Championship Rehash: Revenge of the Nerds

Chris Covatta

Victory. Redemption. For the fifth time in fifteen years, the NBA once again belongs to the Spurs.

This wasn't supposed to happen, you know. Not like this.

Two of their best guys are on the wrong side of thirty. Another one can't seem to end a playoff run without dragging a gimpy leg. The cast of characters seems promising, but it's also clearly flawed. Their most promising young player is a draft night gamble who has only had a handful of plays called for him in his entire career. The starting shooting guard is a perpetual castaway who can't dribble and whose jump shot disappears without notice for up to weeks at a time. They ended last year with two fat guys on the bench - both foreign, both once guards - that they came to depend on heavily throughout this season.

These are difficult odds for a team to overcome to win a championship. Toss in the most bitter and cruel of sports heartbreaks and a rematch against the greatest basketball player on the planet and the odds become downright impossible. But what we couldn't see then should have been clear: This is a franchise that excels on those odds.

Derek Fisher's shot in 2004.

The Game 7 loss at home in 2006.

Ray Allen's three last season.

These are painful, brutal memories, visceral snapshots bored deep into the hearts of people who care about this team. No amount of success, however unprecedented, has protected the Spurs from the cruelty of big shots, lucky bounces, and long rebounds.

What makes the Spurs different isn't the pain. Lots of teams in the NBA can share horror stories. For some, the conversation can stretch for days. No, it's not the hurt that separates the Spurs. It's the response. There were no speeches in 2005 or 2007, as far as I can recall. Nobody on those teams called their shot before they stepped to the plate. But the result was the same.

Victory. Tears. Redemption.

In the history of sports, there might never be a quote more powerful than Tim Duncan's "We'll do it this time." Bigger personalities have said louder things. Young players spout off with brash confidence all the time. But Tim Duncan is 38 years old. He's a quiet man, rarely offering even a fleeting glimpse into who he is outside of basketball. So his words at the end of the Western Conference Finals carried an incredible amount of weight.

Here was one of the greatest athletes in the history of his sport pointing out his target in front of millions of people and confidently stating he'd hit his mark. It was bold. It was plain. It was so very Duncan.

Game 5 was the team's final swing, the last push to back up Duncan's words, and the Heat were aware of this from the beginning. Erik Spoelstra's lineup switch worked at first, as replacing Mario Chalmers with Ray Allen helped the Heat to blitz the Spurs after the opening tip. For a while in that first quarter, it looked like the Spurs had been punched in the mouth and might never recover, and the Heat lead ballooned to 16 points. But the Spurs didn't get to the Finals without absorbing their share of blows, and by halftime, the team had wrestled control of the game away from Miami.

There was nowhere for the Heat to turn, as waves of Spurs came crashing down on a tired Heat defense. Kawhi Leonard was throwing down alley-oops. Manu Ginobili was leaving people in his wake. Patty Mills was shooting with his eyes closed. And when all that passed, there was Tim Duncan, destroying Udonis Haslem and commanding double teams. In the fourth quarter, Tony Parker delivered the final blow, clearly excited to finally play in a closeout game.

It was glorious. There's no other way to describe it. The Spurs had uncovered a previously unknown strain of basketball, and they skirted the boundaries of perfection. It was harmony on the court, an orchestra of players knowing exactly where and when to come in and just which part to play, all while Gregg Popovich did his best not to smile. The AT&T Center was humming, alive, and with a quarter and a half to go, there was no coming down, the Final buzzer a mere formality to complete an incredible season.

The revenge of the nerds is finally complete. The memory of losing Game 7 at home to Dallas in 2006 has been replaced. The pain of going home defeated in Oklahoma City in 2012 is a fading vapor. Ray Allen's shot in 2013 might as well be a highlight from another era. Other franchises might be consumed with the "What Ifs" of playoffs past, but for the Spurs, every possibility, every odd bounce, every twist of fate has become an addition, a stepping stone to a greater height.

There's a metaphor for this, but you have to travel far to find it. There's a lily in the Himalayas that exists for most of its life as a grouping of shiny leaves, indistinguishable from the fauna that surrounds it. For up to seven years, this plant will remain hidden among branches and trees. An unassuming growth of vegetation, you'd miss it even if you were looking directly at it. But suddenly, without warning and seemingly under its own volition, from these glossy leaves emerges the world's largest lily, sprouting to nearly ten feet and producing some of the most beautiful, delicate flowers ever seen.

For seven years, the Spurs have been dormant, wrestling with culture changes and personnel moves, shifting styles while they try to maintain an identity. In the seasons that have passed since their last title, they've transformed their offense, abandoned and rediscovered their defense, and resuscitated the careers of half a dozen players. Legacies were defined. Hopes were dashed. Plans were restarted. But in these Finals, they have finally reached their greatest form. What was supposed to be the last gasp of an aging dynasty ended up being a blossoming the likes of which the NBA has never seen. The league is theirs now. The most successful team in the history of professional sports stands alone, stands tall.

Victorious. Redeemed. Champions.

QUOTE OF THE GAME

"I never really feel pressure. Every day life is pressure."

