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Tim Duncan


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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.

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!”

Love Lost

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Miami Heat

The prominent theory when it comes to building a contender in a small market is that the team needs to bottom out and nab a superstar in the lottery in order to start down the path towards success. Coastal cities will inevitably attract star power as well as aging veterans looking to string out their careers with the added bonus of enjoyable scenery, so the best shot for the little guy is to build from within.

The San Antonio Spurs are the model franchise in this respect. They landed the number one overall pick back in 1997 and, despite some flirting with the Magic in 2000, Tim Duncan has been in San Antonio for 16 years. Even as Duncan had his team at the top of the standings each year, the Spurs were able to mine talent from unfamiliar territories to surround him with and they had the best coach in basketball to put everything together.

But as much as we want to admire San Antonio for being able to escape the confines of its market, doing so creates an impossibly high standard for every other small market franchise in the league. Over the last decade or so, the only other franchise that has been able to replicate San Antonio’s success was Oklahoma City, and not surprisingly they did so by hiring a young executive that grew up in the Spurs organization.

Another common thread between Oklahoma City and San Antonio that makes them more outliers than the standard is that the superstars that they built around were incredibly humble and devoted individuals; a different breed in today’s hyper, egotistical world of professional sports. Duncan almost went to Disneyworld back in 2000, but since then he’s never wavered in his loyalty to San Antonio, even taking massive paycuts in order to give his general manager financial flexibility. Durant is yet to enter his prime, but everything he’s said seems to indicate that he loves the quaint mid-western town that he’s in.

Those kinds of superstars are rare, and what’s even rarer is that the same front office that lucks into the top pick necessary to draft a Duncan or Durant is also capable of building a title contender around them. More often than not, the draw of being able to play with a star isn’t enough to offset the financial or lifestyle sacrifices that such a move would necessitate.

Thus, there is increased pressure on the executives to build through the draft. Oklahoma City was far better off than the Spurs since they landed the 4th overall pick in 2008 and the 3rd overall pick in 2009, which allowed them to take Russell Westbrook and James Harden, whereas the Spurs have yet to have a lottery pick of their own since they got Duncan. But because the Spurs are able to extract efficient production from just about anybody and because they’ve had so much success with foreign prospects, they also represent an uncommon string of effective personnel decisions that few teams can ever replicate.

This reliance on outstanding draft success as a substitute for big free agent signings has led to a severe decrease in championship windows for small market teams that draft players that would normally be considered capable of leading a team on multiple deep playoff runs.

LeBron James was able to get the Cavs to the Finals just once during his seven years there and he’s one of the 10 best players of all-time. But Cleveland never could put a roster together that complemented him as well as Miami’s roster, even without Dwyane Wade, does. Ditto for Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who carried the Magic to a Finals appearance before a series of dumbfounding decisions by Otis Smith had Dwight fleeing for Los Angeles and, eventually, Houston.

The latest causality is Minnesota Timberwolves, who appear to be on the verge of having to trade their star power forward for the second time in seven years. Kevin Love’s “people” have reportedly told the team that he will walk away from the franchise next off-season when he’s able to opt out of his current contract, which means the T’Wolves would be smart to start listening to trade offers so they can get something in return rather than seeing Love walk away for nothing.

It’s saddening, to say the least, that more small market teams that land superstars in the lottery wind up losing them rather than holding onto them for the majority of their career. It’s not about money; Bird Rights have been implemented for the specific purpose of giving small market teams the advantage when re-signing players by giving them an extra year to offer. And in the social media age, it’s not about endorsements or building a brand; LeBron was Nike’s co-star alongside Kobe from the day he entered the league, Howard was Adidas’ biggest endorser in Orlando and Love is already on your TV selling you Taco Bell.

Rubio’s selfless, endearing style may not be enough to keep Love in Minnesota.

More often than not, these divorces are related to poor supporting casts, and big cities act as a safehaven since, even if the front office is incompetent, the city and the opportunity to play with stars can sell itself to other big-time players. In the case of Minnesota, they have multiple opportunities to surround love with a strong supporting cast. After he got the best of Memphis with a draft night trade that landed Minny Love’s draft rights in exchange for O.J. Mayo back in 2008, David Kahn swung and missed in the draft three years in a row, including his infamous mishandling of his four first round picks in 2009.

