Ever since the Thunder got it handed to them in last year's Western Conference Finals, almost every blogger, hoopster and self-proclaimed basketball analyst had them as a lock to make it back there for the 2011-’12 NBA season. Turns out everything went to plan, well, almost. Oklahoma City's big three have all made significant improvements in their games, they cruised through an outstanding regular season, blew past their first two playoff match-ups and are about to go to war with currently the best team in basketball. No, it’s not the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, not Kobe and his Lakers and not the reloaded Clippers. What's the one thing the Thunder (or any of us) didn't plan on? Seeing the San Antonio Spurs play this late in the season.For a decade and a half now, the San Antonio Spurs have been as steady as they come compared to the rest of the NBA. Since coach Gregg Popovich (Coach Pop) took over the sideline duties halfway through the 1996-‘97 season, the Spurs have not owned a winning percentage lower than .610 and have won 50 plus games in each season (37-13 in lockout-shortened season). That's incredible longevity for a professional sports team and it's never going to attract the attention that it warrants.
Tim Duncan fits the lack of attention theme immaculately. Along with his coach, Tim is considered to be the biggest reason for the Spurs’ success over the years. Without a doubt in my mind he's the best power-forward to ever play the game of basketball and I would bet money the majority of North America couldn't pick him out of a lineup (of tall dudes, obviously). And no, he doesn't have any affiliation with Dunkin' Donuts.
The puzzle behind San Antonio’s silence has yet to be solved. How come the Spurs can win four NBA Championships in the span of nine years and remain relatively quiet? How can such success go completely ignored to the majority of sports fans? They played a grind-it-out, defensive style of basketball before and there wasn't much interest, now they're playing with a fast-paced tempo and incredible ball movement, but still, the Spurs remain on the second page of everyone’s news.
Things have changed drastically since the Spurs won their first championship in 1999. The emergence of social media (Twitter, Facebook, blogging etc.) has reshaped how we think and consume sports. We have an infinite amount of information and statistics at our disposal, we are engaged in constant communication and everyone seems to have an opinion on everything. Still, with everything that has changed with sports and media, the most dominant sports team in the last decade (I see you, Patriots) still gets little to no recognition.
From John Hollinger:
"The Spurs not only have 18 straight wins, but they are 32-3 in their past 35 games. The most amazing stat is that they're 24-3 in their past 27 road games, with two of three defeats coming when they decided to rest their starters."
#SpursRule should be trending on Twitter everyday, Sportscenter should be showing previously recorded games repeatedly and each and every personal greeting between human beings for the next month should include, "What do you think about those Spurs?" Forget asking about the weather.
To my disappointment, it's never going to be this way. Oh how I would love to strike up a conversation about the Spurs with the next sandwich artist I have the pleasure of dealing with at Subway.
Coach Pop has developed what seems to be a simple winning formula, which I’m assuming has something to do with witchcraft in regards to how many other executives are willing to follow suit. 1. Build your team through the draft. 2. Draft team-first stars. 3. Sign free agents with specific skills not talent. 4. Make moves with the future in mind. 5. Shut up and work hard.
The fifth and final commandment, "Shut up and work hard," is perhaps the reason behind the ignorant behavior towards the Spurs continued greatness. Starting with the coach and down to their three-headed monster of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, none of them relish in their dominance. You will never hear any of them whine or sulk. You'll never witness any bad body language when one of them is heading to the bench, their answers to the media are short, precise and team oriented, their issues, if any, are kept within the locker room and out of the tabloids and everyone is focused on a championship rather than looking to pursue his individual agenda. This is the kind of stuff the media hates. There's little-to-no insight on what's happening with the team internally, no quotes can be spun negatively and there's no controversy that everyday readers love to read about. This is why no one talks about the damn Spurs - they aren't exciting! They aren't sexy!
The Oklahoma City Thunder on the other hand have plenty of similarities between the hottest girl in the club. She's young, she's exciting, she moves fast and she flirts effortlessly. She dresses in clothes that catch everyone's eye, she says all the right things and you cannot help but be smitten by her. This girl is new, this girl is sexy, and this girl is a star.
Kevin Durant is the front man of the youth movement currently taking over the NBA. He's young, he's humble, he works incredibly hard and he's all about his team. Russell Westbrook is a tamed lion, he's one of the most explosive players in the league, he's teetering on the line between confident and arrogant and he's the perfect compliment to his team’s leader. KD is smooth and silent. Russ is quick and loud. Then there is everyone's new favourite player James Harden, who gets most of his pub from the haggard beard he's grown. He's a combination of both KD and Russ, smooth but explosive, quick but plays with size.