- Kawhi Leonard (via Dan McCarney)

ODDS AND ENDS

  • I have been fortunate to see a lot of big playoff games in the last six seasons. I was in the arena for the insane Gary Neal shot against Memphis in 2011. I was there for Manu Ginobili's game-sealing three in double overtime last season. I got to witness Danny Green's explosion during last year's Finals and was part of a cheering crowd as Manu Ginobili pushed through Game 5 to give the Spurs a 3-2 lead heading to Miami. None of those experiences compared to the sound of last night's game. It was deafening. At one point, my friend Jacob leaned over to tell me something, and I couldn't hear a thing. I felt like Tom Hanks in the opening of Saving Private Ryan, ears ringing as the roaring chaos of a thousand screams beat against my ears. It was pure, raw energy, coursing through rows and rows of fans, exchanging knowing glances, shouting with abandon. I finally heard what Jacob was saying. He was telling me, "release." That was it. That's what we were hearing. Thousands of broken hearts being mended, the pain of last year's Finals replaced with the living memory of a title. I don't know that I'll ever feel that again. I'm still processing.
  • LeBron James was magnificent. He averaged 28 points in these Finals on 57/52/79 percentages and tossed in four assists, two steals, and nearly eight rebounds a game. That is absolutely insane. He played so well that when his outburst in Game 5 began in the first quarter, where he had 17 points, people were treating the possibility of a 70-point outing like it was inevitable.
  • Of all the redemption stories, Manu Ginobili's might be my favorite. His struggles at the end of the Finals last year were difficult to watch and prompted some uncomfortable "Will he return?" questions. But this year was a completely different story. Manu averaged 14 points and a four assists a game in the Finals on a 50/42/88 split. Oh, and he did this:
  • Tiago Splitter had a quieter playoffs as the Spurs marched to the Finals, an expected development of Popovich's matchup counters. But he played enough in the Finals to avenge the block LeBron had on him last year. Although Tiago's block was on Dwyane Wade and not LeBron, you can still see Tiago's soul ascend to heaven as Wade's body hits the ground:
  • Dwyane Wade had his game face on Sunday night. And by that, I mean that he painted his toenails black at some point before tipoff as part of a plan to revive his game. I guess you could say he was going "Black Toe the Future." (I refuse to apologize for that joke because I'm a dad now and that's what we do.)

  • San Antonio likes to party after a championship, and not like "turn over a car and burn everything" party. People come out of their front yards, jump on their cars, honk horns, take off their shirts, and scream at the top of their lungs. (I realize that sounds scary if you're not from San Antonio, but I swear everybody is smiling, if that helps.) I took this Vine blocks from the AT&T Center. It was at least ten times crazier downtown.

  • Trey Kerby is the best.

  • This has been an incredible year for me personally, and I just wanted to take a quick blurb here to thank you for reading. A year ago, I never imagined I'd be celebrating a title on my first Father's Day as a dad, but here I am, holding a little baby in her first Spurs onesie, recapping the greatest season I've ever seen. What a year.
    Baby

FINALS MVP

Kawhi

KAWHI ANTHONY "I DON'T NEED A NICKNAME" LEONARD

PTS

FGM/FGA

3PM/3PA

REB

AST

STL

BLK

+/-

22

7/10

3/4

10

2

1

1

+15


Kawhi Leonard started the Finals playing quietly and ended up making all of us speechless. Popovich said after the game that he didn't run a single play for Kawhi this series, an astonish admission that makes almost no sense when you look at Kawhi's averages in the Finals: 17.8 points (on 61/58/78 shooting!), 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.2 blocks. Kawhi wasn't an All-Star. He wasn't a top-10 pick. None of that matters now. He's 22, and he's a Finals MVP. After the game, he let out a shout that seemed to release all the emotion he'd hidden for a full season and the accompanying playoff run. It was incredible to witness, and the entire arena roared with him. Later, he shared a moment with Popovich that will live forever in Spurs lore:

Kawhi is an incredibly special player with a seemingly limitless ceiling. He's humble, understated, and driven. We're blessed to watch him play.

BY THE NUMBERS

  • 5.8: Assists averaged in the Finals by Boris Diaw, a team high. Diaw had 29 total and also tied Tony Parker for most minutes averaged on the team (35.2).
  • .753: Kawhi Leonard's True Shooting percentage in the Finals, the highest of any non-garbage time player on either team.
  • 120: Tim Duncan's Offensive Rating in the 2014 playoffs, his highest since the 2006 playoffs and the second highest of his career.
  • 98: Danny Green's Defensive Rating in the Finals, edging out Kawhi Leonard (101) for best on the team.
  • 2,902: Minutes played by LeBron James in the regular season.
  • 3,122: Minutes played by Kevin Durant in the regular season.
  • 2,910: Minutes played by Tim Duncan in the regular season and in the playoffs, the highest combined total of any player on the Spurs. Duncan led the team in minutes played in the regular season and in the playoffs.

BIRD IS THE WORD


THE GAME IN SONG

"Cleaning out the rooms / I'll clean it up / Dark cloud / Drifting out of view ... I'll wake up / In a new life" - from British Sea Power's "Cleaning Out the Rooms"

GOING FORWARD

The draft? Summer League? I don't know, man. Take a breath. Enjoy this.

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