It's finals week at Southwestern University in Georgetown Texas and all hell is breaking loose. Students are navigating various symptoms of insomnia, extreme levels of stress, and full on mental insanity. Being a liberal arts school, the workload is bottomless. The library is packed with drained faces, focused eyes and sweaty palms that dance across worn out keyboards. The student body is nocturnal, spending every minute of the ominous night researching dated theories of rhetoric from aristotle, memorizing entire textbooks of cell biology, and negotiating the thin line between wasting 10 minutes of valuable, waning production time to take a shower, much needed to stem off dangerously low levels of hygiene.
Yet on the first night of the most important week of my slowly unravelling Junior year, I found myself in the greatest city in the world, watching a team that means more to it's community than any other American professional franchise continue its 15th consecutive playoff run. The Spur's faithful always have great confidence that a Spurs postseason run will end in glory; and the first three quarters of the 2013 season saw the confidence grew. Tony Parker was dominating the league and was receiving substantial consideration for MVP, and making the debate of the best point guard in the league longwinded. He led the Spurs all season, and the Spurs were the best team coming into the All-Star break, and the first handful of games afterwards looked promising as well. The symbolic skyline of the Spur's fifth title was both abundant and bright.
Then Tony Parker got injured. Having shown that Popovich's artistic offensive system can handle injuries to Ginobili and Duncan, perhaps the same would prove true without Parker. But it didn't, and with his absence the Spurs offensive system and Identity disappeared, and so did the defense to boot. The Spurs lost a bunch of games without Tony. The faithful remained calm, expecting that Tony's return would return the Spurs to the championship caliber team of the first half of the season. But his return did not affect the team's play as expected, casting more doubt on the team's chances at the much desired fifth championship. Tony played awful, almost as if he was terrified to be on the court. He could not finish at the rim effectively and consistently, and his drives lacked confidence. The offense became a stagnant, toxic bog. Though the faithful will never admit it, we were apprehensive coming into these playoffs having just completed the most depressing final stretch of an NBA season under the guidance of Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich. The last quarter of the season saw the stars in our championship skyline slowly disappear, and with two weeks to go in the regular season, it became pitch black.
But as we were stumbling into the playoffs, the NBA's landscape began to shift dramatically. The Lakers, despite never boasting a semblance of a defensive or offensive identity, began to make moves. Kobe's identity as a 'I'll do whatever it takes to win" player began to define the Lakers, who seemed to find an infinite amount of ways to win as they beat their way into playoff contention. The Jazz slipped, the Rockets climbed their way into the 7th seed and the lost Spurs lost the first seed. So the Spurs were lined up to play the Rockets, a team that we beat handily three out of the four times. But the Rockets had the Spur's 2012 playoff's killer in James Harden, and there was a noticeable level of apprehension surrounding the Spurs media community. Then, the unthinkable happened. After dragging his Laker's through the most painful, difficult, and inexplicable season of his career, Kobe Bryant tore his ACL. The Lakers were finished, right? Utah would claim the 8th seed and be swept away by the thunder, while the Spurs would try and dig up their buried identity against the dangerous rockets.
But what? Are you sure? No way? The Lakers, sans Kobe Bryant, found their own grit and determination to lead them not only into the playoffs, but into the 7th seed as well. The Spur's playoff skyline recovered slightly, but began to show glimmers of potential glory. Though the injury-plagued Lakers boasted a front-court duo consisting of two of the league's top bigs, it could boast nothing else. Steve Nash was injured, Kobe could only contribute via his smart-phone and the Laker's bench was void of any semblance of significance. Oh, and they had the most overrated coach currently working in the NBA, quite possibly ever. The Lakers had too many questions to answer, but the Spurs had a few as well.
