I can’t remember the last time there was such wide spread jubilation over a sports victory. Usually, it is only the team’s fans who go into ecstasies when their team wins. When the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Miami Heat on Sunday night it was not just their fans who celebrated. It was not just those who dislike the Miami Heat; it was all those who love beautiful basketball. I do not remember such unselfish, team oriented basketball since the days of Magic and Bird. And I am not a Spurs fan, or at least I wasn’t one at the start of the series. Even Lebron James acknowledged that the better team won and that the Spurs played exquisite basketball.
Over the past two decades, as players became taller and stronger and more athletic the artistry went out of the game. For old line basketball fans like myself, there was no charm in watching players bull their way to the basket and jam the ball in. San Antonio put on a clinic with their quicksilver passing, their constant motion off the ball, unselfishly passing up good opportunities to set up even better ones. When they did score, there was none of the chest thumping or yelling that has become the norm these days. They were totally focused on the next play, the next trip down the court, the next game.
I am very happy that Kawhi Leonard was selected as the MVP of the series. It was an honor he absolutely deserved. He scored inside and outside, he pulled down rebounds and he played terrific defense on Lebron James. Lebron did average 28pppg for the series but he had to work for every point. Leonard gives away both height and heft to Lebron. LeBron is taller and heavier and stronger but Kawhi was tenacious; he kept at it and did not allow Lebron any easy baskets.What was even more impressive is that Leonard’s defensive efforts did not come at the expense of his offense. He still averaged close to 20ppg a game, even more if you disregard his foul plagued Game 2,(the only game the Spurs lost) and he played totally within the Spurs team oriented offensive game plan. It was so refreshing to see his humility even after he won the MVP award.
Nice guys do finish first sometimes and that’s true not only for Leonard but the Spurs as a whole. There isn’t a Spur that I do not like. I know that Tim Duncan has been criticized in some circles because he so often seems to whine when he is called for a foul but, other than that, his demeanor on and off the court is exemplary. What I had not been aware of, until recently, was the sacrifices that SA’s Big 3 ( Duncan, Parker and Ginobili) have made in the team interest. As they have aged, they have progressively accepted less money so that the Spurs could stay within the salary cap and sign the bench and role players that were such a big part of San Antonio’s victory. This past season, Duncan played for just $ 10.2 million (as compared to $ 19.7 million for each of Miami’s Big 3). Altogether, Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili’s salaries constituted only 47.4% of the cap. ( By comparison,the salaries of Lebron , Dywayne Wade and Chris Bosh accounted for 96.4% of Miami’s cap). Their sacrifices allowed the Spurs management to sign free agents Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Marco Bellinelli and keep other key components like Tiago Splitter.
Duncan’s sacrifices also extended to his play on court. Earlier in his career, he was the first option on offense. However, as he has aged, he has willingly accepted a lesser role and the offense now goes through Tony Parker. As a result the Spurs now play a faster , more wide-open game with more emphasis on pushing the ball upcourt quickly, driving the lane and taking the open jumper or three point shot when it is available. Big men are notorious for their egos ( read Shaq, Dwight Howard and practically anyone other big man you can think of) and don’t willingly accept a diminution in their offensive roles. It is to Duncan’s credit that he has embraced his reduced role in the interest of the team. It has resulted in the beautiful,slick passing, unselfish game that we so loved to watch and that Miami had no answer for.
I also want to give a shout out to Greg Popovich, undoubtedly the finest coach and tactician in the game today. He made all the right moves ( starting Boris Diaw was a stroke of genius), shuttled his players in and out masterfully and got the most out of everyone of them. Spoelstra was thoroughly outcoached but it was not his fault; it would have happened to anyone particularly given the egos that he had to deal with. Popovich does come across like a jerk in post -game interviews and I do wish he were not so dismissive of reporters’ questions. It is painful to watch him and listen to his terse , one word , responses. True, some of the questions are inane but the reporters are only trying to do their job and Pops could be a little bit more co-operative.
There is already speculation about next year and whether the Spurs will be able to repeat. Will Duncan and Ginobili call it a day and retire? Do they have enough left in the tank if they decide to play next season ? Will the Spurs be able to hang on to Patty Mills and other free agents? These are all legitimate questions but, for now, I just want to revel in the Spurs victory. Congratulations, San Antonio. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of guys.