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The Internet Killed The Dunk Contest

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vince carter

I was 6 when Vince Carter’s poetic dunk contest routine solidified his reputation as one of the greatest dunkers of all time. I didn’t watch it live and I probably didn’t see the performance in its entirety until I was in high school, but Carter’s dunk contest showing is one of my favorite pieces of sports-related art in my lifetime. I haven’t seen anything remotely comparable since, and with such an uninspiring field in this year’s dunk contest (at least on its face), it is safe to say Carter’s legacy is safe for another year, and likely another generation.

Perhaps this year’s group – reigning champ Zach LaVine, all-star Andre Drummond, athletic marvel Aaron Gordon and sixth man of the year candidate Will Barton – will outperform the modest prestige of the ensemble, but the common retort from fans when a group like this is announced is something like: “Where are the stars?”

A friend recently asked me if it was a matter of ego, if stars were too brand aware in this modern age to risk the humiliation of a first-round exit or, much worse, a failed routine. LeBron James is the most common example of a player who has fought off massive fan interest in his participation because he “has nothing to gain” from entering the contest. Maybe that is so, but what could LeBron, one of the two best basketball players in the world, possibly have to lose against this year’s field? He would have a red carpet to the finals off reputation; are the judges going to let Will Barton advance when he is competing? From there, all he would have to do is pull off one creative dunk in the finals and he would silence everybody who has pestering him to participate for good.

But there is, of course, something to lose. The power of the internet in the digital age is crippling, even for someone with a bulletproof reputation like LeBron. If he were to lose, James would instantaneously become the victim of a social media assault, any bloopers would lead SportsCenter’s not Top 10 plays for a year and the opening shot of the next edition of First Take would be of Skip Bayless wearing a Mr. Burns-like grin. His reputation would be harmed, not nearly as bad as it would if he flopped in the dunk contest and had no championships, but bad enough for someone as socially self-conscious as him to feel the impact. It’s another year’s worth of questions about whether he’ll return to the contest to redeem himself and another 100,000 #HOTSPORTSTAKES spewing the nonsensical and unrelated “LeBron will never be as good as MJ!” rhetoric.

There is another, underlying problem the internet has presented that makes the dunk contest an uphill battle for superstars like James: Access.

Take, for instance, Carter’s regimen. Or my second favorite dunk contest compilation: Kobe Bryant’s winning run as a rookie in 1997. The dunks, the reactions, the struts. It is all ingrained in my memory. Not because I had some intense connection to it in the moment, I am not sure I watched basketball back then, but because I’ve watched both competitions on YouTube enough times to cherish the choreography and re-create the scenes all on my own. The same goes for the individual dunks that live on for decades: Jordan’s free throw line leap, Dr. J’s tomahawks, Dominique Wilkins’ powerful windmills. Creative dunks might be the element of basketball best suited for enshrinement on YouTube, and the internet has allowed Zapruder film-era dunks from NBA legends to live on in a massive public archive.

How many of the most memorable dunk contest throw downs of all time came from the past decade?

Moreso than the actual dunks, what I recall about the last seven or eight dunk contests is the props. There was Blake Griffin and the Kia, Dwight Howard in a cape, Nate Robinson and Dwight Howard in a cape, Jeremy Evans and a painting, Paul George’s turning off the lights. Unless the idea is ingenious, like Gerald Green’s cupcake dunk, props are generally a losing proposition. In 20 years, will anybody remember Serge Ibaka rescuing a child’s Rumble the Bison doll from the rim with his teeth while dunking the ball? Are you sure any of that actually happened?

Access is responsible for this trend. If at any given moment fans can relive the first iteration of the most stunning athletic achievements in the sport, chances are a 2015 version with a selfie stick or hoverboard thrown in isn’t going to blow them away. If Barton re-created every dunk from Jason Richardson’s amazing 2002 routine, that would be incredibly impressive. But there is a massive hesitancy to do so. He would be called a poser and his dunks wouldn’t hold up over time or remembered as fondly as the originals. Some players have tried to skate around this with “tribute dunks” by putting on a throwback jersey and re-creating that player’s dunks. It makes for a cool moment, but do any of those dunks stick out to you as an athletic feat the way the prototype did?

There unfortunate reality is that there is a finite number of dunks, and the best ones have probably already been done. The most memorable dunk contest submissions are instantly (or belatedly in the case of the pre-2000s) trademarked and cataloged online. Any infringement on those works is plagiaristic and vacuous. It is content aggregation in its most aesthetically pleasing form.

There are essentially two avenues left to give fans the sensation of witnessing something never seen before: 1) Either a player tests human limits and accomplishes something that hasn’t been done before (like jumping from even farther behind the free throw line, setting a new hangtime or vertical record or something truly insane like a 1080 dunk), or 2) You incorporate props and bits and theater into the equation. I don’t mind the latter, but when it is all said and done, if the dunks are analogous to previous works or not entirely enthralling, the feedback won’t be fond.

There is an alternative option the fans would love to see and that would inject that new car smell into the Air Canada Centre and the all-star venues that follow: Superstars performing any version of any dunk, even if they have to put up with Kias and church choirs. It is inherently cooler to watch (prime) Howard and Griffin compete in the dunk contest than Evans and Iman Shumpert.1

But with so few avenues left unexplored, superstars like LeBron are in the detrimental position of having to imitate legends of yesteryear. So they are making the safe, and not totally objectionable, decision to concede to the luminaries of the game, for they possessed the most enviable quality in the search for finite creative expression: The power of going first.

A Promise Delivered

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NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Miami Heat

Like a lot of folks, once I heard the rumors that LeBron James was going to announce his free agency decision on his website, I spent a lot of time refreshing LeBronJames.com just so that I could say that I saw the news first. Several times I questioned what I was doing, but I always figured that it wasn’t much worse than refreshing my Twitter feed incessantly.

Of course, it wasn’t necessary. LeBron ended up letting the world know he was returning to Cleveland with a tearjerker of an essay published with the help of Sports Illustrated, and the people that went as far as to strip code from his website for any clues on his decision ended up being disappointed. I still enjoyed the anticipation of a surprise, though, and I became particularly interested in something that was prominently displayed on the site: LeBron’s I PROMISE bands.

The more and more I looked at them and after I read about their purpose, I began to think about LeBron and the premise of promises and I started to believe that coming home was his plan all along. I started to think that LeBron made a promise to himself the day that he left Cleveland – or, perhaps, once he fully realized the impact his departure had – that he would come back to the city and redeem himself for ripping out its collective heart and stomping on it back in 2010.

LeBron had to leave Cleveland back then. I think even Cavaliers fans would admit that now. James had proven himself as one of the greatest athletes and talents the game had ever seen during his seven years in Cleveland, but the team simply couldn’t provide him with the supporting cast that he needed to vault himself into the legendary company that he sits in today.

Nobody can describe what his time with the Heat meant to LeBron more better can than he did. He said going off to Miami for four years was to him as college is to regular kids, which, of course, LeBron never had a chance to experience as the most hyped high school athlete of all-time. It’s such a symmetrical and spot on analogy.

LeBron choosing the Heat was literally the first time he was ever able to get away from home, and with the move came the ability to decompress and evolve without the pressure that comes along with momma’s cooking. I think most people would agree that the pressure to succeed in school and to bring home A’s was infinitely higher in high school than it was in college because our parents were always on top of us. But even if our GPAs were lower in college, I wouldn’t doubt that’s where we learned more, because the focus wasn’t on books or standardized tests, the focus was on finding ourselves.

