June 6th is only five days away. But it might as well be six years. After all, the Spurs have been waiting just that long for another trip to the NBA Finals, and if you feel like I do, these six days are loaded with excitement, nerves, anticipation, and perhaps a bit of fear...
But I think the Spurs are the best team in the league right now. If you don't believe me, tune in to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals tonight to watch two substantially flawed teams blunder their way toward a chance to meet the Silver and Black. Do the Spurs have flaws? Sure. The Grizzlies were supposed to expose them. We swept them. What flaws we do have were not exhibited in the Western Conference Finals, thanks in large part to the play of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and (to a degree) Manu Ginobili. They've been collectively phenomenal in the playoffs so far, and have propelled their team through a combination of skill, experience, and shear will power. It is only by their unrelenting determination that the Spurs have so handily advanced through the playoffs thus far.
Some may be disappointed in the wily Argentine's play this playoffs. His scoring is down from the regular season, more than 2 points per 36 minutes, and he has been taking almost the same number of shot attempts, which has resulted in only his second career sub-.400 playoff shooting percentage. The last time? His rookie season, 2003, the second of the Spurs' four championships. That year, Manu was still drawing the ire of Popovich for his unconventional playing style, and he hadn't fully earned the trust of Tim Duncan and the rest of his teammates.
But the Spurs won a championship that year, and it was because Manu Ginobili chose not to conform to Pop's initial desires to mold him into a system player. Manu was great because he was unconventional, not in spite of it.
In 2003, Ginobili was unusual in many ways, but most notably in his ability to drive and score. The swerving Euro-step, the deft kiss off the glass for a lefty lay-in, the under-the-basket reverse jams. These things made Manu unpredictable and, at times during his career, unstoppable.
As we are witnessing ten years later, Manu has lost some of that ability to score. You can call it a slump or a funk, but the truth is that Manu's season field goal percentage is way down from his career average. He shot 42.5% during the regular season, his second-worst season in the NBA (next to 2003-2004). Tim Duncan recently suggested that Manu was just "saving himself for the Finals," a polite way of affirming that Manu's shooting is off.
But for all that he now lacks, he still remains crafty, with as strong a distaste for convention as ever. His assist rate is absolutely stellar, at 7.5 per 36 minutes in the playoffs, better than his career playoff average by more than 3. His rebounding is way up too, at 6.3 per 36 minutes. That makes him the 3rd best rebounder in the playoff rotation, better than Splitter (5.7), Diaw (5.1), and Bonner (5.0). That's your "backup" shooting guard out-rebounding every center on the team by a very solid margin. His steals are also up from his playoff career averages, good for more than 1 per game.
The only thing troubling, besides his shooting, is his current propensity for turning the ball over. His 3.3 turnovers per 36 are highest on the team, and it isn't close (Tony Parker is second at 2.6). What isn't troubling is that, despite his significant increase in assists, his playoff turnover rate is not significantly higher than his career playoff average, and has dropped over the last two years. Perhaps the only thing predictable about Manu's game is that he will attempt all sorts of wild and tricky passes. Some pay off, and others don't. The good news this year is that more of the former are occurring. Oh, and this happened:
I'm getting a little bit sick of this "ageless wonder" stuff with Timmy. Yes, what he is doing at his age is remarkable, but I think focusing on his age snuffs out the remarkable nature of what he is doing on the court. Duncan is lean, focused, and relentless. His overtime takeovers in both Games 2 and 3 of the Memphis series were fascinatingly efficient. Of all the players remaining in the playoffs, Tim's will to win is the fiercest. Yes, fiercer than Manu's. [Editor's note: That's getting remarkably close to PtR heresy, Cameron. -jrw] Certainly fiercer than LeBron James'. Tim Duncan wants this fifth championship badly, and at a time when each year his age usually does start to creep up on him, the GOAT PUFF has still found ways to will his team to victory.
Duncan remained solid in scoring throughout the playoffs, but his average in the Memphis series of 15.5 ppg showed a pretty marked decrease from the 18.7 ppg he averaged during the first two series.