The Series opened in the AT&T center in a game that lacked little excitement or passion. Both teams played to their strengths, but it couldn't really be defined as great basketball. The Spurs systematically won the game handily, but it didn't necessarily boost confidence. The highlight was the passion and energy that a struggling Manu Ginobili, in the midst of his mentally, physically, and offensive season of his brilliant career, while Parker remained flat. Game two was much better as the Spurs again systematically confounded the Lakers, winning the game with a little more emphasis. MVP Tony returned in the second half and Manu Ginobili continued efficient play in his limited minutes. The offense seemed to have returned to the Spurs, and the defense began to lock in, aided by the Laker's complete lack of perimeter threats. The questions surrounding the Spurs after game two were about consistency. The questions were answered in LA, as Tony continued to improve his shooting and confidence in driving to the rim. Manu contributed consistently, something he couldn't manage to do all season. Game's three and four were blowouts, and the Laker's season ended as it began: with four losses. Of course, the Lakers really lacked the personnel to put up anything that could be remotely considered as a fight so the sweep did not mean much. But the Spurs Big Three had made a return, and the stars hanging over the Spurs grew in number and brightness.
As the Spurs were finding themselves in the first round, the NBA Playoffs showed how cruel, unpredictable, and dramatic it could be. Russell Westbrook suffered a freak injury in game two against the Rockets that would require surgery, ending his 2013 playoffs and dealing a massive blow to OKC's identity and dream of a first NBA championship. What once was an offensive that relied on less ball-movement and more of a two-man isolation was reduced to a "Kevin Durant will do everything while everyone else moves around a little incase Kevin passes" system. The system worked in game three, beating Houston at home and bringing OKC to the verge of a sweep. But OKC's offensive showed how taxing the loss of Westbrook was and couldn't match the Rocket's "shoot every slightly open three pointer or pass to Harden" strategy. Eventually OKC prevailed, but it took them six games that showed how vunerable OKC is without it's freak of athleticism point guard. Of course, an injury to a star player is always sad and damaging to the aura of the playoffs, but also incredibly helpful to the other teams, particularly those who are striving for their fifth championship.
While all this was happening, a transcendent star was emerging in Oakland, California. Perhaps the most anticipated series of the first round, the Steph Curry led warriors were capturing the nation with the most exciting brand of basketball against the highly praised nuggets. The series was epic, and Steph Curry shot his team past the Nuggets in six games. Unfortunately, all-star power forward David Lee suffered a severe hip injury that at first seemed to end his playoff run. But he "miraculously" made a recovery and was said to be available for game six in Oakland. But his minute of game play seemed to be more about public relations than anything. His return ignited the crowd and team, but his play was meaningless and his health probably won't allow him to play significant minutes in the second round.
After falling 2-0 to a Clippers team that seemed determined to prove its play-off pedigree, the Memphis "Junkyard Dog" Grizzlies ripped off four straight against a Clippers team that unravelled faster than a wound-up tire swing, earning a second round series against Kevin Durant and his posse.
Sunday night marked the beginning of the second round. The Knicks continued their offensive collapse against a gritty Pacers team as they lost the home court advantage that they worked so hard to get. The Grizzlies were in position to steal game one as well, but Kevin Durant led an inspired comeback and OKC stole game 1 away from Memphis. But the game contributed to the Spurs ever-brightening title hopeful skyline. The Spurs would probably prefer to play OKC rather than battle with the strongest front court in the NBA, but despite the loss Memphis is likely still favored to win the series. They were in control of the play, but Kevin Durant got the last word in on who would win. Regardless of who wins, a physical, lengthy, and back and forth series would benefit the Spurs, providing they advance to the conference finals.