And that’s what LeBron did in Miami. He’s matured so much since he went down there. The turning point for James was after those 2011 Finals, when he finally collapsed under the immense and unprecedented pressure that was weighing down on his broad shoulders. Right after the decisive game of that series, he used the NBA’s press pedestal to proclaim his superiority over the blue collar folks, or the kind of people that define the city of Cleveland.

But then he went into hibernation for the summer. He stayed away from everybody and even off the court for a while. Then he got to work on his game and he emerged the following season as a humbled man and a more complete basketball beast. He steamrolled through the Thunder in the Finals, smashing the only player in the league left standing as a peer, and rode a Ray Allen miracle shot to a second title before the dominant, legendary and respectable Spurs got revenge this season.

And now he’s back. He had to leave because he needed to win – and he did. Now he’s returned with a chance to bring a title back to the city of Cleveland, something that would make far more than a legendary basketball player. To win a championship in the most downtrodden sports city in America, just a half-hour away from where he grew up, would make him one of the most iconic sports figures of all-time. Whatever is a step beyond giving someone a key to the city, that’s what LeBron is going to get. They may elect him mayor of the city off write-in votes alone.

LeBron has known this all along. He would have stayed in Cleveland and had four more cracks at delivering a championship to the city over the past few years if he could have, but as one of the smartest men in sports, LeBron was all too aware that the Cavs weren’t equipped for a championship, and he knew that he couldn’t risk four prime seasons betting on the Cavs getting him better second and third options than Mo Williams and over the hill Antawn Jamison.

He couldn’t have handled the way he left better, for sure, but if his return didn’t atone for that TV special in and of itself, the essay he wrote about what the city means to him should end all of the bad blood. My mom starting choking up after reading the first few lines of that letter; my mom is a die hard San Antonio Spurs fan from Corpus Christi, Texas. I asked her why it made her cry. “It’s just the things he says,” she replied, not quite sure how to put it into words.

But that’s exactly what LeBron did in that letter. He succinctly summarized everything he has been thinking for the past four years without holding anything back. The way he speaks about the area, saying that “our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time” in regards to winning it all, how he says that he wants to raise his kids in the same place that he was raised, there’s an obvious bond there that was never truly broken no matter how much The Decision hurt both sides.

For all of the questions about LeBron’s loyalty from four years ago, this move proves that he’s always held a special place in his heart for the Cavaliers, not only because he had to get past that hurtful attack by Dan Gilbert, but because he’s passed up greener pastures for rolling hills of Ohio. Without a doubt, Cleveland gives LeBron a great shot at winning championships (mostly because they have LeBron), probably at better odds than the Heat would have. But there were other situations out there that made more sense if his sole purpose was to rack up as many rings as possible to aid his chase the ghost of Michael Jordan. Instead, he’s prioritized getting just one more in the city of Cleveland, showing a touch of humanity that Jordan could never uncover.

That’s why I think LeBron had promised himself this day would come, the day that he returned home for a chance to earn the crown that he was bestowed upon him back when he was a lanky teenager at St. Vincent–St. Mary. Read here for the latest reviews. I think he promised himself that he would return for redemption and forgiveness. I think he promised himself that he would give the final leg of his prime and the fleeting years of his career back to the city that made him who he is. I think he promised himself that he would set an example for his kids about values, maturity and the importance of home while raising them in his backyard.

I think he promised himself that he would make Cleveland proud to call him their own again.

Tiki-Taka

in NBA by
USATSI/Steve Mitchell

MIAMI – The World Cup started on Thursday afternoon, which meant it was time for my personal tradition of cramming as much soccer-related information as possible into my brain so that I have at least some understanding of what I am watching throughout the tournament. Of all of my research, what interested me the most was reading about Spain and how their national team was inseparable from a certain style of play.

I had never heard the phrase “tiki-taka” before reading about the Spanish national team. At first I thought it was a unifying rallying cry like “Ubuntu” was for Doc Rivers’ Boston Celtics. Instead, tiki-taka represents Spain’s unique style of play, which is defined by constant, whip-smart passing, perpetual movement off the ball and a benevolent group of players.

Now, tell me if that doesn’t sound just a little bit like a certain basketball team from San Antonio that just eviscerated the two-time defending NBA champions on the road in back-to-back games to secure a 3-1 edge in the 2014 NBA Finals.

Of course, the Spurs have their own saying that symbolizes the fabric of their organization: Pounding the rock.

Gregg Popovich’s favorite mantra is a reference to an old quote by Jacob Riis about a stonecutter’s dedication to his craft in lieu of results and how his ultimate success comes not because of his last strike of the rock, but because all of the ones before it. In short, the quote, which hangs on the wall in the Spurs lockerroom, sums up Popovich’s “process over results” philosophy.

And throughout these NBA Finals, the Spurs have never wavered from their process, which heavily entails that tiki-taka style of succeeding collectively on every possession, and it’s put them in a position to claim their fifth banner in Game 5 on Sunday night.

San Antonio’s steadfast unity has never been more clear than in Games 3 and 4, where the Spurs used an unprecedented combination of unselfishness, smarts and individual creativity to dismantle what has been the most vaunted post-season defense in the league over the past few years. The Spurs had a historic shooting performance in Game 3, but their dominance was sustainable because it was rooted in their fundamental style of play, and yet another brilliant group effort allowed San Antonio to flourish again in Game 4.

It’s not easy to make this Miami team look vulnerable defensively, at least not when they are locked in. But the Heat either haven’t found that extra gear that they’ve relied on in years past or they have and the Spurs are too good for it to matter. Based on the way Miami reacted to San Antonio’s second straight annihilation of their defense on their home floor, constantly peering at the ground looking dejected and defeated, I’d say it’s the latter.

What’s even more impressive than what the Spurs did to Miami’s defense is how they made them look on the other end. Ironically, the star-studded Heat are not all that different than the anonymous Spurs when it comes to sharing the basketball and the credit. Like Tim Duncan, LeBron James has always been one of the more magnanimous teammates in basketball.

But the Spurs have completely disrupted Miami’s championship rhythm. San Antonio has executed defensively with the same devastating precision and imperative attention to detail that makes them a terror to guard on the other end of the floor. Anytime that LeBron or Dwyane Wade got into the paint in Game 4, they were met by the long, extended arms of Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, and San Antonio blew up some of Miami’s more complex offensive sets all game long by switching on all screens.

So, in what was a must-win game for the Heat if they were going to keep a three-peat within the realm of possibility, Miami looked more and more like Cleveland throughout the night, at least from LeBron’s perspective. Wade turned in the worst game of his Finals career, scoring just 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting, Chris Bosh was nowhere to be found after an initial burst in the opening minutes, Ray Allen only got two open looks courtesy of some lucky bounces and I’m pretty sure someone filed an actual missing persons report for Mario Chalmers.

The third quarter essentially summed up the game for the Heat. James shot 7-of-8 from the field and scored 19 of Miami’s 21 points during the third period and the Spurs still won the quarter 26-21. Given how little his teammates were contributing, LeBron was probably longing for the days when Larry Hughes and Boobie Gibson would hit a three every now and then, although that trio got throttled by the Spurs, too.

And, as usual, the Spurs were operating on the opposite end of the spectrum. Game 4 marked the second straight game where neither of San Antonio’s perennial powers were individually brilliant. Instead, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Duncan once again looked like Leonard’s overqualified sidekicks.

Leonard’s out of this world talent has only been surpassed by his uncanny acumen over these past two games. The defense he has played on James – moving his feet like Baryshnikov in sneakers and waving his arms around like the wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man – has been befitting of comparisons to Scottie Pippen, and his emergence as not just a finisher with the ball, but as another fluid cog in San Antonio’s rhythmic offense has kept things humming along. Despite two below average games to start this series, Leonard’s play in Miami may have been enough to make him the favorite for Finals MVP should the Spurs close this out.