Kahn’s decision to take Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn back-to-back with the 5th and 6th overall picks in 2009 will haunt the franchise forever. Rubio is a good player but his brilliant aesthetics and overall effectiveness are neutered by his never-ending search for a jumpshot, and Flynn was a total flop that didn’t last three full seasons in the league. To make matters worse, with the pick right after Flynn, the Golden State Warriors landed themselves a franchise changing talent in Stephen Curry, leading to a tremendous what-if regarding the potential trio of Rubio, Curry and Love.

Things didn’t get much better from there. Armed with the 4th overall pick in 2010 and the 2nd overall pick in 2011, Kahn drafted two players that are no longer on the roster, one of which played for the league minimum this season: Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams. Minnesota’s streak of misses continued even after Kahn was gone, as Flip Saunders’ first move as team president was drafting Trey Burke and trading him for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. While Dieng had a strong run to close the season, Muhammad, the higher selection of the two, seems to be a long way from lottery-like production.

Even with a strong coach like Rick Adelman, the Timberwolves struggled to survive in the rugged Western Conference. Granted, they dealt with some severely unfair injury issues over the past two seasons, but given the state of their roster relative to the rest of the conference, it’s safe to assume that a playoff berth would have been the extent of their accomplishments. And as much as you want a player like Love to stay in Minnesota and keep the franchise relevant as he enters into his prime as one of the brightest stars in the league, can you really blame him for pursuing a shot at success?

It will be interesting to see if the league deems this a problem big enough to address when the new CBA is up for negotiations, if they decide it is a problem at all. At the end of the day, the result of these superstar fallouts it getting ultra-talented players to places that maximize their earning potential. And even as the Timberwolves would be set back for five or six years as they try to hit the lottery again in the draft, a team like Milwaukee will experience a brief upswing up until Andrew Wiggins decides to bolt for the beaches. It’s a cyclical process.

But perhaps the league is right not to address the increased number of fleeting small market stars since the underlying and most prominent issue is inept front offices and coaching staffs. Had Kahn drafted like Sam Presti and had Danny Ferry and Mike Brown crafted a culture like the one they experienced during their time in San Antonio, perhaps Love and LeBron are still pumping money into those small market economies.

Then again, maybe the Spurs and Thunder have just gotten our hopes up. Their success inspires other small market franchises to follow their blueprint, but in reality, they are deviations from the norm whose commendable coups still pale in comparison to those of the Lakers and Celtics and whose admirable triumphs are far less likely to sustain past a generation than a franchise whose arena is within a few miles of beaches or Broadway.

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.


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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.


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.


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.

Lighting The Fire

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You hate to think that in game six of the NBA Finals, with your team trailing in the series 3-2 and fighting for its season, that some players still need something extra to get them going. You’d like to think that having a championship at stake, a championship that could greatly affect your legacy, would have players digging down as deep as possible in an attempt to pull out a victory for himself, his teammates, his fans, his city. You’d like to think that silly things like a headband or a yellow rope wouldn’t play a factor in an elimination game in the NBA Finals.

But perhaps some players are just wired differently. Perhaps some players need something more than a championship to play for. Perhaps some players don’t have total trust in themselves, and need to be reminded of their powers every once in a while. Perhaps for some a headband or a yellow rope can change your mindset. Perhaps “some players” is LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

James is the most obvious culprit of the bunch, if only because we’ve seen him be curiously tentative in several big moments, as he was to start game six. But things seemed to change for LeBron in the fourth quarter. After starting off the period well, cutting San Antonio’s 10 point lead to four in the blink of an eye, James found another level within himself to help lead Miami on an unbelievable fourth quarter run.

As James went up for a putback slam on an errant Mario Chalmers jumper with nine minutes left in the game, his headband got caught on the net on his way down, falling to the court as LeBron sprinted back on defense. I don’t want to overreact to a player having his headband knocked off, but please allow me to overreact to a player having his headband knocked off.

LeBron rid himself of a lot of self doubt when he won the 2012 title, but it still seems like he has times when he prefers not to miss the big shot, instead creating looks for others; those looks for his teammates are usually great ones, but occasionally James makes a mistake by passing rather than attacking himself. At the end of the third quarter last night, James was 3-of-12 from the field and was once again putting on an oddly passive performance in what can easily be deemed one of the biggest games of his career. He was still playing solid defense, rebounding and passing, but the Heat needed him to get going as scorer to open up chances for himself at the rim and at the line as well as high efficient spot-up looks for his teammates.

