As we're slowly getting used to the idea of a championship in the rear view, with each passing day an offseason column penned by the great Buck Harvey of the Express News resonates more with me. The Spurs were just getting ready to open training camp and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich revealed to Harvey that he spent some of his summer off watching the previous Finals, particularly games 3-5, where the Spurs emphatically made their case as one of the all-time best teams of the past 25 years.
I keep going back to this passage in particular...
And after the Spurs had lost Game 2 to the Heat? They reacted as they hadn't before.
"There was a different mantra," Popovich said. "Boarding the plane, before practices, during shootaround, we said, 'We came here to win two.' We totally believed at that point. We thought we were better."
Looking back, Popovich thinks others added to that. Namely, the Heat.
"When they won Game 2," he said, "they probably didn't handle that win real well. They were probably thinking that we got lucky in Game 1, with the air conditioning issue, and they thought they were just going to do it again. As two-time defending champs, it was natural. This had become their place in the world."
Combine the two attitudes, and the result was a stunning, overwhelming exhibition of basketball excellence. Even now, when Popovich watches the last three games of the Finals, he comes away amazed.
"'I'm thinking, 'Who are these guys?'" he joked about his players. "'Did they all have lobotomies?'"
At the time I thought it was just the usual Popovich humility and self-deprecation, but now I see there was considerable truth in what he was saying. Yes, the Spurs earned their trophy. They earned it and then some. But the level of play they built to was still somewhat over their heads. It was, literally, greater than the sum of the individual parts, which made it so difficult for the Heat and everyone else to deal with. The Spurs keep throwing out words these days like "rhythm" and "flow," like they're some dance troupe, but at their best they play with something beyond rhythm. It's more like a sixth sense. When it works they just toy with teams like they're in moving in slow motion. It's why I call it "Neo-ball."
Fast-forward five months though and Pop looks prescient indeed. Forget the sixth sense. Most Spurs possessions during the final three quarters of their narrow 94-92 escape over Mike Budenholzer's doppelganger Atlanta Hawks lacked any sense at all. The Spurs tossed away 21 turnovers (the second time in three games they've exceeded 20), not to mention all of a 17-point second quarter lead built on sound defense at the rim and a few fast break forays. The Hawks, despite not being at all sharp from distance, cut into that deficit little by little, chipping away on their own rock, and they finally made it crack with 1:15 to go, taking their only lead on an Al Horford jumper from the free throw line, at 92-90.
Fortunately for the home crowd, Manu Ginobili has cracked a few rocks of is own these past dozen years. After going scoreless in the first half he finally broke his personal seal with a finger roll layup early in the third quarter and then connected on a three for the Spurs first points of the fourth. He let fly with another three with a minute to go but got fouled by Atlanta's Kyle Korver, similar to the foul he drew late at Phoenix on Friday. Ginobili calmly hit all three to give the Spurs a lead and a Tim Duncan block of Korver a would-be go-ahead layup --Duncan's sixth swat of the game, his most since also recording six last Feb. 3 vs. New Orleans-- led to him going to the line, where he made one of two. Atlanta's Jeff Teague hit a short banker to tie things up and Ginobili found himself with the ball and the clock ticking down. A Duncan pick bought him room to bisect the lane and once more Korver bumped him. Ginobili knocked down two more freebies for the final margin.
"I know it's not going to be the same as eight years ago," Ginobili said when asked if he still makes love to pressure. "Now the main plays are going to be run by Tony (Parker) probably or (Tim Duncan) or maybe even somebody else, but Pop said in that last (timeout) that if we were tied to just go so we wouldn't get the defense set and I ended up with the ball and I just ran that pick-and-roll and I got fouled and had the opportunity to go to the line. But yes of course I love (being in) that situation."
The Spurs were buoyed at the beginning by the return of Tiago Splitter and he didn't look rusty at all despite practicing for his fellow South American Ginobili termed "a day-and-a-half," scoring two quick buckets and dishing a pair of assists. In fact, let the record show that Splitter actually made his first field goal of the season before Kawhi Leonard did, even though Leonard started against the Suns last Friday. Splitter predictably tired quickly though and was subbed by Popovich four minutes into the game. He played a bit late in the second quarter and then started the second half, but was again pulled quickly after feeling another twinge in his calf. In all, he played just 10:25.
"For the minutes he played, he did a good job," Popovich said of Splitter. "His calf tightened up again. We were going to play him 15 to 20 minutes... but we had to pull him."
Popovich didn't know if Splitter would be available tomorrow at Houston (I'm guessing not) and the team suffered another blow when Marco Belinelli had what the team described as a "mild" strain of his right groin. With Leonard still trying to get his legs underneath him and Ginobili only being able to do so much, Pop had to resort to some funky combinations on the wing. In the second quarter he played Cory Joseph at the two, while early in the fourth quarter he played Austin Daye, in a fairly disastrous stint. In retrospect, it was pretty unfortunate that Kyle Anderson was inactive.
What wasn't unfortunate, however, was how many wide open threes Korver missed in the fourth quarter, after the Spurs had done a superb job of stifling his looks for the first 36 minutes. Korver had several chances to give the Hawks a lead late in the game and squandered them all. Instead, Atlanta's comeback was led reserves Mike Scott and Dennis Schroder. Like his mentor, Budenholzer is trying to develop a deep bench, which will come in handy because the Hawks don't have too many starters who'll explode for over 25 on any given night.
The Spurs survived despite the injuries to Splitter and Belinelli, despite being outscored by the Hawks in each of the final three quarters, despite making just 5-of-17(29.4 percent) threes and 27-of-38 (71.1 percent) free throws and the aforementioned 21 turnovers, a third of which came from Parker. Mostly they won because of Duncan, as has been the case for the past 17 years. He had the 799th double-double of his career with 17 points and 11 rebounds and the first since 2007 where he also had at least five blocks.
"Timmy plays to win," said Popovich later. "He knows what we want to do, he can follow instructions, and sometimes he avoids my instructions and does something even better than what I wanted him to do originally. He's been like that for a long time."
Almost as if he's been lobotomied.
Your Three Stars
3. Manu Ginobili (4 pts)
2. Boris Diaw (4 pts)
1. Tim Duncan (11 pts)