It’s too simplistic to say that San Antonio has put on a clinic over the past two games. In fact, that may be belittling what they’ve done. Calling their offensive execution a clinic means they are setting some kind of example for others to follow. While that may be true about their selflessness, the kind of ball movement that the Spurs consistently display is not easily replicated.

We can talk about how the Spurs play the right way, but what’s more true is that they’ve found the right combination of players – a unique and perfect blend of light’s outs shooters, quick dribble penetrators, nimble and cunning defenders, Picasso-like passers and, most importantly, dedicated brothers – to fit their rare, adventurous and ravishing tiki-taka style of pounding the rock.

And now they are just a win away from being cemented as one of the best teams in NBA history.

A Little Help Here

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NBA: Finals-Miami Heat at San Antonio Spurs

SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio Spurs outscored the Miami Heat 16-3 in the final four minutes of Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals.

They did so by rediscovering the precision and the ball movement that had escaped them in the game’s previous three quarters, when they were turning the ball over like it had a bunch of splinters lodged in it. Manu Ginobili was threading the needle to Tim Duncan on pick-and-rolls, Danny Green broke out of his shooting slump with a trio of Tar Heel triples, and Tony Parker had a pair of big shots. After turning it over 21 times in the first 44 minutes of the game, San Antonio committed just one possession-ending error down the stretch, and it allowed their collective brilliance to shine through.

Also playing a role: The fact that LeBron James didn’t play during those final four minutes.

Thanks to a broken AC, everybody in the arena was forced to deal with an unrelenting, literal heat throughout the night. Interestingly enough, San Antonio’s cast of foreign players pleaded that the playing conditions weren’t that bad given their experience playing in inferior conditions overseas.

Nonetheless, for a player that has had documented issues with cramping, the combination of heat and humidity, which was so bad last night that the corridors of the AT&T Center glistened like a freshly mopped floor, caused muscle contractions in LeBron’s left thigh, rendering his left leg motionless late in the game.

And because it is LeBron, this has to be about more than a rare physical malfunction for the game’s greatest player. Forget the fact that LeBron dealt with a very similar issues in Game 4 of the 2012 Finals, only to come back into the game and nail the game-changing three, no, LeBron’s “cramps” last night were clearly a manufactured effort by James to bow out of a close game. If not, LeBron not checking back into the game, despite his own intentions to do so before his coach shot down his efforts, must mean that he’s not as tough as Jordan or Kobe.

We’ve come to expect some level of dismissible discourse when it comes to LeBron, but placing any of the blame for last night’s result on him robs us of the opportunity to examine the real issue with the way the Heat lost Game 1.

Miami’s meltdown without LeBron is understandable, but not totally excusable. We are not even two full years removed from people criticizing LeBron for having to get help from other stars to win a title, and now we’ve reached a point where the Heat couldn’t muster more than three points with LeBron off the floor down the stretch.

James is obviously the center of the Heat’s universe and things are going to change drastically if he’s not on the floor. But why does that mean that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh get a free pass for what was a punchless effort from them after LeBron exited the game? Would LeBron get the same treatment were it Wade that went out with an injury, leaving James with some added responsibility?

Why does Wade, whose campaign to be known as the third greatest shooting guard of all-time was recently kickstarted by Mark Jackson, get away with a two point fourth quarter, without a single point in the final four minutes? Wade and James have never been a perfect match offensively, and yet, when Wade was put in a position where the offense was relying on him, he failed to deliver anything at all. How does that go unnoticed while talking heads blab about LeBron not being superhuman enough to overcome an ailment that would sideline anybody?

Wade was an astounding minus-21 in the final nine minutes of the game, which is when LeBron’s issues starting flaring up. Bosh was a minus-15 in his six fourth quarter minutes. Individual plus/minus is a very hit or miss stat, but in this case it clearly illustrates just how poor an effort the Heat got from Wade and Bosh when they needed it the most.

It’s fitting that this whole thing played out against the Spurs, a team that has won two decisive games this post-season against the Blazers and Thunder with Tony Parker missing the entire second half. A popular narrative about this series may be about the battle of the big threes, but San Antonio is way more capable of operating sans one of their stars than Miami is when James has any kind of ailment, which is ironic given how Wade and Bosh are often portrayed as LeBron’s crutches by those that belittle his accomplishments.

People will use last night as an example of James’ imaginary issues in big moments, but I see what transpired in Game 1 as further proof of his greatness. That the team completely collapsed in his absence is nothing if not a statement on how integral he is, even on a team with two other superstars.

The main reason LeBron went to Miami was so that he could offset some of the unreasonable burden that he carried with him in Cleveland. Wade and Bosh were supposed to be the other pillars that prevented such a disaster from taking place if LeBron was off his game.

But last night they were buried in the rubble.

Heat Waves

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NBA: Finals-Miami Heat at San Antonio Spurs

SAN ANTONIO — With nine minutes left in Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals, San Antonio seemed to be facing a nightmare scenario. They were down seven after a Chris Bosh AND-1 three, Miami was hitting everything from deep, Danny Green had ironically gone cold at home as the temperature in the arena kept getting hotter and the Spurs had an unthinkable 20 total turnovers, which led directly to 28 Heat points.

Then LeBron’s Herculean body succumbed to debilitating cramps, which may be his only kryptonite as an athlete, and Miami suddenly looked lost without their leader. James asked out of the game after a couple of long jumpers around the seven minute mark, and upon returning after a few minutes on the bench, his thigh promptly cramped up again following a made lay-up. His second bout with those muscle contractions was devastating enough to lock up his entire left leg and keep him out of the game for good with four minutes to go.

Meanwhile, sensing blood in the water, the Spurs finally broke out of their turnover trance, Green got a couple of huge shots to go down to boost his confidence and in the blink of an eye, the Spurs had regained control of the game and taken what was a prime opportunity to steal a road game from the Heat.

During the final nine minutes of the game, the Spurs outscored the Heat 30-9, turning the ball over just twice while getting back to the selfless, efficient and effervescent style that has defined their team over the past few years. Getting Green on track was huge in mounting a comeback, even with James in peril, and after tailing him without error for the first three quarters of the game, Miami made fundamental mistakes that sprung San Antonio’s most lethal long-range shooter wide open for two big threes in the fourth.

And Green wasn’t done. A vintage Duncan outlet pass off of Dwyane Wade miss at the rim got Green out into transition, where he outran Rashard Lewis and threw down a dunk that capped off a personal 8-0 run for the slumping sharpshooter. That run turned the game from a 4-point Heat lead to a 4-point Spurs lead in the span of two minutes. James reentered the game after Green’s spurt, but he only lasted one possession. Following James’ permanent exit for the evening, the Spurs went on a 16-3 run fueled by the brilliance of their big three as well as their budding superstar.

First Ginobili found Green for another three, then he lofted a pass to Boris Diaw, who was being fronted by Chris Bosh, that I still can’t comprehend which resulted in an easy lay-up. Next Parker found Leonard for an open three before a Ginobili/Duncan pick-and-roll produced some tic-tac-toe passing from Manu to Timmy to Tony for the dagger corner three that appropriately came with Parker drilling the shot just a few feet away from where a bent over James watched from the bench.

What has to eat at the Heat even more than the fact that they lost their best player in the final four minutes of what was a two point game when he checked out for good is that they squandered a game that the Spurs were quite literally trying to give to them. You don’t see the Spurs play games this sloppy very often. The most recent time that San Antonio had a 22 turnover performance was in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks, and the result of that game was a 21-point loss on their home floor to an eight seed. On top of that, this was the first time the Heat have ever lost a game in which they forced 22 or more turnovers in the LeBron era, which is an even bigger sign that this is a game they should have had.