Losing that headband in the heat of the battle and then deciding that the game was too important to look for another one to put on gave us LeBron at his most genuine. James has received just as much flak for his receding hairline as he has for his play over the past few years, and he’s clearly sensitive about it. So for him to be on the floor on the biggest stage of his life, without that trusty headband, was big, so much that pundits from all over began to wonder if this was going to be “the headband game.” As stupid as it sounds, perhaps the headband was the last trace left of LeBron’s insecurity, and playing without it finally allowed him to just be himself.

“I’ve never seen him play without his headband that long,” Wade said. “He got very aggressive. He really got to the paint and and he was going to give everything that he had, and he did. He had an unbelievable fourth quarter for us.”

No matter how outlandish that theory sounds, there’s no denying that James was a changed man post-headband. With a naked foreheard and his home fans imploring him to strike during every timeout, literally screaming at him to be more aggressive, James transformed into the dominant MVP he was during the regular season.

LeBron was demanding the ball on post-ups, making aggressive moves towards the basket, comfortably stepping into his shots. Then there was an end-to-end sequence that will be remembered forever if the Heat win game seven. With a little under seven minutes left in the fourth, James came over from the weakside to reject what would have been a wide open Tim Duncan lay-up, raced the ball up the floor, curled around a screen and met Duncan in the paint. After having lost this tussle with Timmy several times before in this series, James gave Duncan a headfake, thrusting the ball in the air as if he was going up, getting Duncan to move just an inch away from the rim, allowing James to sneak under him for the bankshot.

The Heat would take the lead on the very next play, and it seemed as if Miami had made a miraculous comeback to force a game seven. All of that changed in an instant, though, because with this series, you can’t expect any narrative or trend to last more than five minutes.

Miami seemed in control with a three point lead and 1:39 remaining, mostly because of James’ resurgent performance but also because the Heat defense was stifling the Spurs, refusing to give them any good looks off from three-point land. At worst, Miami would still have a one-point lead the next time they touched the ball. So what happened? After Miami defended him perfectly for 20 seconds, Tony Parker decided to launch a stepback three in the face of LeBron, and it went down, tying the game. On Miami’s next possession, Parker snuck into the paint and stole a pass from Mario Chalmers; Parker then dribbled up the floor, came off a pick, stopped on a dime in the paint, spun around and launched a floater to give the Spurs a lead with less than a minute left. All of a sudden, the Spurs were about to be crowned NBA champions.

No more than 20 seconds later, this much was clear to everybody. After two LeBron turnovers and a few Spurs free throws, San Antonio was up five with half a minute left. Heat fans were leaving the arena, those remaining had looks of disbelief on their face and about two dozen security staff members surrounded the court, waiting to prop up the yellow rope for San Antonio’s trophy presentation.

But just as the Spurs started to taste that celebratory champagne, the Heat big three all caught wind of that feeble yellow rope. Apparently, it was that sight that made the Heat collectively realize that San Antonio would be partying on their home floor if they didn’t pull something crazy out of their hats in the 11th hour. And that’s what they did.

“I saw the rope,” Spurs guard Gary Neal said. “Everybody saw the rope.”

“I got pissed,” Chris Bosh said.

“When they brought out that yellow rope,” Wade said. “And you know you’re not the one that’s going to celebrate, we kept fighting and believing. We played to the last second.”

“We seen the championship board already out there, the yellow tape,” James said. “That’s why you play the game to the final buzzer.”

Honestly, is that rope going to stop a crazed fan from getting onto the court? (Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports)

Thanks to some timely missed free throws from Kawhi Leonard and Ginobili, as well as some mind boggling substitutions by Gregg Popovich (taking Duncan off the floor for two defensive possessions), the Heat completed the comeback. Duncan’s absence was key because both of Miami’s made threes in the last 20 seconds came off of offensive rebounds; the first loose carom leading to a LeBron James triple and the season saving board by Chris Bosh leading to Ray Allen hitting the shot of his career to tie the game with five seconds left.

Second life was given to the Heat when Allen drained that triple, and their defense went on to dominate the overtime period. LeBron locked up Parker, Wade had a couple of key defensive rotations on the backline and Bosh was absolutely tremendous, providing help in all of the right places, often times defending two or three actions directly on one play while still having to guard against some indirect actions. While it wasn’t as glamorous or as sustained as their game four performance, the defense they played in overtime was one of the big three’s best collective efforts. As Duncan, Parker and Ginobili seemed to wear down, the Heat found a reserve tank deep inside themselves and gutted out and extremely tense five minutes of basketball to force a game seven.

