by: Michael Shields
Our 2014 NBA season in review pays tribute to one of the greatest championship runs in recent sports history…..
The chatter you are most likely hearing following the San Antonio Spurs utter dismantling of the Miami Heat in five games is more about the failings of the Heat than the grandeur of the Spurs. What is being discussed at length, and inappropriately, is Lebron’s inability to carry the team upon his back, or the enfeeblement of Dwayne Wade, and the Heat’s lack of depth (or production outside of The King at all). The dialogue is centered around James’s capability to opt out of his contract and sign elsewhere, and that long awkward pause in the post game interview when he was asked about his future that made it as clear as day that this is all too possible. While the nation debates these points in question, we will rightfully aim our analysis to the heart of the matter. Towards the San Antonio Spurs, and their illustrious run through the playoffs.
The 2014 NBA playoffs began with a bang. A reverberating roar really, which lasted through 50 games of intoxicating glory. If you were to judge the brilliance of a round of playoff games by the number of games seven’s alone, than 2014’s first round was incomparable. Five series went the distance, which is more than double the previous high of two ((Done in 2003, 2005, 2009, and 2012. And for the record we are talking about the time period since 2003, when the NBA expanded the first round to best-of-seven matchups instead of best-of-five.)). This fact alone doesn’t do justice to the level of competitive ball witnessed in the first month of the playoffs, literally the most exciting and unpredictable first round in NBA history, which ironically concluded its final game with the San Antonio Spurs dominating the Dallas Mavericks in blunt fashion.
The Spurs road to the title was one rife with obstacles, a daunting gauntlet to navigate which began with the aging yet perennial powerhouse of Nowitzki’s Mavericks, traversing through the up and coming Blazers, who with Aldridge and Lillard appear poised to forging deep playoff runs for years to come, and finally ending with a matchup against the Thunder, and MVP Kevin Durant’s championship equipped squad. In dire contrast, the Heat – the Spurs opponent in the NBA finals, and two-time defending champions – were anemically confronted by two teams that wouldn’t have even made The Playoffs in the West (Bobcats, Nets) and a squad that seemed to be unraveling at the seams at exactly the wrong time (Pacers). Although the Spurs prooved that they had what it takes to hoist that Larry O’Brien trophy high during their march to The Finals ((They won a NBA-record 12 postseason games by at least 15 or more points, including three such wins against the Heat.)), we still couldn’t begin to comprehend what we were about to see there, which made it all that more astonishing to behold.
Game 1 of The Finals had all the drama we could ever want or imagine, highlighted by a faulty air conditioning system that doubled as the kryptonite to Lebron’s superhuman abilities. Sure ‘Crampgate’ received all its due dissection, but any and all reasonable persons can agree that just because Lebron’s body physically acted up on him, he is far from mentally weak. The Spurs, regardless of the conditions within the arena that evening, made it known that they are the better team from the outset, and although in Game 2 The Heat fooled us into believing we were on the verge of a competitive, dog eat dog, series – this idea ultimately became laughable.
In Game 3 The Spurs came out hot. Historically so. By the time the Spurs retired to their locker room for halftime, Kawhi Leonard had 18 points (he finished with 29), Danny Green had 13, and the Spurs had broken the record for shooting percentage in a half (75.8%) while amassing the largest halftime lead in the history of the NBA Finals (21). It was unprecedented and just the beginning. In the end, The Spurs humiliated The Heat, and sent them home to South Beach confused and reeling. San Antonio annihilated Miami by a combined 57 points over the final three games (two of those in Miami mind you) ((San Antonio’s +70 point differential in the Finals was the largest in league history.)) and their offense, we learned quickly, was basketball in its most artistic form. Their ability to move the ball was dizzying to watch, whipping the rock around the perimeter with fervor, usually four crisp passes in sequence before a shot. Game 5 felt as if we had reached the pinnacle of basketball evolution; simultaneously fundamental and old school while at the same time cutting edge. A state of the art machine, perfectly assembled with the ability to execute with pointed effectiveness.
As the dust settles we find ourselves viewing The San Antonio Spurs in a far different light. Over the last 15 years The Spurs have compiled five championships with the primary core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili ((Amazing to think that Ginobili was drafted in the second round.)). As a trio these three have amassed the most playoff wins in NBA history with 117 (surpassing Magic, Kareem, and Thompson at 110), and this fifth title acts as validation for these three stars who took less money to stay together, and who ultimately found a measure of retribution for one of the most crushing defeats in NBA history at the hands of The Heat last year.
The Spurs, the United Colors of Benetton of NBA teams, with Diaw and Tony Parker hailing from France; Tiago Splitter from Brazil; Manu Ginobili from Argentina; Aron Baynes and Patty Mills from Australia; Marco Belinelli from Italy; Cory Joseph from Canada; and Tim Duncan from the U.S. Virgin Islands – encompassing an international team for the ages. A team as good as the sum of their meticulously curated parts like Kawhi Leonard, who was the 15th pick in the 2011 draft out of San Diego State and who went on to become the second youngest Finals MVP ((Behind Magic Johnson)). Or Patty Mills, who throughout these playoffs blossomed from a dazzling towel waving cheerleader into a capable back up with the ability to rain down threes in radiant succession. Or Danny Green, the D League outcast, twice cut from The Spurs, who has become one of the league’s most preeminent outside threats. And, of course, Diaw, whose insertion into the starting lineup after Game 3 altered the course of The Finals, whose passing (29 assist in finals, the most of any player in the series) and rebounding (43 boards in the series) was pivotal in The Spurs domination of The Heat.
The Spurs have been counted out time and again. Left for dead. Laughed at. Too old? Too slow? Tim can’t jump anymore ((In the Finals Tim Duncan’s tied Magic Johnson for amount of playoff double doubles, and eventually surpassed him. Unreal ))? Is Parker still an elite point guard? Is Ginobili finished? We keep checking their pulse, cupping our collective hands over their mouth to feel for a breath. Yet, San Antonio won a league-best 62 games in the regular season, highlighted by an impressive 19-game winning streak, and its .756 winning percentage was the best of San Antonio’s five title teams. Tim Duncan has just won his fifth championship (Kobe Bryant has 5 titles as well, Shaq 4) and he along with his teammates can take heed in the fact that their 2014 title run will be remembered for what it truly was – an exclamation point atop one of the most impressive decade and a half of dominance we have ever beheld.
In my NBA 2014 season preview (I feel a told you so coming…..not a good look), I had The Spurs as the number one contender to King James’s reign. I discussed how Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker continually spit in the face of Father Time, and how fundamental basketball will lead The Spurs deep into the playoffs. But I would be a boldface, egregious liar if I proclaimed that I honestly saw any of this coming. That we would observe possibly the best team since the Showtime era Lakers (too far?…) demolish a team equipped with one of the greatest weapons the game has ever witnessed (pun intended). That a title 15 years in the making would elevate The Spurs into the discussion of all time greatest franchises, and in turn heighten our already cascading respect of Gregg Popovich ((The fact that he is Coach K’s assistant on the US Men’s basketball team is absolutely hilarious at this point.)). That we would reach the point where we must regard Tim Duncan among the league’s elite, in the conversation to adorn that mythical, and highly debated, Mount Rushmore of NBA stars. He is that good, and has been so for so very long. Now, as the sun sets on yet another terrific NBA season, the question remains – Can The Spurs do it again? My guess is they can, but who in their right mind is buying that……