You have to credit Miami for most of San Antonio’s careless play; their chaotic defensive style forces opponents to make poor decisions and nobody works harder – or smarter – to prevent post entry passes. But once San Antonio started each possession with a clearer idea of their intentions, the ball started moving on a string and the offense developed that rhythmic flow that makes them so fun to watch.

Ironically, after his plague of turnovers in last year’s Finals, Ginobili was the Spur who looked most comfortable with the ball in Game 1. Manu spent the whole night dissecting the same Heat defense that made it seem like his career was over last season, slicing up Miami’s pick-and-roll coverages to the tune of 11 assists, with a couple of hockey helpers thrown in there as well. Ginobili started off the game with three three-pointers in the first quarter and slowly started to get others involved as the game when on, racking up four assists during the game’s deciding stretch.

Parker, whose health was still a question mark coming into this game, was just as good when getting others involved. Other than an occasional limp, Parker seemed to have his full array of sharp cuts and ravishing dashes to the cup available in this game. Miami’s speedy defense can contain him at times, but he was able to get a clean path towards the basket a few times in this game, and he made sure to get his teammates the ball when he saw the help come over. And somewhat surprisingly, Parker was also killer from the corners in this game, knocking down a pair of triples from there, which gives San Antonio the valuable ability to have Ginobili, who is a better three-point threat on the pull-up, handle the ball on the majority of high screen-and-rolls.

And Duncan was so key, as he always is, in making everything click. Duncan struggled a bit protecting the rim, but other than that, he was so solid in every facet of the game. He cleaned the boards, he dove to the basket and made tough finishes against pesky and often smaller defenders, and he did a good job of moving the ball when he was doubled in the paint. Duncan did struggle with turnovers, coughing it up a team high five times, but a lot of those could be solved with better set-ups from the perimeter.

Unlike the AT&T Center crowd, the Spurs weren’t always feeling hot in Game 1. They had patches of brilliance here and there followed by other stretches when the Heat put their stamp on the game with a unique blend of maniacal defense, a cornucopia of long-range options and LeBron’s individual greatness.

But when the game was on the line, San Antonio rode a heat wave to victory while the Miami Heat wilted away.

Remember The Alamo

in NBA by
NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at San Antonio Spurs

The city of San Antonio owes most its national notoriety to a two-century old building that played a crucial role in the Texas Revolution. The Alamo, which now sits in the heart of the city near the River Walk, is one of America’s most historic tourist attractions and a fixture in most history textbooks. Impossibly outnumbered by the Mexican Army, 189 brave men from different and distinct backgrounds stood their ground at the Alamo before the strength of Santa Anna’s siege overwhelmed them way back in 1836.

Though the Alamo briefly stood as a symbol of victory for the Mexican Army, shortly after the memories of that battle would help turn the Texas Revolution into a legendary triumph for the Texian Army. Led by General Sam Houston, who would later be known as the “Father of Texas”, the Texian Army took down Santa Anna’s army with frightening precision at the Battle of San Jacinto as the troops famously shouted “Remember the Alamo!”

For a team that is as rooted in its city’s culture as any other organization in pro sports, it is apropos that the San Antonio Spurs have the opportunity to close the book on the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich era with such a similar final chapter.

Last year’s NBA Finals acted as a roadblock to liberation for Duncan and Pop. With just one more win, they would have been able to ride off into the sunset with a perfect record on the games biggest stage. But Ray Allen’s miracle shot in the final seconds of regulation in Game 6 was a cannonball that produced the first crack in the Spurs’ wall, and then LeBron, an army unto himself, was able to break it down with his heroic performance in Game 7.

For San Antonio to be as close as they were in Game 7 was another sign of their incredible resilience and courage, but it wasn’t enough to derail Miami’s quest to control the NBA.

But now the Spurs have fought their way back, ready to exact revenge for their downfalls in 2013. Duncan and Manu Ginobili have repelled Father Time for yet another year, Tony Parker turned in another elite season, Danny Green has returned to avenge his letdown performances in Games 6 and 7, Kawhi Leonard has made strides on both ends of the floor as his burden has increased and the rest of San Antonio’s supporting cast has never been better.

Rather than wilting in shame of their failure or succumbing to age and eroding skills, the Spurs have returned stronger after last year’s Finals, due in large part to the incomparable leadership of Popovich. Popovich, an Air Force Academy graduate, has helped build the most mentally tough battalion in all of sports, unrelenting in their execution and in their belief in each other. That faith has been vital in San Antonio’s return to the Finals, as they’ve met each and every obstacle thrown in their way – Serge Ibaka’s return, Tony Parker’s injury in Game 6 of the conference finals, etc. – without batting an eyelash.

Now the Spurs assume their positions in front of the Alamo City walls yet again, with LeBron and his troops looking to charge right in.

The Alamo was viewed as “The Last Stand” for the Texian Army, but even after their crushing defeat, they were able to muster the moxie necessary to seek out and defeat the Mexican Army in the decisive Battle of San Jacinto.

How fitting would it be for the Spurs, a team whose last stand has been proclaimed and forecasted for the better part of this decade, to rally together for one more battle after what looked to be a true deathblow last season? How perfect would it be for this series to be Duncan’s true last stand, one that he emerges from victorious?

And if Popovich and Duncan can finally obtain that fleeting freedom that allows them to walk away from the game after raising their flag on the NBA’s mast for the fifth and final time, the description of their swansong may someday read like this:

“Though the 2013 Finals briefly stood as a symbol of victory for the Heat, shortly after the memories of that battle would help turn the 2014 Finals into a legendary triumph for the Spurs. Led by Coach Gregg Popovich, who would later be known as the “Pop of San Antonio”, the Spurs took down LeBron’s army with frightening precision at the Battle of San Antonio as the players famously shouted “Remember those yellow ropes!”

The Problematic Pacers

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NBA: Playoffs-Indiana Pacers at Miami Heat

I’m not sure that Game 6 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals could have been more predictable.

A rousing Miami Heat blowout wasn’t expected because of anything that happened in Game 5, it was just that, after these past few months, this was exactly how everyone envisioned the Indiana Pacers’ season coming to an end. Following all of the drama and the stretches of incompetence, watching Indiana helplessly standby as LeBron James ripped them to shreds, their offense wilting under Miami’s pressure, seemed like a fitting end to a season that had been progressively building towards a massive letdown.

For a team that had already shown signs of mental weakness, being defeated in that fashion has to be indefinitely crippling.

The Pacers talked all season about the importance of having homecourt advantage for a Game 7 and they spent all season saying that they were built to take down the Heat. They had to survive a couple of scares just to get to this point, being taken to seven games by the paltry Atlanta Hawks in the opening round and losing Game 1 against the Wizards in Round 2, but they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and they had the homecourt advantage that they desperately wanted. After everything they went through on and off the court, they ended up right where everyone expected them to be as June approached.

But on Friday night, the Pacers were once again met with the devastating truth that has haunted them over the past few years: The Miami Heat are a lot better than them.

Indiana was an awesome team for most of this season. As hard as their style can be on the eyes, they deserve appreciation for their brilliant defensive work. Credit for the Pacers’ success could be spread amongst all of their starters and to their head coach. Armed with a smart scheme that took advantage of the individual defensive abilities of Roy Hibbert, Indiana had the best defense in the league, which is something to be proud of even with their offensive ineptitude.