And how fitting was it, given what he said before the game and how many key (yet unnoticed) plays he made down the stretch, for Bosh to finish the game the way he did?

Down three with 1.9 seconds left, the Spurs drew up a play to get Danny Green a look on a flare screen in an attempt to tie the game. Allen was tasked of sticking with Green on the play, but Tiago Splitter set a good screen, freeing up Green as he faded to the corner. But there was Bosh, the man who proclaimed prior to the game that Danny Green would not be open in this game, tracking him every step of the way, standing right in front of him when he caught the ball and cleanly rejecting his shot to end the game.

As the buzzer sounded, Bosh let out a loud roar, tossing the ball across the building as the American Airlines Arena erupted.

There would be no trophy presentation last night.

But at least now I am sure of something for the first time during this series: somebody will win the NBA Title on Thursday night. And I can’t wait to find out who it will be.

Still Got It

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When Manu Ginobili’s illustrious and Hall-of-Fame NBA career comes to an end, perhaps as soon as next Thursday, he will have a career as a high school physics teacher waiting for him if he wants it. I mean, who could demonstrate the laws of motion better than a player who constantly bends space and time with fathomless passes? And during his off period Manu could swing on down to room 122 to show those Geometry students a thing or two about mastering angles and trajectory.

Or perhaps Ginobili would be better off as an optometrist, or, better yet, a therapist, so he could help others see the things that aren’t in plain sight; that three-point shooter raising from the corner to the wing on the weakside or that annoying habit you have when you eat dinner that really bothers your spouse.

Or maybe Manu will seek out a career as an artist; after all, he’s illustrated countless masterpieces on the 94 by 50 foot hardwood canvas that the Spurs have provided him with.

Ginobili’s adaptable and resourceful personality will present him with many new vocations to pursue when he’s done with basketball, but no profession would be more apt than a career in theater.

Forget the delightful aesthetics of Manu’s game that make him a treasure to watch, it’s his flair for the dramatic and his infatuation with the big stage that suit him so well to act scene-by-scene as well as he plays quarter-by-quarter. Of course, it’s hard to tell how compelling Ginobili’s performances would be without Pop acting as the screenwriter, his script filling the arena with anticipation on Sunday night, but all that matters is that those two combined for another classic in game five, and now the Spurs are one win away from another fairytale ending.

It all started with Gregg Popovich offering a buoyant “Maybe” when he was asked if his starting line-up would stay the same for game five. At first, I thought this meant that Gary Neal, who replaced Tiago Splitter just 47 seconds after the tip in game four, would be inserted into the starting line-up to match Miami’s smallball attack. But as the game crept closer and closer, there was more and more chatter around the AT&T Center that it would be Ginobili getting the start and not Neal.

Starting Ginobili has been Pop’s trump card over the past two seasons. When Oklahoma City came back to tie the 2012 Western Conference Finals, Pop started Ginobili in games five and six, and though the Spurs lost both of those games, Manu played extremely well and helped the team match the Thunder’s production, at least until they brought their own Manu into the game. With Miami going small and winning game four, Popovich saw last night’s game as an opportunity not only to even the playing field when it came to floor spacing, but also get Ginobili going early in the game.

Once I heard Ginobili would start, I knew exactly how game five was going to play out. After playing four of the worst games of his playoff career, a dejected Ginobili was injected into the starting line-up, hearing a thunderous “Manu” chant when his name was announced last amongst the Spurs starters. For the past two days everyone had been wondering when vintage Manu would make an appearance, and it didn’t take long for him answer the call.

“I think that first shot was huge, because that was not even a play for him,” Tony Parker said after the game.

No, it was not. The first play call of the game for the Spurs was a down screen for Tony Parker on the left block after which he would spring to the left wing and flow into a side pick-and-roll with Tim Duncan. But Ginobili was handling up high, and he decided that Parker wasn’t quite open enough on his cut, waving him off before moving into his own pick-and-roll roll with Duncan. The Heat switched the pick-and-roll, putting Chris Bosh on Ginobili. Manu strung out his dribble for a second or two before stepping back, creating an inch of space before rising up and launching a long jumper over Bosh. Money.

