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Looking On The Whiteside

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whitesidefinal

The Miami Heat struck gold when they signed Hassan Whiteside last November. Whiteside, a maligned and peripatetic talent, was stuck in a fruitless cycle of D-League contracts and passport stamps when the Heat took a chance on him, and he paid immediate dividends.

Within a fortnight of his first real taste of the rotation, Whiteside posted 23 points and 16 rebounds in a breakout performance against the Clippers. Two weeks after that, Whiteside posted his first career triple-double when he put up 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocks against the Bulls. As the weeks went by, the monstrous statlines piled up, and Whiteside quickly earned a reputation as one of the biggest bargains in the league.

Those points-rebounds-blocks triple-doubles have become a bit of a calling card for Whiteside. Whiteside has three such triple-doubles this season, giving him four for his career; the only other player with more than one since 2000 is Ben Wallace. As Whiteside so eloquently put it: Ain’t nobody else doing it with blocks.

The illustration for this article was done specifically for this piece by artist Alex Dunbar. You can see more of his work at CourtsideScribbles.com

One would think a player with the potential to put up such cartoonish numbers on a regular basis would be the crucial piece in his team’s playoff push. Instead Whiteside has spent this season being toggled between the limelight and the timeout corner as the Heat try to figure out exactly what they have in this radiant and recalcitrant talent.

Whiteside’s situation is littered with precedents. There aren’t any examples of NBA teams exhuming a former second rounder who had resorted to playing in Lebanon and China, much less cases of that player subsequently becoming one of the most dominant centers in the league within a season and a half. Imagine new Rocket Michael Beasley coming in and challenging for the scoring title during the final two months of the season. That is akin to what Whiteside has done since Miami plucked him from obscurity.

The downside of being plucked from obscurity is that Miami’s flyer on Whiteside came with a contract that didn’t offer any longterm security for either party. The terms of the deal aren’t wholly unique for a 15th man being signed for the minimum during the season, but this particular case, in which Whiteside has stunningly developed into a max-level talent, is certainly a first; it is the kind of rare occurrence that might even have its own exception in the CBA named after it to protect both sides if it ever happens again.

Although the Heat don’t have any contractual right or advantage to lean on when Whiteside hits free agency this summer, they did give themselves the chance to win Whiteside over during this trial run. After all, Miami was the team most eager to sign him when his only other offers paid in yuan instead of dollars. Given the Heat’s sterling reputation, which only shines brighter in light of Joe Johnson’s decision to move to South Beach instead of embarking on a guaranteed trip to the Finals with the Cavs, it would seem they have a massive advantage in keeping Whiteside around. The Heat organization has a ton of clout among players because they take care of their own and Miami offers the NBA’s most scenic residential options. What’s not to like?

Whiteside’s situation isn’t that cut and dry. It doesn’t seem as if the Heat have established themselves as overwhelming favorites to retain Whiteside, which isn’t what you would expect given the circumstances.

There are several relevant sideplots in this impending free agency saga, not the least of which is Whiteside’s personality. Like any talented big man, Whiteside wants more touches and a bigger slice of the possessions pie on offense, and he isn’t shy about it. Were Whiteside to accept the confines of the Tyson Chandler role, which suits him well, then the Heat couldn’t ask for a better pick-and-roll dive man to play alongside Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade (though the fit between Wade and Dragic is still in question).

But Whiteside desires more of the spotlight, and because Whiteside can walk at the end of the season, the Heat are in an interesting position: Do they cater to him or give him stern love? I suppose that question was answered when Miami showed its admirable colors and refused to allow LeBron James and his camp to run the show, which might have been a factor in his decision to return to Cleveland. If Miami’s power brokers aren’t going to budge on their principles for the game’s best player, then they certainly aren’t going to do so for Whiteside.

That said, there is a difference between acquiescing to a player’s wishes and making the sensible decision to make a player who will have no shortage of suitors this offseason feel welcome and wanted. Earlier in the season, Whiteside lost his place in the starting lineup, and even with Bosh out, Whiteside has been coming off the bench. He plays starter’s minutes most nights, but Amare Stoudemire gets the token starts. Perhaps this isn’t significant because Whiteside plays about as much as he would as a starter, but for someone like him, the starter moniker seems to mean something. And, generally speaking, if you are a few months away from offering a player a $100 million deal, you should be starting him, right?

One of the reasons the Heat might demur with committing to Whiteside is that they are one of the foremost analytical organizations in the league. A forward-thinking coach like Erik Spoelstra is probably hesitant to shift the foundation of his offense to suit a big man’s desire to post up more. If we were talking about Marc Gasol, this would be a different story. But post touches for Whiteside means only one thing: A shot is coming. He is a black hole in the post and he adds nothing as a playmaker. This season, Whiteside has 18 total assists and 100 turnovers; for context, Rajon Rondo has had 18 or more assists in a game six times this season.

