Spurs Win Again. We Don’t Get It.

I expected to be watching Game Seven of the NBA Finals Friday morning — I’m in China, lest ye forget — and instead I wrote this.


Nobody. Cuz we believe “the team with the best player wins”, cuz the NBA has marketed the hell out of individualism. And MJ did, and Shaq probably was, and so was Tim Duncan, once upon a time, but even back then it was always a team deal with the Spurs.

I forecast San Antonio in seven, so I’m still not adjusted. I’m programmed for an epic climax, as games 6 and 7 in 2013 were the best pair of basketball struggles I’ve seen, what, ever? At least since the Magic Lakers and the Celtic Birds in the ’80s. With the Spurs’ early air-conditioning this year, I’m revising history: they actually won last year, too, even though LeBron James held up the trophies and preened and narcissized “I’m not supposed to be here!” (Sorry, kid king. Noticing the clay feet more than is charitable.)

They call it the Riverwalk, and fans cheer the team as they barge on by.

They call it the Riverwalk, and fans cheer the team as they barge on by.

Except in San Antonio, where they get parades, where they get Greg Popovich in a sunny parade counting the number of championships won, not imagined, not prematurely hype-predicted – and listen, I’ve seen the seen video of Pop counting, and he’s probably far too gracious a champion to be mocking LeBron’s not one, not two Heat-mob incitement, but you couldn’t blame the lords of karma if he was – and where west Texans also get the ongoing glow of a sweetly realized dream re-match with an undreamed-of dénouement, this astounding Spurs win already seems old. (I wish I was in San Antonio. Just for an hour or so.) Maybe the World Cup does that, especially with an American team slaying the mighty Ghanaians just a day later. Maybe Twitter, the 24-hour news cycle, the endless search for the newest-latest-happenin’-breaking story, a general cultural refusal of the slow lane of reflection, and our bloody boredom are what condemn a Spursian victory to the So What bin too early.

I want to bask a while. I want to happily brood about a victory for a change; as an old ball coach, I’ll bet the farm that Eric Spoelstra will be mulling this Finals loss (as he did after the Mavs got ‘em his first Finals time around in 2011) a lot longer than he enjoyed mentally replaying Miami titles in 2012 and 2013. Ask a coach what he remembers best, and he’ll almost always say, “Oh, the losses.” (I remember an SI article about three American high school coaches, the best-known being Morgan Wootten, each of whom had a thousand wins and winning percentages well north of 85%. My numbers were nowhere near those ones, but I nodded in recognition anyway. Yup.) So let’s dwell on pleasant things, for a pleasant change.

This Spurs win, more so than most professional championships, has meaning for me. The Right Way won. (I believe in right ways.) So let’s savour it. Let’s figure out how this all happened. I still don’t quite believe how San Antonio dismantled the Heat in those last three games, and how helpless Miami often looked. Suddenly everybody could see the shrivelled, naked emperor. When did Dwyane Wade get so old? How did they get so tired? How did they so completely lose their desire to play anymore? Is Battier done? (Yes.) And Ray? (Please.) Is the King going to dashing? (Meh.) And look at my questions: I’m doing the same bloody thing as everybody else does. What does this mean for LeBron’s legacy? (We’re such idiots. Five, fifteen, twenty-five years after he retires, these questions will be self-evidently answered. “Legacy” = what we leave behind. The legator has to actually leave. Can anybody read anymore?) What about The Decision 2.0? (Are we so anxious to go there again? Well, yeah, I guess we are. Such friggin’ gossip fiends, we are. It’s so undignified, not to mention trivial, self-reflective, distracting and rife with premature e-speculation. Yup, it’s mutual conversational masturbation.) I’m going to stop making this a story about the Miami Heat. (Journalistic heresy! Heroism!)