San Antonio’s next play was also not meant to have Ginobili decide the outcome, but Danny Green snuck into the paint on a backcut and Manu riffled a pass to him for the easy lay-up. The next time up the floor the call was a straight post-up for Tim Duncan on the left block, but with Bosh overplaying him and the help defense too far away, Duncan popped his eyes out, his way of telling of Manu to throw him the ball, and once again, Ginobili delivered a picture perfect pass, allowing Duncan to throw one down. Next possession, another Duncan post-up was called, this time on the right block; Miami’s defense succeeded in preventing the entry pass on this try, but the Spurs reversed the ball, eventually finding Ginobili on the left wing, where he had an angle on Mike Miller and drove to the free throw line, drawing the foul.

If you’re scoring at home: the Spurs scored eight points on their first four possessions, with each point coming as a direct result of Manu Ginobili’s work. Later in the first, Ginobili would add a three-point shot to his total. Ginobili wouldn’t be heavily involved in the action again as a scorer until later in the game, a sign of his mortality, but his ability to control the game showed once again in the final minutes of the the third quarter. With the Heat down just four, Manu delivered another spurt that took the Spurs to another level.

manuTo get things started with 2:21 left in the period, Ginobili drives baseline past Ray Allen, floating it in with his left hand, plus the foul. It is now when the fans decide to indulge in another “Manu! Manu! Manu!” chant as he steps to the free throw line. Ginobili responds by taking it to the Heat in semi-transition on the next play, crossing over, leaning into Norris Cole and flipping in another close range shot. Then, on what seems to be a lost possession, Gary Neal kicks it to a stagnant Ginobili in the corner, hands on his knees as he catches his breath. Manu catches, takes one step inside the arc and tosses it to Splitter on the roll for the wide open lay-up.

Off a Heat turnover, Ginobili operates a high screen-and-roll with Splitter masterfully, toying with the defense by the rejecting the screen, twirling around, and then rejecting it again, finding himself wide open from deep. It doesn’t fall. Looking to redeem himself, Ginobili calls an isolation for himself to end the quarter, driving hard to his right on Cole before floating one off the glass as Udonis Haslem flies over to help. It goes.

After struggling to fit in during the first four games of this series, Ginobili played game five about as perfectly as he could have. He finally found the perfect balance between being aggressive and making all of the right plays out of pick-and-rolls and on isolations. It’s a more difficult transition than you’d think, especially for someone who has too much pride to eagerly admit he’s not his old self, but those problems were all solved last night. Manu scored 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting while dishing out 10 critical and marvelous assists and posting a game high +19, expertly shifting from aggressive scorer mode into selfless teammate mode, putting on whichever cape he sensed his team needed him to wear at a given time. With the Manu tile finally in place, the Spurs big three finally hummed in unison, with Parker putting on a teardrop show and carving up Miami’s defense while Duncan notched his umpteenth “quiet” double-double with stellar defensive play in the paint.

For a series that has been so wildly unpredictable, you could see this Ginobili performance from a mile away. Ginobili may have been doubted by outsiders, but his teammates and his coach never lost faith in him, and the decision to start Manu and to put him front and center in their last game of the season in front of the home crowd really got him going.

“I needed it,” Ginobili said. “I was having a tough time scoring, and I needed to feel like the game was coming to me, and (tonight) I was able to attack the rim, get to the free‑throw line, and make a couple of shots.”

“It felt great when I heard (the Manu chants),” Ginobili continued. “To feel that I really helped the team to get that 20‑point lead, it was a much‑needed moment in the series. I was glad to see it happen.”

During the break between the third and fourth quarter, the crowd starts up another “Manu! Manu! Manu!” chant, this one lasting about a full minute. On the first possession of the fourth, a clearly exuberant Ginobili calls for a screen from Splitter, using it as a decoy to set up his move. As Splitter arrives, Manu sprints from the top of the key to the left wing, stepping back and launching an awkard fadeaway three over Mario Chalmers. It’s an airball.

This is the Manu Ginobili we all know and love; you put up with the blunders – the errant shots, the devastating fouls, the head scratching passes – because when it works – the no-look dishes, the pick pocket steals, the sweet touch from deep, the mind-numbing creativity – there’s nothing more pleasant, nothing so slick. And Manu may have made up for a lifetime of blunders last night, because, with one more win, the Spurs will be NBA Champions once again.

And now Ginobili will be able hold that title with glee, knowing his team didn’t win in spite of him, but, in part, because of him.

How The Heat Ramped Up Their Defense

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NBA: Finals-Miami Heat at San Antonio Spurs

The biggest difference between game three and game four of the 2013 NBA Finals was quite obviously the play of the Miami Heat big three. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had their best combined scoring outing as a trio in their three-year post-season run and their aggressiveness and confidence offensively was too much for the Spurs to handle.