No matter what posters you have hanging in your room or what jerseys you have ordered off of eBay, if you're a fan of the NBA, you're quietly rooting for the Thunder - maybe even secretly, don't kid yourself! Their core players are all below the age of 23, they built their team through the draft (didn't microwave their team like Miami), and Kevin Durant is arguably the most likeable player in the Association. They're everyone’s second favourite team.
Despite their initial contrast, the similarities of each team’s roots are pretty profound. The Thunder's entire front office has had their toes dipped in the Spurs pool of success at one time or another. The Thunder's Clay Bennett (owner), Sam Presti (general manager) and Rob Hennigan (assistant GM) were all part of the San Antonio organization alongside Gregg Popovich. No wonder they completely modeled their small-market basketball team nearly identical to San Antonio's. Huzzah for witchcraft! A humble, team-oriented star came first (Duncan/Durant), a quick, scoring point guard came second (Parker/Westbrook) and a savvy, play-making guard off the bench came third (Ginobili/Harden). Then fill in the blanks with skill players - not the most talented players. Now we have both teams squaring off in the NBA's Western Conference Finals - what a treat! A classic match of teacher versus student, old versus young and steady versus sexy.
The reason I'm so excited about this series is not because of the incredible match-ups, the half-dozen stars or the conflicting styles of basketball, it's because I believe it will showcase how a great team can beat great players.
Last year during the Eastern Conference Finals, I wrote a piece about the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat. The Team or the Talent I called it, because the Chicago Bulls were a full, cohesive unit and the Miami Heat relied on three players to win. I coined the terms; Player Fans and Team Fans to help get my point across, some fans choose to root for teams, and some choose to root for the players on those teams.
This year you have a similar, but different choice: the steady team or the sexy team?
The Spurs have been around awhile, their team slogan should be, "Been there, done that." They've had 15 years of persistent execution and have reaped the rewards (Titles, Finals MVPs, season MVPs, 6th Man and Coach of the Year). Their players are "boring," their coach is stale, their city is known for a damn museum and they wear the brightest colours of the rainbow; white and black.
The Thunder are three years removed from a 23-59 season and have became the leagues darlings ever since the move from Seattle to Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant has led the league in scoring in the past three seasons. Russ is making All-NBA teams. James Harden has the best beard/mohawk combo of all-time (Suck it, Mr.T). And they're wearing extremely fun and exciting royal blue and orange uniforms!
There's never an incorrect way to enjoy sports. There's never a wrong way to cheer for a team either. But after the Spurs and Thunder tipoff Game 1, you better believe you're going to naturally fall onto one side or the other. Yea, yea, I love both teams too, but I still want a particular team to advance.
Be honest with yourself.
Maybe you love the Thunder when they get out on the break and hammer down acrobatic dunks, or maybe you love a well executed pick and roll that the Spurs live by. Maybe you love those runs the Thunder go on at the beginning of quarters that make them look invincible, or maybe you like weak-side movement and backdoor cuts that the Spurs like to take advantage of. Maybe you like it when Durant or Westbrook start to take over a game by themselves, or maybe you like how the Spurs never, ever shy away from their system. Maybe you like beards, or maybe you like cranky coaches.
There's no wrong answer.
Most of us have been in a similar situation... There's a girl at the club who you've been getting along with all night; you two have enjoyed a few drinks together, had plenty of laughs and awkwardly engaged in some intimate dancing. The courage starts flowing and you want to make your move and take her home with you, but there's a problem. You have an old, reliable friend who stuck around the club to make sure you got home safe. She's been there for you since before you can remember, she's pretty, smart and successful, but you never seemed to give her the light of day. You could get a lift home with her and grab a quick bite to eat and reminisce about the night you just had or you can try your luck with that sexy girl you've been hitting on. One choice is easier than the other (obvious pun intended), but it depends on what kind of person you are, what you value in life and sometimes it's as simple of what kind of mood you're in.
Think twice about the Spurs this year, they aren't the same old, boring team they used to be (they never really used to be that boring). They have young pieces, they win games with their ball movement and they have scorers all the way down their bench. They lay the ball up rather than dunk it. They make the extra pass rather than force the shot. Their entire team is dangerous rather than just two or three players. Beauty isn't necessarily just short skirts and tank tops, blue jeans and a nice shirt can get it done too.
When you sit down to enjoy each game of this series, take the time to think about why you want a specific team to win or why you seem to prefer a certain team a little bit more than the other. Are you excited about the emergence of what could be a new dynasty in Oklahoma City? Are you impressed at the sustained level of excellence the Spurs have held throughout more than a decade?
Are you going to keep it steady and grab some McDonald’s with your old friend or are you going to try your luck with the new, sexy girl you just met?
Whichever it is, enjoy the hell out of it and let's hope it goes the distance.