In the Eastern Conference, which is littered with a number of teams that struggle mightily offensively, that defense was enough to make them dominant on most nights, and they even proved to be a problem for Miami during the regular season. Thus, even with minimal adjustments to their roster outside of the additions of Luis Scola and C.J. Watson, the Pacers gained confidence regarding their eventual post-season matchup with the Heat.

And yet, this series wasn’t all that competitive. Looking back, perhaps that is not all that surprising. In 2012, the Pacers put up a tough fight, but Miami was also missing Chris Bosh for most of that series, and last year it was Dwyane Wade that was not totally healthy when Indiana took the defending champions to seven games. But still, with Miami looking like they took a small step back this season, there seemed to be hope for Indiana in this series.

Instead, Indiana ran into the team that is perfectly constructed to belittle their biggest strength, a team designed to destruct the rigid defense that acts as their sole lifeline. As odd as it would seem having a flawed team like the Pacers in the NBA Finals, if they were playing the Thunder in the Eastern Conference Finals, they may very well have punched themselves a ticket to the final round. But Miami is just so ruthlessly efficient offensively that not even the league’s most dominant defense can slow them down, and with Wade and James both at peak form, Indiana’s clunky offense was no match for the Heat.

Some will say that the Pacers were built for a different era when smallball and pushing the pace was less popular, but I think this team could have reached the Finals had they come along not even five or six years ago, before Miami’s supreme trio came together. Had these Pacers been running into the Kevin Garnett-era Celtics in the Conference Finals over the past few years, a team that had similar struggles offensively and an equally great defense, Indiana’s edge in individual talent may have earned them a trip to the Finals – although I shudder to think what Kevin Garnett would do to Hibbert’s psyche.

But Indiana had no such luck. For three years running, their final game of the season has come against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. It’s somewhat sobering, I suppose, that this group of guys, as flawed as they were, could come together to create a historically good defense, only to have LeBron crack the code time after time.

And their Game 6 loss on Friday night looked much worse than their two previous eliminations at the hands of the Heat. Whereas their last two losses created hope that they may be able to take down Miami in the future, this loss felt like this group had reached the end of their journey, and that there was no future for any Eastern Conference team so long as LeBron is around.

Lance Stephenson totally lost control after a series full of immature antics, leading Paul George to say “I don’t know” when asked about bringing him back next season. George Hill fell apart, struggling to even bring the ball up the floor at times. Roy Hibbert completed one of the most unbelievable individual collapses of all-time, failing to take control in a matchup he had previously owned for reasons that have to rooted with something off the court. And George, the player that looked like a budding superstar this time last year and the guy who was garnering legitimate praise as a top five player at the beginning of the season, had flashes of excellence mixed with occasional on-court sabbaticals, a sign that he is not yet on the level of his all-world peers.

Everyone in Indiana’s lockerroom bought into the idea that this was their best shot at dethroning the Heat, but somewhere along the line, things fell apart and their dreams were derailed. Now the Pacers enter the off-season with more questions than answers.

And even if they find those answers, given their luck, LeBron will probably switch up the equation.

The Rising Sun

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Phoenix Suns

Goran Dragic is having an MVP-caliber season. He’s shattered his career high in PER, posting a 21.78 rating as of today; he has a 61% true shooting percentage, tops in the league amongst starting point guards; he has the 8th best offensive Real Plus-Minus in the NBA (+4.50), ranking him slightly behind Damian Lillard and ahead of Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love; the Suns’ offense scores 110.6 points per possession with Dragic on the floor (a tick above Miami’s league leading offense) and just 100.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench (a mark that would rank 6th worst in the league); and most impressively, he’s carried the Suns into the playoff picture despite pre-season forecasts that put in the Suns in contention for the number one overall pick and a two month absence from Eric Bledsoe.

What’s more, he may not even be the best player on his own team.

There’s no denying that Dragic has been the Suns’ leader this season, but in the long run, it‘s likely that Bledsoe will be Phoenix’s max player. It’s not a him-or-me situation with these two natural point guards, though. In the 36 games they’ve played together this season, Dragic and Bledsoe have shared the floor for 821 minutes, during which the Suns have played excellent basketball. With Dragic and Bledsoe on the floor, the Suns are scoring 108.8 points per 100 possessions, which would rank fourth in the league over the course of a full season, while surrendering just 97.7 points per 100 possession on the other end, ranking them near Chicago’s defense this season (2nd overall).

Bledsoe and Dragic are both aggressive players and effective scorers, but because Dragic has developed into a great spot-up shooter (he leads the team in catch and shoot eFG% at 64.3%), he’s been able to seamlessly shift into an off guard that gives the Suns’ tremendous spacing whilst having the ability to run secondary pick-and-rolls against bent defenses. And though Dragic is a bit undersized for a two guard, the Suns have more than survived in spite of any mismatches on both ends of the floor.

Phoenix did not expect to be in the position they are in right now — locked in a three-team race for the final two playoff spots with a week left in the season — but as a small consolation prize for the top-five pick they lost out on once Jeff Hornacek’s group decided they were going to go all out for a post-season spot, the Suns have learned a lot about their team this season, thanks in large part to Hornacek’s free flowing spread offense that induces flashbacks to the Nash and D’Antoni days in the Valley of the Suns.

The Morris twins have both made strides as players, with Markieff having a legitimate case for the 6th Man of the Year Award; Gerald Green may be the league’s most improved player, growing into a legitimate rotation player with an NBA Jam-like ability to get hot from deep; P.J. Tucker has developed an accurate three-point shot from the corners, helping him become a more well-rounded player. And, most importantly, the symbiotic relationship that Bledsoe and Dragic have developed has helped Phoenix solidify their core.

And with three first round draft picks (their own as well as Washington and Indiana’s first round selections) and some cap space to work with once they extend Bledsoe this off-season, the Suns are looking at a bright future.

***

bledsoe

Eric Bledsoe may have the best nickname in the league. It’s not exactly clever and it doesn’t roll off of the tongue, but in terms of what the nickname actually means, you can do worse than “mini-LeBron.” Bledsoe’s former teammate Jamal Crawford gave him the moniker back in 2012, and before you brush it off as an exaggeration, know that LeBron himself embraced the nickname, referring to Bledsoe as “Baby LeBron” as they chatted after a Clippers-Heat game that season. Though they were friends far before Crawford made the comparison, who knows if Bledsoe would have found himself in one of LeBron’s Samsung commercials if we were calling him “EB” instead.

While putting “mini” in front of something may generally have a negative connotation, the only implication it has here has to do with Bledsoe’s size, not his production or skill level. And it’s true: Bledsoe is a chiseled box score stuffer with out of this world athletic talent, or what LeBron would be were he compressed to fit a point guard’s paradigm. Bledsoe’s even experiencing the same growing pains that LeBron did during his first years in the league, having to adjust to defenses that compensate for their inability to contain his speed and strength by playing off of him and forcing him to shoot jumpshots. To Bledsoe’s credit, he has been an improved and more comfortable shooter this season, knocking down 40% of his mid-range shots and 34% of his threes (on 3.3 attempts per game).

Those aren’t great numbers, but they culminate in a career high 57.1% true shooting percentage (up from 51.3% last season) for Bledsoe, good for sixth in the league amongst starting point guards. Given that true shooting percentage gives more weight to three-point shots and free throws, two areas where Bledsoe is below average amongst his peers, it’s impressive that he ranks as highly as he does. He evades those parameters by being so efficient at the rim. Even as teams scheme to prevent him from getting penetration, Bledsoe is still very good at getting into the lane, and he’s even better at finishing. He’s shooting 63.4% in the restricted area this season, the third best figure in the league amongst point guards with at least 150 field goal attempts at the rim behind Dragic (1st at a ridiculous 67.8%) and John Wall.