But looking deeper, the involvement of those three players on the defensive end may have been just as important as their offense contributions. While we generally don’t view defense as equally important to offense from an individual perspective, the collective defense that the Heat played in game four was tremendous, and it had a ton to do with the individual brilliance of James, Wade and Bosh.

Let’s take a look at a few key areas where Miami’s aggressive defense hurt the Spurs.

Side screen and roll coverage

No defensive adjustment was more obvious than the way that the Heat handled San Antonio’s side pick-and-rolls in game four. While it may not have been a true adjustment from game three, seeing as the Heat simply didn’t execute may of their defensive coverages in that contest, the difference in their attention to detail when guarding one of San Antonio’s staple sets was very impactful in the outcome of the game.

First, let’s take a look at how Miami defended the side screen-and-roll between Parker and Duncan in game three.

Mike Miller rotates from properly from the weakside to stop Duncan from getting right to the rim, but he has no chance guarding Duncan one-on-one, as he is forced to do here. You can see in the still below that Bosh is late in getting over to Duncan to trap, allowing the Big Fundamental to get an angle on Miller for an easy lay-up. Oh, and Kawhi Leonard is wide open for the dropoff/offensive board, too. This one photo tells you all you need to know about how hard the Heat played in game three. While that is ridiculously frustrating, that’s a different story for a different day.


Now let’s take a look at how Miami defended those side pick-and-rolls last night.


Look at the difference in the help that Bosh is giving in this still from the fourth quarter of game four.

Bosh has already corralled Manu Ginobili and forced the pass and has made the extra effort to get to Duncan ASAP to double him on the baseline. Tiago Splitter is actually doing a good job fighting off Wade to get inside position to burn Battier for helping on Duncan, but the combined length and agility of Bosh and Battier make life hell for Duncan, who has no wiggle room and no clear sightline to make a perfect pass. The result was a poor pass that Splitter ended up saving, but by the time Green had the ball in the corner on an iso, the Heat had already won the possession (Green then turned it over, by the way, which was followed by Wade’s beautiful eurostep slam over Gary Neal).

Here’s another example from later in the fourth.


I bet Mike Miller, a man whose bones are as fragile as my mom’s Fine China, appreciates having a bit of help in stopping one of the best post scorers in NBA history in one of his favorite areas. Duncan is even farther out in this example than usual, and he has no good options. Any pass to Neal or Leonard will be intercepted by James or Chalmers, and Cory Joseph is not a threat to burn Miami from deep. Duncan ended up lobbing a pass way across the court to Joseph that sailed too far, resulting in a turnover. That’s how Miami drew it up.

Making Green and Neal drivers

After allowing one of the greatest shooting displays in league to take place against their vaunted defense, the Heat came into game four determined to make Neal and Green beat them from anywhere on the court besides behind the arc. The duo still made six threes, but Neal was hitting some crazy deep pull-up shots that Miami will live with and I’ll touch on Green in a moment.

The Heat had their wing players run at Green and Neal like crazy, completing conceding the blow by/drive to two players who haven’t crafted efficient off-the-dribble games just yet, trusting that the help would be there from the backline (and my God was it almost always there). When the help was there, this made Neal and Green rely heavily on floaters.

Here is Miller running hard at Green in the second quarter in an attempt to make him put the ball on the floor.


Miller is beat here, but that’s Miami’s scheme. They are trusting Wade to bother Green’s shot a bit and for the rest of the Heat players to crash the boards hard to keep Leonard off the offensive glass.


Here is a play a little later in the second quarter where the Heat execute their side pick-and-roll coverage perfectly followed by running Green off the three-point line and forcing a very awkward floater.

Running really good three-point shooters off of the three-point line seems like something you should do to begin a series, but it’s better late than never, and Miami has figured out that Green and Neal as drivers is a LOT less scary than anything else the Spurs can throw at you.

Picking on poor Tiago Splitter

Splitter looks a lot more like the guy who got benched in the Western Conference Finals last year rather than the player that showed so much improvement during the regular season (and even against Memphis). Athletic teams that can go small simply make for a horrible match for Splitter, as his game on both ends of the floor is made less effective when the players he is guarding are much faster than he is.

San Antonio loves to get Splitter rolling down the middle of the lane on high pick-and-rolls, but look how the Heat take that away from him while making it look so easy.

