The long NBA season now has but a few games remaining. A few games featuring two teams so diametrically opposite that this series has the makings of an instant classic. [Editor's note: This was written before Game 1. Wes is a profit!] A few games that could be among the greatest the NBA has ever seen, assuming both coaches don't leave their starters at home.
No sub-plot can compete with the central plot of Miami vs. San Antonio being friggen amazine! Here are clearly the two best teams in the NBA right now, and they are complete opposites. This is Ali vs. Frasier, Alien vs. Predator, Apples vs. Oranges, Apple vs. Samsung, Freddy vs. Jason, Open Source vs. Closed Source, Batman vs. Superman, King-Kong vs. Godzilla, and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octupus. Now, some of those match-ups looked compelling on paper, but turned out to be duds. I am, of course, not talking about Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, which is an underappreciated masterpiece. In the movie, a shark literally jumps out of the water and chomps an airplane! How did that flick not win a million Oscars? But I digress. It's just hard for me to see how this series can fail to be awesome. As a great man once said, here we go.
Will total basketball defeat isolation basketball?
It is no secret that the Heat revolve around LeBron James. And while the very reason he is on the Heat is that LeBronBall doesn't win rings, in the playoffs the "just give LeBron the ball and see what happens" plays have been frequently used in crucial moments. And who can blame Erik Spoelstra? Against most teams, LeBron is clearly talented enough to win a game by himself. If he is not shooting the ball, he can create looks for others so well that it almost doesn't matter who is playing point guard. He was basically given the NBA MVP award as a graduation present and with those kind of honors his teammates are obviously going to look to him when the game is on the wire.
The Spurs on the other hand don't have "one guy", they have "one team". The argument can be made that Tony Parker is the Spur's main star these days. And sure, fine, whatever, he is. But he is only the star by default. He is a part of a team in the true sense of the word. What the Spurs do is so weird to see on a basketball court that most people dismiss it as boring. Where are the dunks? Where are the one-thousand fast break points? Where are the technical fouls? Click, oh look it is a Jersey Shore re-run. The Spurs move the ball. I know weird right? Well it isn't if you watch soccer. The Spurs are more like an elite soccer team. They pass the ball until someone has a decent look. And while this is easier to do on a soccer pitch (no shot clock), it is not so easy to do on a basketball court (shot clock). This is not a strategy; it is more like a technique. The Spurs have been practicing this technique for years and while some teams can imitate it, no team can match the spatial awareness of each other that the Spurs have. The Spurs are dominant because anyone is capable of scoring anywhere. How do you guard that?
The Heat's best attribute is forcing the ball into the basket no matter what obstacle is in the way. The Spurs' best attribute isn't scoring at all - it is passing. Manu passed between a guy's legs, and that wasn't even all that rare of a thing for him to do. Tim Duncan prefers to hit an easy layup when he could totally dunk all over someone's face. No one stands still on offense; players are either setting picks, cutting, passing, or performing other nifty tricks. If a Spurs player is doing nothing, then they are sitting on the bench. (And even then, well have you seen Patty Mills wave a towel? It's like artwork.) Does it work? You bet it does. The Spurs made the Memphis defense look like what would happen if the Great Wall of China was made of marshmallows. And that team included the NBA's best defensive player. Of course that was according to the NBA. We all know that Tim Duncan was the best defensive player this season. Oh look speaking of Timmeh...
The GOATPUFF is back in the finals
It has been amazing to watch Tim Duncan do what he does for so long. The crazy thing is that he is not done. And he is not some veteran that is playing for a few minutes and chipping in a few plays while blatantly hitchhiking on a team in order to win another championship. ::cough, Derek Fisher, cough:: Tim Duncan remains the lynchpin of the Spur's defense and a critical contributor on the offensive side of things. Words do not do Tim justice.