The decrease in scoring belies his significant contributions elsewhere, however. In a series where Duncan was supposed to be pounded inside by Gasol and Randolph, Duncan improved his rebounds per game from 8.1 in the first two series to 9.3 in the Western Conference Finals. He averaged 3 blocks per game against Memphis, a huge increase from his average of 1.2 per game in the West Quarters and Semis. His assists per game shot from 1.7 per game in the first two rounds to 3.3 per game in the WCF.
Like Manu, Duncan found a way to contribute even when the bulk of his post scoring opportunities were eliminated and his mid-range wasn't dropping at an exceptional rate. He elevated the other areas of his game despite a drop in points as he continues to hand the bulk of the scoring responsibility to Tony Parker.
Plenty has been written about how masterfully Tim has managed his game throughout the 2013 NBA Playoffs, and I can only echo those sentiments. Duncan truly is a master of the game, of winning through systematic approach and teamwork, of fundamentally dismantling his opponents. He isn't the fastest or the wiliest of the Big Three, but he is the smartest. And his heady play continues to elevate the Spurs in big moments like the recent overtime periods of Games 2 and 3 against the Grizzlies.
Tony Parker is the second best player in the league. There, I said it.
There's been some buzz about how now folks are calling him the third best player, behind LeBron and KD, and I think that is garbage. Sure, I will concede that LeBron is the best player this year. Any player whose off night box score reads something like 25 pts, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 blocks -- well, that guy is a beast. No argument there. But Kevin Durant is better than Tony Parker? Really? It should be true, but after watching Kevin Durant try to beat the Grizzlies sans Westbrook, exposing some serious flaws not only in the Thunder's team but also in KD's game, I refuse to buy in to it.
Maybe I'm not being fair. After all, if Tim Duncan were out, I'd expect the Spurs wouldn't have beaten the Grizzlies even with Tony playing at an elite level. But it wasn't like KD and Westbrook played that well together. That is, they generally took turns scoring on their own or distributing to their shooter, instead of playing off of each other. When Westbrook went out, the Grizzlies had a field day as they focused all of their defensive energy on Durant.
The Grizzlies tried to do that with Parker. The league's best defense attempted to keep him out of the paint. They worked to stop his midrange. They tried to limit his ability to distribute. They failed on all counts. Tony Parker smoked the Grizz to the tune of 24.5 points and 9.5 assists per game on 53.2% shooting. And his team not only beat the Grizzlies, they swept them.
The best part about Tony's game right now is his ability to shake off poor shooting nights and run the show anyway. Take Game 2 against Memphis, where he made only 6 of his 20 attempts for 15 points. He had 18 (!!!!!!!!) assists in that game, for an assist turnover ratio of 6:1. Tremendous. He only missed two free throws during the whole series, avoiding those too often 1-1 splits that sometimes plague him at the line.
His performance in the Western Conference Finals, from the 15-18 Game 2 to the 37-6 Game 4, perfectly summarized how he has always approached games during this year's playoffs: Score when you can and distribute otherwise. The only thing is now he is actually doing so at a near MVP level, similar to what he had going on right after the All Star break before his ankle injury. Most Spurs fans felt that this version of Tony Parker would be essential for any chance at the Larry O'Brien trophy. Well it appears that Tony has fully elevated his game past where any of us could have hoped. With the playoffs as a measuring stick, he is the second best player in the league, and he may just get a chance to show the best player in the world how a TEAM wins championships.
Tony Parker has been brilliant so far in the playoffs, running one of the most efficient offenses the Spurs have ever fielded while occasionally singlehandedly exposing one of the best defenses in the league. But he has been capable of doing that for some time now. What seems to be different is how he now handles his role as court general. He credits his teammates more during press conferences, he knows when to take a step back and let Tim or Manu go to work, and he has shown an ability to orchestrate The System without being cocky or distant to his team or his coach.
This affection for the team, a true a desire for the whole system to excel, and not just the individual, may have been lacking for Parker in years past. This year appears to be different for him, and the cohesion that has resulted within this organization speaks volumes about how important it is for stars to wholeheartedly believe in each member of their team. It's why Popovich is a coaching legend. It's why LeBron won a championship last year, and why KD couldn't this year. And it's why the Spurs have a legitimate shot to win their 5th championship in 14 years.