little too far and had to run to the corner to secure it. Still, he was left with an open lane to the basket, only Bibby standing in the way. Gino missed. After that, Wade goes in for an uncontested layup, and LeBron hits a wide open jumper and the lead is cut to 14. Could the tide finally be turning in favor of the Heat?
Not quite, apparently, as Pop again shows his genius by running a nice double screen action for Manu to redeem himself. He slashes through the lane and makes a gorgeous finger roll that sets off a 6-0 counter run by the Spurs. The lead goes back up to 20, and that was the ball game. Heat extinguished. The rest of the quarter returned to the Tony Parker show as he scored 9 straight points for the Spurs (5 coming from the FT line), while Neal and Hill sniped away to help the team finish the quarter at plus-22.
A Self-Created Scare, And Then... Light
The media has often criticized MIami's lack of determination and competitive fire to win against the elite, and as the fourth quarter began, I privately wondered if this gaping hole in the team's mental make up will finally be plugged in this game. Are they capable of extinguishing ghosts of chokers past by making a comeback, down 22 on the road? Certainly they have the star power, but so far not the testicular fortitude, the cojones, if you will, to achieve the dramatic. Will this fourth quarter be, for them, The Game That Changed Everything?
Fortunately for us, it wasn't to be. While the Spurs have shown in games this season that they have the ability to make huge comebacks, they've also proved they are a great front runner late in games. The Spurs continued to make a shamockery out of the porous Heat defense, with Tiago Splitter opening the blood bath with a lay up. Later on, everybody's gone into the three-point pool party bringing with them their own rubber duckies, beach towels and what not. Bonner telegraphs home two more threes, George Hill and even freshly renewed Steve Novak drop two threes each as well, while Gary Neal punctuates an incredible effort by the bench tonight with that silky smooth pull up jumper of his. With 8 minutes still left to play, win number 51 is safely in the books.
Here Today, Still Here Tomorrow
The mega hype train surrounding the Heat, along with the Melo Drama and the Lakers' struggles have dominated headlines, the Spurs remained under the radar despite a remarkable record that deserves a blog index in and of itself. While any Spur would denounce the idea of this game being personal, it really seemed like it. Tony said at the post game interview that they treated it as just another game, but let's not kid ourselves. Whatever other teams or experts or fans might say, this Spurs team has been playing the best basketball in the entire league the whole season. Period.
And if they feel the need to show it, they won't hesitate. Even iIf it takes stripping down the "humble" tag for one night just to show who's the boss, then so be it. The San Antonio Spurs are not going away. Hell, they're not just going to stand there and rot like a bad Bill Simmons revised predictions column. This season, they will take no shit from nobody, while dishing to an opposing team the kind of basketball hell that's heavenly to watch.
Your Three Stars
3 -- Manu Ginobili - Maybe he could've gone for 40 with the way Miami was defending, but the early offensive blast helped set the tone for an entertaining and satisfying blowout. I thought of placing Bonner here (6-7 threes, +26), but The Sickness just really played well on both ends (7 assists and 2 steals).
2 -- Tim Duncan - As solid as ever, he continues to be the foundation on which the current Spurs organization is built. His rebounding and paint defense this game was every bit as crucial compared to all the three-pointers made.
1 -- Tony Parker - He was a maestro out there, and set teammates up perfectly while picking the right spots to get his points. It also helped that his surprise comeback lifted team morale, and while he "only" had 8 assists, his game-high +31 shows how much impact he had.
Just some stats of note:
- The Spurs haven't lost at the AT&T since November. Their 22-game home winning streak is g-o-o-d. Very. The team is also 22-2 all-time against Miami.
- The Spurs also broke a franchise record for most made three-pointers in a game, making 17 (the previous was 16).
- There were eight Spurs that scored in double figures, showing incredible balance. Also, everyone who played scored.
- Tony Parker had the highest usage rate of 31%, followed by Manu with 29%. Tim was a distant third with 21%. The Heat? Wade alone accounted for or was a part of 42% of his team's plays, LeBron 34%, and Bosh 20%.
- Lastly, with the win, the curse of the Los Spurs jerseys seem to have been lifted.
- "Noche Latino Night" is redundant. Just so you know and not piss off the furriners.
Up Next: It's meeting #3 with the Lakers. As always, it's going to be a battle. Enough said.