Last week, J.R. Wilco wrote about the best defensive play in Spurs history. It was a very well written story because of course it was and I encourage you all to check it out if you haven't already. I can't fault his pick at all. In fact, when he texted me about his idea for the piece, I guessed it on the first try, so either I'm a mind reader or subconsciously on some level I agree with our esteemed editor.
I've watched the play a hundred times by now, over and back, Zapruder Film style, and honestly I'm not sure there's anything the Thunder could've done differently. Maybe Russell Westbrook should've been out a couple of feet wider running the lane. Maybe Reggie Jackson should've waited an extra beat to deliver the ball, getting Kawhi Leonard to commit first. Maybe the problem was that it was just too predictable, that Westbrook's star power and relentless, intimidating alpha dog persona mandated that he was going to get the ball in that spot, rather than the possibility of Jackson taking it to the basket on his own.
But the thing that I keep coming back to over and over is that Leonard's positioning was textbook perfect. His anticipatory instincts are so finely tuned and his wingspan so endless, that he is one of the few people on the planet who can snuff out a 2-on-1 break on his own, even against an athletic freak like Westbrook. Coaches can't even use the tape instructively as a how-to for their guys because there's no point to it. Proper fundamentals and technique can accomplish a lot, but you can't teach quickness or length. There just aren't that many Kawhi Leonards out there.
It was a terrific play, one of the best in Spurs history, if not NBA history.
That said, I have another nominee. It's from the year before, and I was heartened by the fact that Pounders like Cin-C-Star were also thinking about it.
It was this play, by Danny Green in overtime of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals.
Consider everything that's going on here. This is the FINALS. Just a few minutes ago, the Spurs had suffered through one of the worst collapses of all-time, blowing a five point lead with less than 28 seconds to go. Rather then get down on themselves and give up, they kept fighting in overtime, and it was anyone's game in the extra period. Unlike Leonard's play in 2014, where even if the Thunder won that game, they still would've had to fly back to San Antonio, a venue where they'd been blown off the floor three times already that series, Game 6 of the Finals was an elimination game for both teams. The Spurs stood little chance of winning a Game 7 on the road, especially after blowing a grueling Game 6, and everyone realized that. This was THE game.
Now here's Danny Green, furiously backpedaling against a speeding locomotive poorly disguised as LeBron James. Manu Ginobili had just thrown his 43rd turnover of the game in a nightmarish performance with the Spurs down one and fewer than 45 seconds to go. James is barreling toward the basket, intent on tearing down both the rim and the Spurs in one fell swoop.
Up to this point Green had had a miserable Game 6. He made just 1-of-6 shots and would go on to have his final attempt blocked. He notoriously failed to block out on James during Miami's furious late comeback. The Spurs were outscored by 12 with him on the floor. He would go on to be even worse --quite worse, in fact-- in Game 7, as described here, here, here and here.
But for this one moment, Green was brilliant. Extraordinary, even. No matter how many times I watch the play, I cannot fathom how he pulled this off. It's not much of an exaggeration to suggest that James, coming with a full head of steam, is one of the strongest people in the league. We've seen him brush would-be challengers aside countless times en route to an "and-1." If you freeze the video right at the point where James is whizzing past the three-point line and didn't know anything about the play, you'd predict that it would end with a Green foul and a made bucket, with James flexing or pointing to his biceps or something.
Instead, none of that happened. Even though James gives a stout elbow to Green's chest, even though he had all the forward momentum and outweighed the Spurs swing-man by a good 40 pounds of hard muscle, Green still held his ground and made a play. He had enough reach and strength to slap the ball just enough for James to lose control of it. After a review, the Spurs were rightly awarded possession, which gave them two more opportunities to take the lead and steal back the championship that was stolen from them.
But because they couldn't get a shot to fall in (and because Joey Crawford didn't have it in him to call a potentially Finals-deciding foul on Ray Allen at the end) we tend to dismiss both Green's moment of brilliance and all the other heroic performances the Spurs had in that Finals.
There was Parker, icing Game 1 with his spin and duck under banker against James. There was Green and Gary Neal, who hit 13 threes between them in the Game 3 blowout win. There was "The Manu Game" in Game 5, with the crowd chanting the Argentine legend's name in the fourth quarter. (JRW has said that it was his favorite game that he saw in person, and he was at the championship-clinching Game 5 in 2014, for what it's worth.) There was Duncan's 30 points in Game 6, Parker's Jordan-esque score-steal-score salvo near the end of regulation and Leonard's all-around ferociousness that made James grimace all series long. Duncan, Leonard, Parker and Green all had legitimate claims for Finals MVP before, well ... you know.
SBNation's Grant Brisbee brought up something last night in a post-game recap. If you're unfamiliar with Brisbee, he writes about baseball, mostly the San Francisco Giants, and he's kind of like me but roughly 183 times more talented. The Giants are terribly injured and as a result they had to use Madison Bumgarner, a pitcher (a very good hitter for a pitcher, but still a pitcher) to pinch-hit late in a game against Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, who literally throws harder than any human being in recorded history.
It was the baseball equivalent of asking Patty Mills to stop James on the fast break. Bumgarner worked a walk. The Giants came back to tie the game, but ultimately lost in extra innings.
The Giants lost the game with the Bonds/Gagne duel, too. Years later, we still remember titan v. titan, possibly the defining moment of the Steroid Era, because it was so compelling and dynamic. But the Giants lost the game. Feels like that comes up a quarter of the time the actual at-bat between Gagne and Bonds comes up. The Giants lost. Just like that stupid J.T. Snow homer against Armando Benitez. The Giants lost ,and then they signed Benitez. And then they lost even more! Everything is awful.
Sometimes, though, the result of the game shouldn't overshadow the best parts of it. Just like the result of a season shouldn't overshadow the best parts of it. There can be brilliance in the chaos, things to remember. That at-bat will forever be a classic, regardless of the result.
It's a brilliant point made by a genius writer (seriously, if the line "whatever my fingers fart out of their finger-butts as they fart-glide across the keys" doesn't compel you to investigate Mr. Brisbee's work further regardless of your interest in the subject, I don't know what to tell you) but it's just as applicable in basketball or most anything else.
I've decided not to let the result of something take away my appreciation for the moments of inspiration and joy that happened along the way. It's the memories that matter, not the banners or the rings or some lines of text on a reference page that coldly, clinically, records results. The 2013 Spurs are heroes every bit as much as the 2014 team was and we should all take every bit of pride in that team. They gave us lasting memories that just happened to be tinged with a bit of melancholy. Such is life. You can't fully appreciate winning without knowing the crushing despair of coming so close, and you can't come close without a lot of good things happening during the journey.
Whether you ultimately feel Leonard had the better play or Green did is a matter of preference. Maybe the best Spurs defensive play ever came in a regular season game. Maybe it was by some random tenth man on a Tuesday in February against Milwaukee. There is no rule that the significance of a moment or the stature of an author is what gives something its credibility. Anyone can have a moment of brilliance, at any time, without us having to put it in context of a time, a place, a result or any other artificial construct. Life is made up of a series of moments.
And for one moment, Green was as brilliant as anyone, even if it happened in a game we'd all like to forget.