I was astonished last year when the Spurs didn’t get blown out in Game 7 after the heart-punch they took in the last 30 seconds of a Done Deal Victory in Game 6. That should have been the clue that, with a summer to recover and a season to actually get better – again! they got better again – despite their aging core, the Spurs would again cross up the experts who wisely nodded, Yup, this has got to be the end of the road. They don’t get goofy when they win lots, and they don’t despair at setbacks, which has to be some weird combination of listen, it’s just a game and we must strain every nerve to perfect our craft. “Never too high or too low,” the great UCLA mentor John Wooden constantly urged his players. “Keep calm and carry on,” the legendary British aphorism puts it. “Keep pounding the rock,” Popovich chants. There’s resilience there, and fortitude, but also continuity, trust, real friendship, and genuine learning.

Pop never stops teaching. "He keeps it fresh," Duncan says, and brings a fire that somehow doesn't consume him or the players.

Pop never stops teaching. “He keeps it fresh,” Duncan says, and brings a fire that somehow doesn’t consume him or the players. And Parker’s man enough to listen.

Folks focus on Miami having lost some steps, but we should look at how the Spurs learned how to beat that frantic trapping. Manu Ginobili looked overmatched at times last year against all those arms, and retirement looked like a necessary kindness. This year – healthier, better rested, but also incredibly well prepared – he had fun attacking those double-teams. Tony was also healthier, and that cold shooting through three quarters of game 5 shouldn’t make us forget how surgically – sometimes with excruciating patience, sometimes with sudden arrogance – he sliced and diced and French-fried the Miami defence. Tim was Tim, quietly, intently, incredibly, and while any of the so-called Big Three were reasonable candidates for Finals MVP, there wasn’t too much arguing against the selection of Kawhi Leonard.

The sleepy-eyed, nearly expressionless Leonard was pretty good guarding LeBron last year, but this year he attacked him defensively and the King was always aware of those Go-Go Gadget Arms. And Leonard’s shooting! The way he’s been coached as a pro, and the already storied work ethic he’s brought to defending and to developing a jumpshot after being drafted – these are dramatic examples of how the Spurs take nice pieces and turn them into gold. (Bill Simmons, in a Finals look-back, calls obtaining Leonard at number 15 “the Spurs’ third time winning the lottery”, after taking David Robinson first in ’87 and Duncan first in ’99.) Gary Neal did some nice shooting for them last year, and doing his thing with the Spurs made him lots of free-agent money and a ticket to Milwaukee (and then Charlotte, too!), but this time Patty Mills was ready, not only to take and make the shots he’d earned the right to take (and was granted the confidence to make) all year, but to put frantic pressure on ballhandlers while Parker rested. (He made Chalmers look a bit chubby. Is it possible the Heat just weren’t in shape? I desist.)

Now Boris Diaw wouldn’t make anybody’s list of superbly fit athletes, but sheesh. 38 minutes in game 5, and the guy’s been magic, if not quite Magic. He was superb with the Steve Nash Suns, disappeared when that inspiring little dynasty was taken apart, and now has been reincarnated as Monsieur le Maitre de Toute Choses with the Spurs. His friendship with Parker helps, but so does this basketball connoisseur having a coach and teammates who appreciate his refined tastes and delightful stubbornness about how basketball ought to be played. The word “delightful” made a comeback in sports journalism with Diaw, with all the Spurs this year; on Chinese TV, I couldn’t always tell what they were saying, but the colour guy often just giggled when Boris made some routinely exquisite pass. (Jonathan Abrams, speaking of writers giving the Spurs their due, wrote a superb piece on Grantland about the long Parker/Diaw friendship and their long-overdue collaboration in San Antonio. Vive les Spurs!)

Green, Mills, Diaw. (North Carolina, Oz, la France.) Imperfect players, near-perfect team. Greater than the sum. Great.

Green, Mills, Diaw. (North Carolina, Oz, la France.) Imperfect players, near-perfect team. Greater than the sum. Great.