Which brings me back to Monday night. While Southwestern's campus was quiet and foreboding, with final exams and papers casting dark clouds over the SU skyline, the Spur's stars were beginning to align. The Warriors, regardless of who they play, will always have an upperhand in at least one match-up thanks to Steph Curry's unconscious shooting. Regardless, the Spurs have answers for the questions the Lee-less Warriors can ask. Andrew Bogut's improved play protects the paint, but our interior presence is in two 7-footers (when Tiago returns), one being a rejuvenated hall-of-famer-all-star-greatest-power-forward-ever-who-defines-sustained-success-and-professionalism-and-winning-and-sparks-debate-about-the-existence-of-deities-or-demi-gods that we call Tim Duncan. Steph Curry is a great shooter and distributer, but Tony Parker orchestrates his offense masterfully and consistently. Jarrett Jack is a nice spark off the bench, but Manu is a bonafide game changer. The Warrior's offense relies on streaks, but the Spurs is consistent and systematic. The Warriors are younger and can run and gun in transition, but the Spurs execute their transition game precisely. Every question the Warriors ask their opponents on a daily basis, the Spurs have a proven, adequate answer. Conversely, the Spurs have components that the Warriors will struggle with. The Spurs' defense was great for most of the season and showed promise of returning in the first round, and will test the consistency of the Warrior's offense. Our offensive spacing and three point shooting will strain the Warrior's questionable perimeter defense, and the sophistication of our offensive schemes will confound and muddle the Warrior's defensive sets. The Spurs biggest advantage, however, lies outside actual game play. The foundation of the Spur's have played together in every single postseason since 2003, winning three together. The experience and chemistry they have is boundless and without equal. There is not a single scenario that the Spurs have not faced in the playoffs. But most importantly for this series and post-season, the Spurs have intense desire, focus, and drive. Essentially, the Spurs could not of caught a bigger break in a second round opponent.
Game 1 started and the AT&T center was rabid and juiced. Danny Green opened up the scoring with a Spurs' patented corner three, and the crowd erupted. He had struggled through the first round, and it was a great sign to see him nail a three. The fans were ready for what seemed to be an efficient night. But one shot is fickle, and the Spurs missed their next eight. Tim Duncan and Tony were missing their shots and the Warriors capitalized, building a lead that would hold for the entirety of regulation. Though our movement was crisp and our role players were playing well, our Big 3 could not hit the open shots that the system provided. The Spurs would make runs to put the Warrior's lead in doubt, but a team effort from the 6th seed would provide all the answers. The once raucous crowd seemed tentative and nervous. The third quarter opened well as the Spurs cut the lead to one after a signature Kawhi steal and slam. But then Steph Curry entered his own patented state of basketball euphoria. He erupted for 22 points in the quarter, draining three's from deeper and deeper. The defense could not stop him, and even a Manu fueled finish to the quarter only cut the lead to 12. The fourth quarter saw the deficit grow after offensive spurts from the warriors and diminish after similar spurts from the Spurs. But, with five minutes to go and the lead at 10, Curry converted on two lay-ups and the fans began to slink out of the arena. Tim Duncan headed to the locker room, too sick to watch, let alone play, and the stars in the Spurs skyline began to fade and spread. Questions about the series and title hopes began to creep back into the public realm.
But the Spurs continued to pound the rock offensively and became a brick-wall defensively. The big three had struggled shooting all night, but the role players had stepped up to fill the void. In four minutes of the greatest basketball the Spurs have played in a long time, the offense ripped off 18 points while the defense held the streaky and unstable Warriors to just two. Tony Parker showed up, showing the preciseness of his transition game and drives to the rim that the league had become accustomed to. As important as Tony was in the epic turnaround, it was truly the role players that clawed the Spurs into overtime. Boris Diaw, having missed the end of the season and the entire first round, hit two huge free throws and a timely jumper from the top of the key to put the game in reach. Kawhi Leonard converted a lay-up after a difficult pass from tony parker, and hit the three that cut the lead to 8, brought fans rushing back to their seats, and solidified the confidence of pulling off an unprecedented fourth quarter comeback. Diaw's aforementioned free-throws brought the game within one with under a minute to play, and erased any doubt that the Spurs were going to do something that no other team has every done before. The AT&T, even without full capacity, had turned into a sports fan's utopia and the decibel level was close to bringing the roof down. A contested Jarrett Jack converted bank shot with under 30 seconds to play silenced the crowd, but not it's or the Spurs' confidence. Gregg Popovich drew up the play that sank the lakers in the opening weeks of the players and it had the same result; Danny Green stepped up and nailed the three to tie it. The comeback was complete, and just needed a final defensive stand to push the reset button on game 1 and the series. In a stand emblematic of the defense that carried the team to its successes in 03', 05', and 07', the Spurs defense forced Steph Curry into a near impossible, heavily contested two that clanked off the back of the iron. The crowd let out a collective sigh of relief and tried to catch their breath after an explosive 18-2 run that came out of nowhere.