There is no question that Timmeh is going to play these next games like he did the last 16,989,999 games. (That number is an estimate.) One of Duncan's nicknames is "The Big Fundamental". But that nickname doesn't paint the whole picture. It just explains one aspect of his game. If anything he is "The Big Consistent". He is averaging a career double-double. That is insane. After almost two decades in the league, he still is a fundamental (see what I did there) part of the Spurs. If the Spurs win the finals, Tim Duncan will have contributed in a big way. And that is simply awesome.
The Spurs have been planning for this all season
In November, Pop threw a wrench in David Stern's money-making machine. We all know this story. He sent Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green and Tony Parker back to San Antonio before a nationally televised match-up against the Heat. Pop got fined, and the fine was a subject of a debate amongst the national sports press. Many people defended Pop's decision to rest some of his players due to the physical toll that playing four games in five nights takes on the human body. Most people thought that Pop considered a proceeding game against Memphis as being more important. But that is someone playing checkers. CIA Pop doesn't play checkers; he freaking plays chess!
It could be that Pop's main goal was to see how well the reserve unit (plus Tiago) could do against the big bad Heat. How did the reserves (plus Tiago) do? They lost by five points. Five. But it was even closer than that. In the last seconds of the third quarter, the Heat needed an Allen miracle three to get the lead and keep it. The box score is unreal for that game. Chris Bosh and Matt Bonner had a double-double. Ray Allen poured in 20 points and so did Gary Neal. Lebron played for 39 minutes, while Tiago Splitter played for 29 minutes. Most people will say "well a loss is a loss". And most of the times I would agree, but not this time. That was a message. In the team's next meeting, Spoelstra pulled Dwayne Wade and LeBron James. (He said they were injured, which kind of illustrates what I was trying to say in the previous paragraph.) That game was also missing Manu, was played late in the season when the standings were pretty much settled, included numerous "huh moments", and was decided by two points. Chris Bosh said after the November game "We survived and we won. They have a bunch of talented guys over there." Well that's exactly right Chris. The Heat have yet to see all of that talent this year, and if that is by design, then Pop is a more of a super genius spy than we already give him credit for being.
The winner can legitimately be in "the conversation"
In basketball, there are two "greatest" questions. The first one is "Who is the greatest player ever?" The answer to that is pretty easy. It is Michael Jordan. The only other player that has a right to enter that conversation is Bill Russell. Depending on your metrics, you can't go wrong with either of those two players. The more complicated question is "What was the greatest team ever?"
Prior to this series, the Duncan-era Spurs were already on the fringe of that conversation. And while true fans of the sport know that the Tim Duncan dynasty deserves a special place in the history of the game, the Spurs (for whatever reason) are still ignored by the general public. This could be because during the actual finals they never played a truly imposing oppenent. The Spurs four championship runs were more like a scorch-the-earth march that concluded with a championship parade on the Riverwalk. Greatness is defined by adversity, and the Spurs didn't bleed in front of the cameras.
Yet any Spurs fan knows the statistics. Under Tim Duncan, the Spurs have a 70% winning percentage, which qualifies to be in the conversation as the greatest sports team ever. However, let's be honest. Mostly only Spurs fans know that kind of stuff. Consequently, the '90s Bulls, Showtime Lakers, and '60s and '80s Celtics are the stock answers when people talk about the greatest basketball team ever.
By the way, do you know what team is not ignored by the general public? The Miami Heat. As soon as that super team assembled, there have been millions of cameras watching them. The question was not "Are they going to be a great team?"; it was "How great are they going to be?" The narrative goes that once they got their first year of growing pains out of the way and picked up a few hitchhikers, there is no team that can stop them. Meanwhile, lurking in the shadows, are the Spurs who continue to exhale excellence after each breath. If the Spurs win against what the media calls one of the strongest teams to be assembled in basketball, then they are automatically inserted into "the conversation". Additionally, if the Heat win then, that means their crazy experiment was successful and last year was no fluke. In other words, the Spurs are the only thing in the way of the evil empire finally gaining control of the NBA. And now the stage is set for a true championship.