Miami’s trap leaves Splitter open on the dive, but that defender from the weakside corner has snuck over to make Splitter’s life a living hell once again. This time it’s Wade poking the ball away from an unsuspecting Splitter and getting an easy steal.

And there’s LeBron picking on Splitter again, this time channeling his inner Nostradomus and making the picture perfect read on the pass that Splitter wants to make to Kawhi Leonard in the corner, literally ripping the ball from the Brazilian’s hands. What’s worse is that all of these Splitter turnovers are wasting what are some of basketballs most beautiful passes from Manu Ginobili.

One San Antonio counter: The double high screen-and-roll

The Spurs showed off a double high pick-and-roll look in the second half to counter Miami’s aggressiveness and it worked a couple of times. The reason the play works is because they have the big man set the first screen and dive into the rim, drawing a defender, while Parker comes around the second screen and gets trapped by two players, leaving Green wide open for a three. If that third defender sticks with Allen, then the responsibility falls on the baseline defender to slide over and help, but that would mean leaving Kawhi Leonard open in his favorite spot; as you can see, Miami isn’t the only team whose spacing causes major problems for the opponent.

Here’s the double high screen in action.


With Parker turning the corner and getting into the paint, his drive and Duncan’s roll have sunk three defenders into the paint, leaving Green wide open from beyond the arc.


Here’s the play in real time.

The Spurs have run this set a lot for Matt Bonner during this post-season, and adding Green as a screener is a great wrinkle that can really bend Miami’s aggressive defense. I’m sure will see more of this going forward in the series.


Whether or not Miami can keep up this intensity for another 48 minutes on Sunday night is a valid question, but they proved that the schemes in place are effective when the players exert themselves to execute them. And that may make the Heat the only team in the league that can say that they’ve found a blueprint that can take way even half of the looks that the Spurs love to search for.

Heat Big Three Finally Arrives To The Finals

in NBA by

There was one sequence during the Miami Heat’s 109-93 game four victory over the San Antonio Spurs that perfectly summed up the game.

It came during the fourth quarter, which is when the Heat started gaining firm control of things. There were eight minutes left in the game and the Heat were up seven following a beautiful Dwyane Wade floater. The Spurs came down the floor and ran one of their staple plays: a side screen-and-roll between Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. Manu executed the play well versus Miami’s trap, finding Duncan open on the roll to the baseline, where Timmy was met by Shane Battier on the help before Chris Bosh came over and gave Duncan a hard double team. This was something that the Spurs saw a ton of last night, as Miami’s defense was suffocating any space the Spurs created, particularly anytime that Duncan got the ball on that baseline.

Miami’s double on this particular instance restricted Duncan’s movement and his passing lanes, and he missed what would usually be an elementary pass to Splitter underneath the basket, with the ball caroming off Splitter’s finger tips. Splitter didn’t give up on the play, though, and saved the ball from going out of bounds by tossing it to Danny Green. In game three, Green probably would have calmly released the corner three over Ray Allen, but the Heat made a smart adjustment in game four, forcing Green and Gary Neal to beat them on the drive. Green got down into a triple-threat position and began driving baseline before he was walled off from the paint by Allen and Battier. As a player unfamiliar with creating off-the-dribble, Green made a risky pass to Ginobili on the wing that was stolen by Wade, who was waiting in the weeds for that exact play.

Wade caught the ball with some momentum and blew past Ginobili, getting to halfcourt with only Gary Neal in sight. Neal had a couple of feet on Wade and was darting at angle in an attempt to cut him off. In game three, Neal may have been able to deter Wade’s journey to the rim or perhaps he would have swiped at the ball to force a turnover. But on this night, with everything going Miami’s way, Wade would flashback to his days as Flash, pulling off a vintage Wade move, eurostepping past Neal’s body and into the paint while simultaneously gathering the ball above Neal’s head. Once Wade had brushed off Neal, he threw down a monster slam, gritting his teeth on his up the floor.

It was a microcosm of the entire evening. The Spurs executed their offense the way they want to against Miami’s initial traps, but the Heat’s backline rotations were just flawless for the majority of game four, forcing the ball out of the hands of Parker, Ginobili and Duncan and making Neal and Green beat them as drivers and not jumpshooters. Miami’s swarming defensive philosophy is a high risk-high reward system that can lend itself to very bad beatdowns if the effort and attention to detail isn’t there (we learned this in game three), but a 2-1 deficit brought that next level intensity out of the Heat once again, and they just gobbled up the Spurs offense in the second half while forcing 18 turnovers for the game.