One would think it inevitable that Whiteside’s efficiency would suffer greatly if he replaced a large number of his pick-and-roll dunks with post touches, but he is as efficient as it gets for possession enders. Whiteside is shooting 65.8 percent on his post touches this season, the fourth highest percentage in the league behind Rudy Gobert, Jonas Valanciunas and Dwight Howard. Mix in Whiteside’s incredible prowess on pick-and-rolls – he makes 74.7 percent of his shots as the roll man – and you can see the framework for one of the league’s better offensive centers. Whiteside has even been showcasing a midrange jumper recently, which could only serve to boost his value (as would passing the ball every once in a while).

And this is without mentioning Whiteside’s effect on the other end of the floor.

Although his block numbers are outlandish, for most of the season Miami has been better defensively with Whiteside off the floor. That trend has reversed recently, though, and now Miami is virtually the same with or without Whiteside on the floor. That isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his defensive value, nor is the fact that he is allowing 46.4 percent shooting at the basket this season, a solid number, but also not elite. Regardless, Whiteside is the game’s most dominant shot blocker and there is some value in that. Whiteside is averaging 3.92 blocks per game; DeAndre Jordan is second at 2.26. The difference between Whiteside and Jordan is the same as the difference between Jordan and Aron Baynes, who ranks 76th in blocks per game.

Ultimately, this all boils down to one question, which applies to any team that might want to throw heaps of money at Whiteside: Does Miami want to commit $20 million a season to a 26-year-old with two seasons of NBA-level production on his resume?

If Miami’s goal is to maximize its chances during Wade’s and Bosh’s window, then it might be smarter to spend that money elsewhere. If Pat Riley has the bigger picture in mind, which would be surprising considering his own age and Wade’s dwindling prime, then he might see the potential in a Dragic/Winslow/Whiteside core as a starting point. After all, the trio of Wade/Bosh/Whiteside has been average this season (minus-0.8 net rating) while the trio of Dragic/Winslow/Whiteside has been one of Miami’s best (plus-5.4 net rating) three-man groups.

One could argue Miami has the infrastructure in place to mitigate any damaging effects Whiteside’s ego might have on a franchise lacking such a powerful and renowned hierarchy, and the Heat have a staff well-equipped to extract the most out of Whiteside. Betting on Whiteside again, though it will be much riskier this time, could mean getting one of the game’s 10 best bigs under control for four or five seasons.

There is also the chance Whiteside wants to move and cash his checks elsewhere. As unpredictable as his career was to follow when he was bouncing from continent to continent, Whiteside’s next chapter might be even more ambiguous.

Whiteside has a unique set of potent talents that will have teams flocking to his doorstep in July, but his flaws will give every general manager in the league pause before they make that nine-figure offer. The determining factor will be which general managers aren’t comfortable with his imperfections and which ones decide to look at things on the Whiteside.

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

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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

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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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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.

A Hollywood Ending

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g26944-6For the most part, this game was much closer than you would expect for a matchup between one of the few title contenders in the East and a tanking team. That’s because Jacque Vaughn has a few very tantalizing prospects on his roster, and one of them really came to play in this one. Second year player Andrew Nicholson was feeling it offensively in this game, knocking down a pair of corner threes, pulling off a sweet spin move from the elbow to get himself a lay-up, nailed a jumper off a pick-and-pop and showed his underrated ability on the block. He’s an emerging player that can do a lot of things offensively and he really should be Orlando’s starting power forward going forward ahead of Jason Maxiell.

Rookie Victor Oladipo and second year player Maurice Harkless also looked nice in this game. I was a bit surprised that Oladipo didn’t get the start at point guard, but I guess I’m OK with him coming off the bench until the Magic find a suitor for Jameer Nelson. Oladipo appears to be a tireless attacker that will foray to the rim time after time off pick-and-rolls and other actions. Harkless is mostly viewed as a defensive prospect, but his offensive game needs to come along for him to develop into a solid rotation player. If this game was any indication, he’s on track to becoming a bit more of a diverse threat. He drilled a pair of threes and even had a nice attack of the rim on a pick-and-roll late in the game.

But let’s make no mistake about it, the Pacers are really good. Their offense is going to be sticky at times this season, particularly as they wait for the return of Danny Granger, but that defense is as good as ever. Given their exploits on that side of the floor, I think you can make a case for Paul George and Roy Hibbert as the best duo in the league. Hibbert controls the game so well on the interior, and he dominated this game to the tune of 16 rebounds and seven blocks. It’s a nightly joy to watch the Pacers’ defense work with Hibbert in the middle, as he does a tremendous job containing pick-and-rolls while still managing to protect the paint. George was tremendous as well, putting up 24 points on 8-of-16 shooting (3-of-6 from three), with six rebounds, five assists and three blocks.

g26410-9This one looked like it had the makings of a classic Bulls-Heat game in the early and the late goings, but Miami dominated the bulk of this game by completely destroying the Bulls defense by attacking them in semi-transition. I thought the Bulls did a pretty good job when their defense got set in this game, but the combination of foul trouble for Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler and Miami relentlessly pushing the pace and playing quite flawlessly on the break put Chicago in a bind they couldn’t escape. The Heat ramped up their defense as well in this contest, rotating like mad and taking away almost all of Chicago’s offensive opportunities that didn’t involve Carlos Boozer bullying somebody downlow. Derrick Rose had a forgettable return, shooting just 4-of-15 from the field with six missed threes and five turnovers. Miami really put the pressure on him and Chicago’s auxiliary options were unable to make the Heat pay for most of the night.