Bledsoe did a great job picking Chris Paul’s brain during his time with the Clippers, and he’s implemented some of those nifty hesitation fakes that make Paul a terror to deal with into his own game. And while CP3 is a tough son of a gun, he isn’t the physical or athletic freak that Bledsoe is, and the combination of speed and strength that Bledsoe unleashes on his treks to the rim make it extremely tough for defenses to stop him.

Bledsoe also has a great touch off the backboard with his lay-ups, a fundamental skill that even some of the game’s most graceful athletes like Paul George or Damian Lillard don’t always master. According to SportVu data hosted on NBA.com, the Suns are scoring 8.8 points per game on Eric Bledsoe drives, or just a bit less than Miami scores per game on LeBron drives and a bit more than the Rockets score per game when James Harden goes to the basket.

As he’s been given his biggest role to date, Bledsoe is having a career year, posting a career high PER of 19.22 to go along with his career high usage rate. For a player that struggles with his outside shot, it’s a great sign than his increased usage didn’t lead to a dip in efficiency, similar to how players like Monta Ellis (or at least the old Monta Ellis) and Brandon Jennings saw their effectiveness drop when they were put in charge of more possessions.

The only thing that Bledsoe lacks when being compared to the elite point guards in the game is a huge assist ratio. Bledsoe isn’t in the top 50 amongst point guards in assist rate this season and even his career best mark in his rookie year was just slightly above average. I don’t see this as an issue, though, because if you view both Bledsoe and Dragic as combo guards that can function as scorers and point guards at any time, and often on the same possession, then neither one of them has to assist on the same percentage of baskets that Chris Paul does. And even with his mediocre assist rate, Bledsoe still ranks higher than noted score-first point guards like Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard.

While there is always potential for Bledsoe’s numbers to regress next season when his stats will reflect a full 82 game sample, nothing Bledsoe has done in his 39 games this year has seemed fluky or out of the ordinary. If anything, another off-season to work on his game is likely to lead to more improvement for Bledsoe. And that’s scary for the rest of the league. Because at 24, Bledsoe has put per game stats of 18 points, six assists and five rebounds, attacked the rim ferociously and with excellent efficiency and taken the first steps towards an improved jumpshot.

And I haven’t even touched on the most valuable part of his game.

***

1 oTlsnVn0fJQeFFdUHyOFVgBledsoe’s physical archetype defies convention. At a stout 6’1″, Bledsoe not only possesses instinctive footwork, supple speed and a celestial vertical, he has disproportionately long arms that bolt onto his broad shoulders, giving him the reach of a swingman. It’d be hard to sculpt a better prototype for a new age NBA point guard. While Bledsoe’s athleticism allows him to do some very valuable things offensively, his defensive prowess as a guard is unparalleled throughout the league.

During a golden age of point guard play, the tangible effects that a point guard can have defensively have been neutered by their supremely talented offensive counterparts. Only a select few lead guards — Chris Paul, Ricky Rubio, Patrick Beverley and Mike Conley — can claim to be above average defenders. The NBA is a pick-and-roll league filled with a plethora of dynamic point guards, so often forcing guard defenders out of the picture and putting the emphasis on the lumbering bigs.

But Bledsoe flips the script. He forces the emphasis on himself, applying pressure to his man at every opportunity, even as he lurks in the passing lanes, praying for the ball to swing his way.

I’ll never forget watching Bledsoe defend Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili during the 2012 Playoffs. The Clippers were totally overmatched in that series in every way, but during the stints when Bledsoe was on the floor, he completely changed the complexion of the game. On one possession he would corral Parker’s dribble with his long arms and impossibly quick feet, the next he would stick with Ginobili throughout all of his quirky dribbles and fakes and force him to fire a fadeaway jumper. And, based on the numbers, he was even better in the Memphis series that season, with the Clippers possessing a stunning +29.2 net rating with Bledsoe on the floor (and a +14.8 net defensive rating).

ESPN’s newly released Real Plus-Minus stat also portrays how valuable Bledsoe is defensively. Bledsoe has a +3.64 DRPM (defined as a player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions), the best mark of any point guard in the league by a big margin. The results don’t change when going by NBA.com’s on-off court data: With Bledsoe on the floor, the Suns give up 100.4 points per 100 possessions compared to a 105.5 defensive rating when sits, making for a +5.1 net defensive rating for Bledsoe.

Bledsoe uses his brawny upper body to ward off dribble penetration, his quick hands to incessantly poke at the ball like a woodpecker on a tree. He uses his quick feet to stick with his man’s each and every dribble, like a drummer that’s in perfect unison with his lead singer. And when opponents try to get a shot off, Bledsoe shoves his Inspector Gadget arms into the air, an overwhelming resistance for just about every point guard in the league, deterring their shot like he’s Serge Ibaka protecting the rim. Bledsoe owns the game’s most terrifying defensive skillset for a point guard since Gary Payton. A few players have been said to have the tools that could one day make them a stopper like Payton — John Wall is a name that comes to mind — but Bledsoe is a first to put those supernatural physical assets and innate defensive instincts to good use.

Even if his offensive growth stalled out, an unlikely occurrence for a 24-year old, Bledsoe would still be a major asset for the way he’s able to hassle opposing guards. Bledsoe is about as big of a difference maker on the defensive end as you’ll find for someone that doesn’t patrol the paint, and it’s hard for me to imagine Bledoe not supplanting his former tutor on the All-Defensive First Team once his reputation catches up to his game.

***

With four games left in the season, Hollinger’s NBA Playoff Odds give the Suns a 57.1% chance of making the post-season, and it is all likely to come down to the head-to-head matchups that Phoenix has with both the Mavericks and the Grizzlies over the next few days (the Mavericks play the Grizzlies as well). The Suns currently sit in the seventh seed, but their post-season odds are the lowest of the triad because they’ve already lost the season series (and thus the first tiebreaker) to the Grizzlies.

Should Phoenix make the post-season, it will be one of the most remarkable finishes in league history. The Suns will have gone from a team projected to tank for a top pick to a playoff team that’s likely going to make the Spurs fight their way out of the first round (and, based on their regular season meetings, a 2/7 matchup with Thunder would be thrilling television).

But whether or not the Suns make the playoffs this season will wind up being just a footnote in the grand scheme of things. That’s because the sun isn’t set to rise in Phoenix for another couple of years. But when it does, it’ll likely be lifted up on the vast, yet compact, shoulders of Eric Bledsoe.

The Doctrine Of Duncan

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Growing up, I was raised as an only child by a single parent. My mom and dad got divorced when I was young and I have lived my entire life with my mom. Given the hell I put her through growing up and how she still succeeded in parenting me, I am convinced that single moms are the most incredible people on the planet, somehow capable of playing the gentle motherly role while possessing the ability to act as a stern fatherly figure when the situation calls for it. The way she handled all that life threw at her with her head held high was inspiring; always putting on a strong face even in the toughest circumstances. I may call her “mom,” but she is much more than just that.

And then there was one day when that reliable rosy attitude was overtaken by the bumps and bruises of being a single mom. That one day when the struggles of everyday life were just too much, the burden too heavy, to not give in to a moment of weakness. That bad day at work, that day the bills came in. Whatever it was that got to my mom that day, it will forever be etched in my memory as the first day I saw her cry. Seeing that the strongest person I knew was capable of being brought to tears, that she was capable of being broken down, if only for a moment, was saddening.

