Hi-o Silver, Away
I do vaguely remember in my sports-blackout period hearing about the San Antonio Spurs winning a championship or two, and it surprised me at the time. I didn’t remember them seeming like a team destined for greatness when I was paying attention in the mid-90s, and unlike the three-peating Lakers, where I knew about Shaq and Kobe and understood completely how they could become dynastic, I couldn’t name a single player on the Spurs, and had no idea what they were supposed to be about. I figured that they were just one of those teams that sort of lucked into a championship due to luck and a weak pool of competition–it seemed to happen all the time in baseball, anyway–and didn’t have anything near that sort of legendary caliber, certainly nothing necessitating use of the D word.
Now that I’ve been paying attention and learned a little bit about the last ten years of basketball, I can’t say that the Spurs make any more sense to me. You’re telling me that a team centered around a perpetually sullen power forward who seems like he’d shy away from a fight with Tiger Woods, a French point guard who looks like a dead ringer for The Brain (cartoon mouse, not anatomical organ), and an Argentinian bench player that’s already going bald–you’re telling me these guys have won four of the last nine championships? All right, the team’s evolved a little over the last nine years, the first one was more about Duncan and David Robinson, and players like Stephen Jackson, Avery Johnson, Speedy Claxton, Sean Elliot and Glenn Robinson have all played parts passing through their championship runs. But when people think back on the Spur superpower of the last ten years, it’ll be Tony, Timmy and Manu that immediately come to mind. And that’s just weird.
The Spurs’ activity during the Western Conference’s arms race in the second half of the season told me everything I really needed to know about the team. While the Jazz and Rockets were sliding their final pieces into place, Lakers were stealing all-stars from the Grizzlies, and the Suns and the Mavs were mortgaging their futures on ancient future-Hall-of-Famers, what did the Spurs do? They added Damon Stoudamire and Kurt Thomas–two solid, reliable veterans that probably weren’t going to add anything to the team but fundamentals and stability. And that, I realized, was the San Antonio Spurs. No flash, no risk/reward, no headlines, no fun. Just results.
The New England Patriots were the obvious point of comparison for me–another perennial title contender constructed with factory-like precision and role delegation. This is especially apt when considering the coach/puppeteers of both teams–both are cold, no-nonsense, do-what-it-takes figures that always seem to be a step or two ahead of their red-blooded brethren. But I didn’t realize just how similar Gregg Popovich was to Bill Belichick until I saw Popovich signaling for the Hack-a-Shaq in game three of the Suns-Spurs series, and I got flashes of The Emperor, which happened at least once a game when I was watching the Pats in the post-season.
Nonetheless, I’m not sure the comparison is completely accurate, because the feeling of threat I got from the two teams was quitnessentially different. When I was watching the Patriots, it felt like they were always going to win. When I was watching the Spurs, it felt they were never going to lose. And there’s a difference there–the Patriots were a team that wowed, a team that regularly had blow-out wins that felt like they were never going to end, a team that obviously had the most talented roster in the NFL and by all rights, should win every game. The Spurs, on the other hand, didn’t really wow, barely ever blew out the other team, and often seemed outskilled by the competition–I remember a game this year when they were down three with seconds to go to the fucking Knicks. But they came back to win in that game, just like they always seemed to come back to win. I never understood it, I never wanted to believe in it, but it always seemed to happen–cemented recently by their Game 7 victory in New Orleans, after being down 2-0 and 3-2 earlier in the series. Couldn’t anyone put these guys away for good?
This really must be the Lakers’ year, then, and Kobe’s specifically. The Spurs are the team that’s supposed to come back from 17 in two different games in the same series to win squeakers–hell, they did it earlier this postseason against the Suns, which was like the basketball equivalent of watching Barack Obama lose close margins in several key states to a suddenly steamrolling John McCain. And yet somehow the Lakers were able to turn the tables on the Black and Silver, thanks mostly to two titanic second-half performances by Kobe Bryant, who re-affirmed his MVP status and then some in this series, closing in a way even the mighty Chris Paul was seemingly unable to do. Before the playoffs, everyone was talking about the possibility of a Celts-Lakers finale, but I never believed it would actually happen, especially with the league’s worst-case scenario–another Spurs/Pistons finals–still an all-too-feasible possibility. Now the C’s are one game away from making the dream a reality. Maybe it all just had to happen like this.
I’d like to believe that this loss signals, as some have suggested, not only the end of the Spurs’ season, but the end of their reign in general. And with most of the team seemingly in their 50s, the ascending teams in the west (Jazz, Hornets) strong and getting stronger, young teams like the Warriors and the Blazers possibly poised to take the next big step in ’08-’09, and now the Lakers looking like an emerging NBA superpower, it seems like the changing of the guard might finally have arrived. But despite the loss here, I’ve learned my lesson this year about counting the Spurs out. Or before you know it, we could be talking about five of the last eleven.