The Warriors opened overtime with five straight points, but the Spurs did not flinch. They continued to play their consistent offensive game, relying on Tony Parker and incredibly clutch performances from the role players. Green stepped up his pestering defense, forcing a few steals. Kawhi Leonard hounded Steph Curry and stifled the offense. After five minutes of back and forth, momentum shifting basketball, Manu Ginobili had the ball and five seconds to pull off a legendary comeback. He drove hard on his defender, jump-stepped to the side and shot a decent 18-footer that clanged off the rim.
Second Overtime was just as hectic and back and forth. Tony found his range and nailed a couple jump shots. Danny Green nailed another clutch three and Kawhi continued to frustrate Curry. The Spurs had a five point lead and the fans were roaring. Then the first stage of Manu happened. With 11 seconds on the shot clock, under a minute to play, and a three point lead, Manu Ginobili hoisted a deep three that clanged off the front of the rim, allowing the Warriors to break. It was a shot that could have been the dagger, but was so incredibly ill-advised and costly as Steph hit a transition floater in the lane. The lead was back down to one, and unease spread across the remaining Spurs faithful. Tony milked the clock on the next possession until he drove into the lane and attempted a heavily contested lay-up. It hit the rim and dropped to the court, and caused a ripple effect that would eventually give the Warriors the lead. Manu went hard towards a ball that had practically already been secured, while his man leaked out in transition. Danny Green then went hard for a steal on a pass to Steph Curry, and Curry blew right past him. With Tony recovering from his drive and Green and Ginobili committing to the play in the Warriors half, Steph led a three on two break that resulted in Bayesmore (of all people) nailing a lay-up. As quickly as the Spurs came back in regulation, the Warriors had just as quickly stunned the AT&T crowd and squashed their emotion.
But the Spurs had one more explosion in them. WIth 3.2 seconds left, Pop ran a play intended for Parker. But as Ginobili set a screen to free parker, he rolled out behind the arc and watched as his defensive man and Tony's chase Parker across the court. He waved his hand at Leonard who rifled the pass to Manu, who was channelling his clutch alter-ego. With Bayesmore closing, Manu launched a high-harking three that seemed to float on top of the crowd's hopes and emotions for almost an eternity, before splashing the back of the net. The remaining fans, the Spurs faithful, went absolutely ballistic. If there was a soul in San Antonio who hadn't switched the game back on and happened to be staring into the Alamo city's pulsating night, I am sure a revolutionary phenomena would of been documented: The thousands of glittering stars, whose beauty and magnificence are inherently dependent on the championship success of Tim Duncan's closing chapters, aligned to form a simple shape: The Number Five.
Sport's commentators, analysts, athletes, and legends all agree that luck can be the deciding factor in determining champions, regardless of the Sport. This was something that I bought into, both as an athlete and a fan. A missed shot, a missed call, a bad bounce can all be blamed on luck.