This is the same feeling I got when I watched Tim Duncan’s press conference following Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Duncan is the rock of the San Antonio Spurs organization, the person that can be relied for a soothing directive in the worst possible times, the leader that always kept his composure. Duncan is the definition of a statuesque persona, someone who virtually never shows his expressions, always keeping his most exuberant and his most morbid thoughts and feelings hidden beneath the surface of his stoic face.

So when Duncan sat down at the podium and faced the media, folks like myself tasked with getting to the bottom of the big man’s feelings after such a heartbreaking loss, for the first time ever, I saw the Big Fundamental as a crestfallen and dispirited man.

As if the disheartening way that the Spurs had the title ripped from their hands wasn’t enough, seeing their leader, their protector, showing a crack added insult to injury for San Antonio fans. Just minutes after such a painful loss, there was Duncan on the verge of tears, showing that he wasn’t the robot he has been made out to be over the past decade, that he was just as human as us, that he was capable of feeling pain and emotion. Gone was that stoic statue, and it was replaced by a sensitive soul.

After Game 7, it was easy to feel sorry for Duncan, a true gentle giant, after seeing him miss a shot he could make in his sleep with the game on the line. It is that shot that will deprive Duncan of sleep from now until eternity – a hook shot over an undersized Shane Battier that caromed off the rim with less than a minute to go and the Spurs down two. Much worse is that Duncan’s post-game emotions likely included his realization that this series may have been his final shot at another title, and that he may never get the chance to redeem himself on that stage again, a stage he had previously been undefeated on.

Despite the four banners Duncan has already hung in the AT&T Center, he’ll never be able to shake the nightmare finish that he had to the 2013 Finals, when he failed to score in the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 6 and missed several easy looks in Game 7. Pat Riley once said that there is winning, and there is misery, and the best of competitors dread defeat more than they adore winning, so Duncan may very well live in misery for years until he’s able to escape the memories of those final six quarters.

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But once Duncan is able to look past the 2013 Finals, he should be able to take solace in the fact that he has accomplished more than just about anybody in league history. I view Duncan as one of the five best players of all-time, and the Bill Russell of this generation of basketball, both in terms of success and how they went about attaining it. For every season that Duncan has been in the league up until LeBron’s last couple of seasons, it was obvious that there was not a player in the league you’d rather play with or rather have as your captain than Duncan. Nobody was more reliable and nobody as good as Duncan was as committed to his team’s success over his individual accomplishments.

Duncan is incredibly unselfish and yet also more than capable of dominating a game with his own scoring. The fact that Duncan seemed to find the perfect balance between those two facets of his game every time his teammates evolved around him should not be overlooked. That Duncan has constantly shifted the way he plays to best complement those around him speaks to how marvelous a teammate he is, as does how seamless the transition was when Gregg Popovich recently decided that the offense would be better off with Tony Parker as the key cog and Duncan has the secondary option.

Duncan’s chivalrous style is right in line with the way that Russell is chronicled in NBA lore. Duncan is a more physically gifted offensive player than Russell, which is why Timmy has also been a dominant scorer during his career, but he never plays the role of a mercenary gunning for his own stats; Duncan always plays within the flow of the offense, picks apart defenses when they double him and pounds the rock when the situation calls for it.

Selflessness is not the only quality that Duncan shares with Russell, of course. Both are viewed as peerless defensive players that patrolled the paint better than any other bigs of their eras. Neither player exhibited the kind of highlight reel blocks that you’ll find on SportsCenter today; rather, Russell popularized the possession saving block by keeping his swatted balls in bounds while Duncan has racked up swaths of rejections without leaving his feet. Both players were also tremendous rebounders, experts in the monotonous art of terminating defensive possessions, and understood the craft of positioning and the importance of precise rotations.

Perhaps more important than anything Russell or Duncan did on the floor or any of the historic accomplishments that they compiled over their illustrious careers is the way that both players affected their teams off the court. You’d be hard pressed to find two other players in league history that were as universally viewed as Hall-of-Fame players and Hall-of-Fame people as Duncan and Russel, true leaders in every sense of the word.

At halftime of Game 6, I was certain that Duncan would be retiring after the next 24 minutes as a five-time NBA champion. Instead, the Spurs suffered some cruel twists of fate in the final seconds of that game and the Miami Heat took Game 7 to win their second title in a row.

Now I’m not sure what the future holds for Duncan, who will be 38 years old next season. Though Manu Ginobili looked like a shell of himself this post-season, I still think the Spurs are a top-four team in the West next season pending the free agency decisions they make. With the addition of a true back-up point guard and perhaps a Tiago Splitter replacement, the Spurs could probably go for another 50-win season. Then again, the West should be more competitive next year with the return of Westbrook and Kobe, a potential Howard-to-Houston scenario and the forming of the Los Angeles Celtics, so the Spurs would likely have a tougher path to the Finals than they had this year.

Whatever decision Duncan makes – whether he returns for one more year or retires on the heels of one of the greatest Finals ever – the league will be better for it. Either we’ll get to see a 38-year old Duncan defy the odds once again while he posts another 22+ PER and helps lead his Spurs to a 17th consecutive post-season, or we’ll see one of the best players of all-time begin his journey to the basketball pantheon as a Hall-of-Famer.

While Duncan will be tormented by that missed hook and that flubbed bunny for many years to come, likely running through those same emotions he showed during his press conference last Thursday as he tosses and turns at night, one thing’s for sure:

Tim Duncan will forever be the rock of the San Antonio Spurs.

And one crack – a crack, by the way, caused by one of the few players that could ever call Duncan a peer – is not going to change the fact that Duncan is a legend, a player with more championships than 26 NBA teams, a player as benevolent as he is dominant, as passionate as he is phlegmatic, as ruthless as he is caring.

A player, who is much more than just that.

Legendary

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As basketball fans, we don’t want the way we view the careers of LeBron James and Tim Duncan, two of the 10 best players of all-time, to come down to a 21-year old Kawhi Leonard making a free throw or Mario Chalmers banking in a buzzer beating three from 40-feet.

We don’t want the way that history looks back on some of the greatest players of our generation to be decided by Boris Diaw making a wide open shot or Chris Andersen pulling down a key offensive rebound. We cringe at the sight of Manu Ginobili, one of the game’s most exhilarating and respectable competitors ever, making crucial blunders as his body can no longer keep up with his mind. We can’t stand the thought that the legacy of James or Duncan will be monumentally impacted by one single game, during which a player like Shane Battier or Danny Green can have as much to do with the result as any of the Hall-of-Famers on the floor.

As someone with nothing invested in the outcome of last night’s game seven, even I could barely stand the tension created by the magnitude of the moment, with each and every shot having a chance to be the one that goes down in history. Each time LeBron or Wade or Duncan or Ginobili made a mistake, I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach, because I feared for their sakes the kind of emotions they would have to deal with for the rest of their lives if any given mishap proved fatal. Mistakes made by my favorite athletes still eat at me, so I can only imagine what it’s like for someone who actually had a say in the outcome.

But, at the same time, even as fans, we die for those moments. As unfair as it is for a series as competitive and as even as the 2013 NBA Finals were, for everything to come down to one game gives us some of the most glorious and gut wrenching moments of our lives. You stomach the absolute desperation for the moments of unparallelled glee and elation. You try your hardest to distance yourself from the outcome, but in the end, you just can’t help but invest every emotion you have in your team, knowing that you’ll either be at the top of the world or at the bottom of the pit at the final buzzer, with no inbetween.

Spurs fans are lucky to have experienced that top of the world feeling four times during the Tim Duncan era. They have gotten to tag along for one of the best runs in NBA history with Duncan carrying them to so much success, so many peaks with so much brilliant basketball along the way. In game six, it appeared as if his career would have a fairytale ending, but a few bad bounces and some brilliant shotmaking from the Heat pried the fifth ring right off his finger. No amount of prosperity can make up for the heartbreaking feeling that game six gave the Spurs, and when the game’s best player was given a second chance at his second ring, he didn’t let it slip away.