Coaching! People talk about the NBA being a player’s league, how coaches are recyclable. There’s some truth there, mainly because of the large number of players that feel entitled to coddling. (Question: is it that Eric Spoelstra can’t sit Dwyane Wade down for lackadaisical D, or that he won’t? Did the choice ever exist, in his mind? Oops, sorry, I Heated up again.) However, Popovich and the Spurs put the lie to that. Pop coaches relentlessly; he’s so much more active in teaching his players than anybody else I see, and that’s just from a fairly casual NBA watcher. Athletic streets running two ways, as they do – and Popovich regularly acknowledges this – this means that players have to be able to accept such intense instruction, Duncan for nearly two decades in a professional climate where hard-ass coaches are routinely said to “wear out” players and “lose the room” after a couple of seasons. What we don’t see is how the dynamics work, how much time and intelligence Coach P puts into thinking about the best interests of his team and his players, and how he treats them as men. I love whatever glimpses I can get.

There’s another amazing thing, too: although the NBA is supposed to be a copy-cat league – despite 29 franchises’ refusal to adopt Phil Jackson’s triangle offence – so few teams have the luck or the guts or the coaching talent to follow San Antonio’s prescription. The Oklahoma City Thunder, famously, try to under Spurs-trained General Manager Sam Presti, and the Atlanta Hawks (Mike Budenholzer) and Philadelphia 76ers (Brett Brown) this year employed coaches plucked from Popovich’s staff after a collective 30 years of contributions. They should have been tough to replace, and maybe they were, but I couldn’t see any of the patches or seams. This must’ve been bloody tough, and nobody even thinks about that stuff. Good assistants matter, especially in a teaching culture like San Antonio’s.

These two Ravens just hoisted their fourth.

These two Ravens just hoisted their fourth.

I follow a more locally sensational basketball phenomenon from Ottawa, Canada. (So does Grantland, with this fine piece.) There, another coach, named Smart, has led a group of under-recruited basketball players to 10 national titles in 12 seasons. (I know he agonizes over the nail-biting semi-final losses in the two years that got away, too.) He is a smouldering symphony of dissatisfaction on the sidelines for the Carleton University Ravens, teaching relentlessly, expecting routine excellence from every player, including scrubs in blowout games. Interviewed after another championship, Smart shrugs and credits his players for allowing him to do what he does. He never, never allows his players not to get better, and the development of some of them from red-shirt to senior is nothing but astounding. How do they stand it? Many can’t, of course, and choose a more comfortable student-athlete career but, as an insider says, “You have to see all the time he gives guys, all the one-on-one talks inside his office, how much he cares about his players as people.” It’s an unbelievable story of excellence achieved, and the hunger for perfection. I’m only very slightly facetious when I muttered this, after San Antonio dominated again in Game 5: “My goodness! The Spurs are the Carleton Ravens of the NBA! Pop’s an American Dave Smart!”

Constant learning, coachability and selflessness aren’t sexy, and they don’t make a lot of headlines. They also are alleged not to be the way to win in The Association, but the Spurs bank on them. Talent is needed, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. It has to be good enough, which most teams don’t seem to get. (Danny Green is the poster man for this under-appreciated notion; I wrote about him and the Spurs here.) From there, it’s the basketball road less travelled: growing, and learning, together. In Jonathan Abrams’s article on Boris and Tony, he finished with this: “To be one of these Spurs is to sacrifice the self for the team, to give over getting. Diaw wouldn’t have it any other way.” And that’s only part of why they’re great. They’ll be superb again next year, too. (Stay, Patty, stay! You’ll never have such a good situation again, dollars be damned.) And most of us still wouldn’t get what all the fuss was about — if there was more of a fuss being made.

Delightful, delighted, totally together: the Big 12.

Delightful, delighted, totally together: the Big 12 (or so). Argentina. Australia. Brazil. Canada. France. Italy. USA. Virgin Islands. The world loves basketball, they are the world, and the world is as one, at least for some delightful days. I don’t think we understand what they did.

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