My junior year of high school I captained my high school rugby team. Though youth rugby in Texas is new and underdeveloped, the team I founded was younger and completely inexperienced. Our first year, we went 1-11, and only scored 35 points in 12 games, while allowing upwards of 400. No amount of luck could of changed the outcome of our season, and we weren't too disappointed about it either. We were brand new, and outside of my ten years of experience growing up in London, none of my teammates had even experienced anything to do with rugby. But senior year showed promise for our team. We only lost three players to graduation and the core of our team returned. We practiced hard over the summer, running simple passing drills and offensive schemes. We found two coaches, one of whom played on the Canadian national team and the other played Rugby with the marines. Our coach had established our team as an official club of the texas youth rugby league. As a new team, we were placed in the second division of the two division, 16 club league. Most importantly, school support for the team was growing and we were able to build a team of 25 athletes. It was a great season for us, finishing a very respectable 8-6 and qualified as the 4th seed in the division II tournament. As the fourth seed, we had to play a division II powerhouse in St Thomas, a team that had thumped us in both the games we played against them: they outscored us 65-14. The game ended up being a defensive battle, something that our team had grown to thrive on. In the waning moments of the game, after the ref had announced that the next passage of play would be the last, and us trailing 3-0, luck announced itself as the defining factor. St. Thomas had a scrum, and all they had to do was win it and kick the ball out of bounds for the final whistle. The opposing scrum half botched the feed into the scrum and the egg shaped ball bounced around the legs of the forwards from both teams. It ended bouncing into the possession of St Thomas and the scrum half circled the scrum to get position to secure it. But as the scrum half took his eyes off the ball, a St Thomas forward, who had also lost track of the ball, inadvertently kicked it while trying to push our scrum back, away from the ball. As a forward involved in the scrum, it is impossible to find the ball once it is out of your sight; thus, the cardinal rule of being a scrumhalf is to follow the ball with your eyes. St Thomas didn't, and the entire team was unaware that the ball was now in our possession. My co-captain secured it and controlled the ball to the blindside of our scrum. While the opposing scrum half was still searching through the tree-trunks of his scrum's forwards, I picked up the ball and ran past my man, leaving only the winger defending the narrow gap between the scrum and the sideline. My co-captain, using great awareness, followed my run on my right shoulder. As the opposing winger closed to stop my run, my co-captain flanked further our. Once the winger was already committed to tackling me, i made the easiest game winning pass of my career and we ran the ball in for a try. It was the greatest moment of my sporting career, and it was purely because of luck.
But luck is a fickle thing, and in the championship game it reared its ugly head. We were playing a team that we had dominated in the regular season and didn't seem to understand how to play defense. We were supremely confident that, as long as we played solid defense, we would most likely score more points than them. But the game didn't go according to our script, and we were again faced with a deficit in the waning moments. Our offense had been atrocious, and we had only managed to convert one penalty while allowing one try; the score was 5-3. Again, we were given one last possession coming out of our scrum. Our flyhalf (equivalent to a quarterback) had been kicking drop-goals well all season. The scrum was five meters out-side of their try-line, right underneath the up-rights, presenting an easy opportunity to kick a drop-goal, get the three points and come out as champions. I fed the ball into the forwards and they secured it effortlessly, and our number 8 controlled the ball between his legs while the other forwards resisted the opponents push. Our Flyhalf was lined up 10 meters directly behind the scrum, giving him plenty of space to get the kick off. I fed him the ball and he began his motion into the drop kick. The element most critical to a drop goals success is how the ball bounces off the ground and sets up for your kick. Unfortunately, something so critical is also so imprecise as the shape of the ball makes a solid bounce more difficult. As our fly-half dropped the ball onto the ground, we knew it wasn't going in. For the first time all season, the ball bounced awkwardly for the kick, and his foot caught the side of the ball, sending it spinning right. He missed it and we lost the final all because of luck. I was devasted, but learned a valuable lesson: winning and losing can't rely on luck.
Many have already claimed that this year the Spurs have the luckiest route to their much sought after 5th finals appearance. But I don't think its fair to attribute our playoff success this year to luck. Think of all the moments in the playoffs that have crushed the Spurs in their longest finals drought of the Duncan era, yet those were never attributed to bad-luck, but rather the aging core of the roster. The Spur's basketball identity has never been about luck; its been about consistently working together to improve and succeed. This year, after the trials and shortcomings of the past five seasons, seems to be more about destiny, than anything. It is destiny, not luck, that determines championship success. After carrying his franchise, Dirk Nowitzki was destined to win an NBA title. After years of criticism of the championship void in Lebron James' resume, destiny brought him the title in 2012. Now, after countless playoff shortcomings, it seems that destiny is on Spur's fan. Our road to the finals has presented itself as the easiest one yet; but not because of luck.
This year could be the year that the Spurs are destined to sit on the golden throne at the top of the NBA mountain.