Bosh was so key in this. As the Heat shifted to a smallball line-up, Bosh was left as the lone big on the floor for Miami for most of the night, and his help defense on drives and pick-and-rolls was unbelievable. Bosh, who finished with 13 rebounds and finally had a good shooting game (20 points on 8-of-14), was as tuned in defensively as he has been in a few weeks. People forget this element of Miami going small, the fact that they still have to protect the rim with a nominal power forward that was once thought of as a bad defender. But give Bosh a ton of credit, he’s put in the work to become a much better defender and his ability to anchor the paint with four perimeter players around him is a big reason the Heat were able to win the title in 2012, and a big reason they are back in the hunt for the 2013 title.

And there was Wade, finishing off that play as he did so many others on this night: with the athletic grace and vitality that made him such a special player in his prime. While LeBron James was the game’s leading scorer and certainly answered the call to be more aggressive in this game, it was Wade’s offensive contributions that helped take the Heat to another level. Wade talked a lot about stepping into the mid-range shots that the Spurs were conceding to he and LeBron with confidence, and both players did that last night. It’s not that surprising for James, who has become an elite shooter, but it was shocking to see Wade comfortably taking those outside shots and making a few, bad knee and all. And when the Spurs sagged off of him when he didn’t have the ball, Wade made cunning cuts on the baseline to find good looks at the rim.

Wade also had a lot more burst in the paint than we have seen from him in this series, and he was able to finish baskets at the rim for the first time in what seems like forever. Given that the Spurs had previously declared that part of the court off limits for Miami’s stars, it was huge for Wade to wiggle his way into the paint so often. After shooting just 16 shots in the restricted area in the first three games of this series, Wade took 12 shots at the rim last night and converted on 10 of them. In addition to his old school eurostep dunk over Neal, Wade also had some really pretty finishes with contact and over size. Wade finished with 32 points, six rebounds, six steals and four assists; as pundits like myself wondered if Wade still had it in him to perform at this level, Flash made an appearance to show us that he still had it in him.

It was, as LeBron said, the kind of game that let’s you know that you’re still one bad man.

Speaking of James, he also stumbled upon some rhythm in this game. After the first few minutes of the first quarter, I was starting to believe that James was going to play another tentative game, as the Spurs jumped out to a 15-5 lead with LeBron not touching the ball on most plays. But Erick Spoelstra must have said something during that timeout – perhaps he ribbed James for listening to Imagine Dragons in that Beats by Dre commercial – or maybe that was when LeBron personally decided to ditch the team first attitude for a stretch, because he was a different player for the rest of the night after that.

After scoring just one point in the first five minutes of the game, James ended up with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the final seven minutes of the period, putting him well on his way to the 33 points on 60% shooting that he finished with. During that late first quarter stretch was the first time that I saw LeBron constantly pushing the ball in transition after Spurs misses, which allowed James to get to the rim with ease for fastbreak lay-ups, something we haven’t seen the Spurs concede until last night. It was simply a matter of James deciding to put his head down and attack the paint despite the bodies by the rim, and he may have finally realized that he can finish over almost anybody most of the time.

You could tell that James had found his zone in this game because of his confidently he was stepping into his shots off pick-and-rolls. He wasn’t taking a couple of seconds to think about what the Spurs were offering anymore, he was taking whatever they would give him instantly, knowing he could make them pay. After struggling to find his mid-range stroke in the first three games, James shot a ridiculous 7-of-9 from 16-23 feet in game four as he finally discovered his shot. I doubt that Wade will be able to offer up another high volume scoring game by way of the jumpshot, but James getting in rhythm with his outside shot takes his game, as well as the Heat’s overall attack, to another level, and could spell danger for the Spurs.

We had been wondering when the Miami Heat’s big three would show up to these 2013 NBA Finals, and they were nearly too late. But Wade, James and Bosh all played tremendous games last night and it came just in time to steal back homecourt advantage without digging themselves too big of a hole. Now it’s time to wonder when San Antonio’s big three will finally arrive in unison, as Parker has been spotty, Duncan has been quiet and Ginobili has been straight up depressing (it hurts watching such a fierce competitor like Manu go out like this).

Who will show up? Will Ginobili get back on track? Will Parker be healthy? Will LeBron keep it up? Does Wade have another big time performance left in the tank?

“I guess there’s only one way to find out,” Wade said. “See you Sunday.”

Yes, you will, Dwyane. Because this series is way too eccentrically entertaining to miss.

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