This article was originally published on Caller.com and is only reproduced here for the author’s personal archives.
Six years ago, Tim Duncan walked out of the interview room at Quicken Loans Arena dawning a gray shirt that said “2007 NBA Champions.” It was Duncan’s fourth such shirt, this one noticeably dry without a champagne stain in sight, and perhaps his easiest to earn. His Spurs had just vanquished the Cleveland Cavaliers in the minimum four games thanks to the versatility of Duncan and the brilliance of young guard Tony Parker.
As he walked off the press platform and back towards the lockerroom, Duncan bumped into Cleveland’s rising superstar LeBron James. James was coming off of his worst series of a very memorable post-season run, which included that epic 48-point performance against the Pistons in the conference finals. The Spurs forced him to do everything in order to get the Cavs a win, and not even the game’s best individual player had enough in him to carry that Cleveland team to a title.
In a moment that will live in NBA lore for decades to come, Duncan immediately embraced LeBron. After sweeping him off the Finals stage, Duncan offered James some words of encouragement before famously telling LeBron that the NBA “is going to be [his] league in a little while.”
As it turns out, Duncan is just as good at prognosticating as he is at posting up.
Despite his poor showing in the Finals, LeBron’s ascent to the top of the NBA ranks was predictable back then; nobody would have called you crazy if you had projected LeBron to have four MVPs in his trophy closet and a ring on his hand by 2013. Conversely, suggesting that the Spurs would be back at the top of the basketball mountain in 2013, fighting to become king of the hill one last time, has been seen as asinine by NBA scribes almost every year since they swept those Cavaliers. Counting the Spurs out and writing them off as too old and too slow to keep grinding out 50-win seasons has become an annual tradition, one the Spurs have made look foolish year-after-year, like clockwork.
In a remarkable twist of fate, two of the game’s greatest titans ever are meeting on the Finals stage again this season, six years after it was perceived that Duncan was handing off the torch. The Spurs have run through the 2013 post-season with little resistance, with the Golden State Warriors being the only team to beat them through three rounds. The Heat, as they did last season, had their ups-and-downs during their trek through the Eastern Conference and had to deal with countless questions about the viability of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, only to deliver their best performance of the post-season last night in their game seven win over the Indiana Pacers in the conference finals.
Now we are presented with a Finals that couldn’t have two more contrasting organizations. Aside from the obvious main event of LeBron vs Duncan, we have several storylines that make for extremely compelling undercards. This is a battle between a team that organized a welcoming party for their big three in front of thousands of people and a team that eludes the spotlight like it’s the plague. It’s a battle between a team that used conventional methods to acquire three superstars to build a championship team around and a team that artificially transformed themselves into title contenders. It’s the media magnets versus the attention repellents; the witty, wise, terse and veteran head coach versus the analytical, astute, driven and bright up-and-comer. the marketing moguls versus the guys whose biggest ads are local ones for a Texas based grocery store; the glamorous beaches and lively clubs of South Beach versus the historic streets and avenues of the Alamo City.
In other words: It’s one hell of a Finals matchup.
While there are many specific battles within this series that will dictate the winner of this series, such as how Miami defends Duncan in crunchtime, who wins the Ginobili/Wade matchup, how Splitter impacts the game with his hard rolls to the rim, how Danny Green gets involved if Miami’s rotations are swift, how Ray Allen, Mike Miller and Battier shoot the ball and so on, at the end of the day, the biggest storyline of this entire series is all about where this tale began: with the two legends.
It’s incredible how much is at stake for LeBron and Duncan in this series. I thought last year was a huge deal for the legacies of two future Hall-of-Famers when LeBron and Kevin Durant took the floor, but this takes it to another level. Durant will soon be seen in the same glowing historical context that LeBron is seen in now, but it’s unlikely that he will ever catch Duncan in the accolade department, not with his Manu Ginobili now playing for the Houston Rockets.
It should be known that the Spurs could have lost to the Warriors in round two and not made the Finals next year and Duncan still could have retired as a top 10 player of all-time, but another run to the Finals at the age of 37, especially with Timmy being the most important player on the team, is not a tiny addition to his multi-page resume. Duncan has a chance to win his fifth ring 14 years after he won his first one back in 1999, which is just absurd. The only chance for another active player to match that accomplishment is if Kobe Bryant makes it to the Finals again before he retires (his first ring came in 2000).
Speaking of Kobe, he fits into this battle of legacies quite prominently. Aside from the fact that he’s slowly losing the “most times compared to Michael Jordan” title to LeBron, the closest thing Kobe has ever had to a rival is Duncan. While he never guarded Duncan or matched up with him like Magic did with Bird, I’m sure Bryant would tell you that Duncan was the only player from his era that he considered a historical competitor given his similar amount of success. If Duncan matches Kobe with his fifth title, the debate for the best player of their generation becomes one of the most interesting talking points in NBA history, and Duncan would probably have a slight edge.
For LeBron, a second ring gets him even closer to the Kobe/Jordan standard that he is constantly held to. His individual level of play has arguably already risen above the levels that those two ever reached, so all that is left for James to make a legitimate challenge to Jordan’s throne, surpassing Bryant as the best post-Jordan perimeter player in the process, is to pile up championships. A loss, however, would be devastating for James, who already has as many Finals losses as Kobe and two more than the undefeated Jordan.
So while there are many X’s and O’s and schematic trends to follow throughout this series, the grand scheme implications of this series are far more interesting to me.
Will Duncan capture his fifth ring, remain undefeated in the Finals, become unanimously recognized as the greatest player of his generation and perhaps even enter the discussion as a top five player ever? Will LeBron come up short in the Finals for the third time of his career, leading to an apex of undeserved criticism for the game’s most dominant player?
Or will LeBron win back-to-back titles, a feat so rare that not even the Spurs have accomplished it, redeeming himself for his loss to the Spurs in 2007 while proving Duncan right at his own expense?
Watching the way these two battle over the course of this series, even if LeBron isn’t matched up with Duncan (although this could actually happen), will be fascinating, and that alone will make this Finals one for the ages.When searching for a favorite in this series, it’s tough ignore the fact that Wade and Bosh were not good versus the Pacers. Improvement for both could be in the cards, but the Spurs will surely be ready for Miami’s best punch. Though Miami has the best player in this series and the best player in the world, I turn to something that Spoelstra said when asked about closing out the Pacers:”We know that the toughest teams to play are the ones that are on their last stand.”
When interpreting that quote in the context of these Finals, you realize that this Spurs team is likely playing the last Finals games of the Duncan/Ginobili/Parker era. And I think you can safely assume that the Spurs realize this, as the players have made subtle references to allowing Duncan to go out on top. The Heat have a ton of talent and are a great team, but the toughest teams to play are the ones on their last stand.
And what a glorious last stand this would be for one of the greatest combinations of players and coach to ever grace the hardwood.
Pick: Spurs in six.