James has played some unbelievable basketball in his 10 year career, but the 4-time MVP has never been better than he was in last night’s game. It’s hard to keep track of how many games have been deemed “legacy” games for LeBron, but it’s pretty clear that a game seven in the NBA Finals is as high stakes as basketball gets. And James, constantly derided for not being able to come through in big moments, delivered an all-around performance for the ages, perhaps the most dominant individual performance we’ve ever seen in an NBA Finals, Michael Jordan included.

James scored 37 points on 12-of-23 shooting last night, knocking down five of his 10 three-point attempts while getting to the line eight times. When factoring in those long-range shots, the only time someone has had a comparable game as scorer on the Finals stage was Jordan in the “Shrug Game,” but that was in a game one and a blowout; this was in a game seven, with each of those shots coming in big moments. Of course, scoring isn’t the only thing that makes LeBron great; he also had 12 rebounds and four assists in this game. James was making plays for others, often times collecting the hockey assist anytime the defense overcommited to him, and rebounding like a true big, allowing the Heat to play small the whole game without getting killed on the boards.

And then there was the defense. Oh my was that impressive. Not only was LeBron running the show offensively and rebounding like a mad men, he also defended Tony Parker as well as humanly possible. Parker may be the toughest player to guard in the entire league when you factor in his own individual abilities and the kind of physical punishment the Spurs put you through by making your chase him around the court on screens and put you in quick hitting pick-and-rolls, but there was James, not giving him an inch of separation, preventing him from ever really getting going in the final two games of this series. Parker wouldn’t make excuses for himself, but it’s clear something wasn’t right with him health-wise; that said, you still have to credit LeBron for doing the lionshare of work on Parker, who went 9-of-35 (26%) in games six and seven.

The best part about LeBron is that he isn’t Michael Jordan. He hasn’t forced himself to mimic somebody that others want him to be; he’s been more than happy to just be himself. And that’s great if you are a basketball fan, because James is some unique physical monster that somebody created in a lab. It’s hard to believe that James was just a kid growing up in Akron, Ohio, lucky just to have made it out of high school, before becoming a two-time NBA champion; a mad scientist, one hell bent on creating the perfect basketball player, conjuring up James by giving him elements from all of legends – Magic’s vision and passing, the Karl Malone’s chiseled and brute physique, Pippen’s grappling defense, Kobe’s work ethic, Dr. J’s athleticism and, yes, Jordan’s scoring ability – seems like a more likely explanation for his existence.

Forcing LeBron, as well as Dwyane Wade, to hit perimeter jumpshots is a common gameplan for stopping the Heat, but you will never see a team execute that gameplan as effectively, precisely and as beautifully as the Spurs did in this series. Gregg Popovich designed brilliant help schemes, Kawhi Leonard played incredible individual defense on James, and Duncan toed the backline as expertly as he ever has, often times forcing the game’s best perimeter threat to change his shot or pass the ball when they met in the paint. The Spurs had the perfect blueprint to limit James, but at the end of the day, any defensive gameplan involving LeBron will put you at his mercy, and in game seven he broke the process by beating San Antonio with his outside shot. The Spurs decided they would live with LeBron taking jumpers, but they died by it in game seven.

duncanshadows

With one minute left in the game, Manu Ginobili chased down a loose ball after Shane Battier missed a three from the top of the key. As Manu grabbed for the ball, Dwyane Wade came flying towards him, diving to save the possession. Manu collected himself and pushed the ball up to Danny Green as James gambled for a steal. Wade and James’ failed effort plays left the Heat defense in scramble mode, and with 50 seconds left, Ginobili entered the ball into Duncan on the post with Battier on his back.

At the time, the Spurs were down 90-88, but they had a perfect mismatch on the block with a small forward guarding their best player, one of the five best of all-time, on the block. Duncan took one dribble towards the lane, brought the ball up and got a wide open hook shot over Battier; it caromed off the back of the rim. But the play wasn’t over, Duncan still owned a size and length advantage over Battier and had realized his shot was off, so he bounced back up off the floor for a putback attempt. He’s never had a cleaner look at the rim, with the ball suspended in mid-air and his hand coming up to tip it in. With the proper amount of touch, Duncan could have tied the game and changed the landscape of the Finals. Instead, he rushed his motion just a bit, and the ball went wide of the rim.

A disgusted Duncan violently wiped the sweat off his face with his jersey on the way up the floor. Once he was back on defense, he crouched down and slammed the floor in frustration. Never had Duncan made such a crucial mistake in a deciding Finals game, and he seemed to realize that one shot – a bunny, an easy tip-in – may have decided who was crowned the 2013 NBA Champions.

“So many little things that could have gone our way in the last play or the last two plays to win it,” Ginobili said after the game. “There’s such a fine line – such a fine line – between being celebrating and having a great summer, and feeling like crap and just so disappointed.”

On the rebound, Miami called a timeout to set-up a potential game-clinching play. The Heat came out of the timeout and gave the ball to their Hall-of-Famer, their all-time great. With LeBron handling up top, Mario Chalmers rushed up to set a screen as the shot clock wound down. James came off the screen, Parker showing hard and bumping him a bit off path. James picked up his dribble and stopped dead in his tracks near the right elbow. He hesitated for a second – a dramatic pause prior to the biggest shot of his life – and as Kawhi Leonard leaped at him to contest, James calmly released the jumper, sealing the envelope on everybody’s Finals MVP ballots, as well as the lips of all of those who have criticized his big game fortitude, with a swish.

When asked after the game if it was too soon to be proud of what his team accomplished, a despondent Duncan replied: “It’s a hard question to answer right now.”

I’ve never seen Duncan so affected emotionally by the outcome of the game. During my brief time covering him and the many years that I’ve watched him, you come to expect him to be that stoic and statuesque presence at the podium, always their to squash any feelings in the room. But this time, he was crestfallen, only mustering verbal pauses before taking a second or two to clinch his forehead and gather his thoughts.

“To be at this point,” Duncan said, seemingly fighting off tears.

“With this team,” he continued, on the verge of an emotional breakdown at any second, with thoughts of what he had gone through with his teammates over the course of this season and all he had accomplished with Pop, Manu and Tony over the years clearly seeping into his mind.

“In a situation where people kind of counted us out, it’s a great accomplishment to be in a Game 7.”

Though Duncan can always look back on what he was able to do during his career, the memories of his mishaps from this series will never elude him.

“Game seven is always going to haunt me,” he says, citing his own missed opportunities down the stretch as the horrors.

lbj

About thirty minutes later, it was LeBron James’ turn to take the podium. He walked onto the stage, a smile on his face, a stogie in his mouth and the Finals MVP trophy in his hand, and sat down.

When asked of his plans now that he’s a two-time NBA Champion and a two-time Finals MVP, James said he’s ready to say “I do.”

“I got a wedding coming up,” LeBron said. “And it will be an unbelievable wedding now that we’ve won. I might have called it off if we lost.”

With the odd bounce of a ball, a random hot streak from a role player and an untimely regression for another, so many tremendous players making tremendous plays and seven unbelievable games of basketball, legacies and lives were changed forever.

As criminal as it for history to change on such an unpredictable whim, and as tough as it is to see a legend like Duncan miss out on a defining moment with uncharacteristic blunders, I walked away from game seven feeling that the best player on the planet – a legend himself – earned everything that was given to him.

And that’s a perfect way for one of the best series ever to end.

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