Aside from the lights out shooting from Shane Battier and Ray Allen, I came away from this one really impressed with Norris Cole. I thought he was everywhere in this game, making stellar plays in transition and when attacking the rim, snatching up seven rebounds, finding teammates and competing defensively. Mario Chalmers wasn’t bad himself – 13 points, five steals, four assists – but it appears as if Erick Spoelstra has reached the point where he is comfortable closing games with either on the floor. And in case you were wondering, plus/minus freak Chris Andersen had eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks in 17 minutes, during which the Heat outscored the Bulls by 14. I’m not a fan of individual plus/minus that isn’t adjusted for other factors, but Andersen has been a real difference maker for the Heat since they signed him last year.

lakersclipsIn what can easily be described as the biggest upset of the season, the Lakers – or, more specifically, the Lakers’ second unit – housed the Clippers, winning the fourth quarter 41-24 en route to a 13-point opening day victory. Throughout this entire game it was tough not to feel like the Lakers were showing a lot of heart to stay in the game, but that eventually the Clippers would exert their will and their large talent advantage would carry them to victory.

Instead, a mash unit made up of Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill vastly outplayed the Clippers down the stretch, using a spread pick-and-roll attack to cause the Clips’ D to fundamentally breakdown while they zoned off Chris Paul on pick-and-rolls and dared Blake Griffin to beat them (I’m not sure you can dare a star power forward to beat you anymore than by putting Wesley Johnson on him in the post). It was the first time since Mike D’Antoni was hired by the Lakers last season that it looked like the team was playing his style of basketball. Ironically, even with star talent like Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard on the floor last post-season, the offense never looked as good as it did with the second unit tonight (the Clippers’ horrendous defense played a large role in this, too).

Hats off to D’Antoni, too, for sticking to his word. In the pre-season he said that a lot of his line-up decisions would be made by the players and whoever was hot. He held true to that philosophy in this one, choosing not to disrupt the flow that Farmar and the second unit had, which meant keeping Nash, Blake and Gasol on the bench for the final 15 minutes of the game. Again, this is not a move I think D’Antoni would make last season, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that the Lakers didn’t have the kind of athletes that they do now. They may be no names and reclamation projects at best, but they competed and with a legit NBA point guard in Farmar piloting the attack, the Lakers were able to find open looks.

Xavier Henry looks like the most promising youngster of the bunch, outside of Farmar, of course, but he’s proven to an extent and should be the sixth man for this team. Henry had a career high 22 points in his Lakers debut, the high mark of of the team’s 76 bench points, and showed an array of skills attacking the rim and shooting from the outside. He’s never really shown the ability to knockdown jumpers consistently, but he made all three of his three-pointers, and his athleticism has always been his calling card. He had a nifty dunk in transition and had a eurostep on a drive to the rim that the Lakers haven’t seen from someone not named Kobe in a long time.

Johnson, who shot 1-for-11 from the field, with that one make being a critical three in the fourth quarter, also played a big role defensively. He was asked to guard Blake Griffin the post initially, and then the Lakers would tilt their defense toward Blake, sending help at him and putting him in tough spots. When he did try and score, Griffin looked uncomfortable to say the least. I think the Lakers had a great gameplan for playing small and defending Blake at the same time, and they also did a great job against Chris Paul the scorer.

The Clippers have to be worried about how their defense performed. The offense had some great movement for most of the night, but their defense fell apart quickly in the second half. Darren Collison was letting whoever was in front of him get to the rim with ease and the backline of the Clippers defense couldn’t withstand Farmar’s dribble penetration in the fourth quarter, which freed up the Lakers’ shooters. Now, the Lakers may never shoot the ball as well as they did in that fourth quarter again this season, but the shots were there because of the Clips’ breakdowns. The fact that the Clippers don’t have a reliable, or even decent, third big man is a huge deal – Ryan Hollins played four minutes while Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens didn’t see the floor. Perhaps this is a positive in that it will get DeAndre Jordan more minutes, but the Clippers aren’t going to be an elite defensive team without a quality back-up big.

This game may end up meaning nothing more than that crazy things can happy in the NBA, but there were some encouraging signs from the Lakers in this one – not the least of which is that Pau Gasol looks like the prototypical D’Antoni big when he’s shifted to center – and some things to worry about for Doc Rivers and the Clippers.

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.

duncan titles

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.

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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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