King James and His Court Can't Stop Spurs' CoronationThis article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 6/15/07
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich previously said that the 2007 NBA Finals are setting offensive basketball back 10 years, so San Antonio’s 83-82 Game 4 victory was a fitting way to conclude matters. The Spurs won despite shooting .381 from the field and .688 from the free throw line. Tony Parker clinched the Finals MVP by scoring 24 points on 10-14 shooting. Manu Ginobili had a game-high 27 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter. In the post-game press conference, Tim Duncan looked at the boxscore with dismay and described his performance as subpar; he then laughed and said, "We’re sticklers...we should appreciate and enjoy the win (but) we’re all competitors and it defines us as competitors." He had six turnovers and finished with just 12 points on 4-15 field goal shooting and 4-10 free throw shooting. On the positive side, he did grab a game-high 15 rebounds and his strong defense in the paint played a big role in Cleveland’s poor shooting. LeBron James led Cleveland with 24 points and 10 assists but said, "I have to be 10 times better." James shot 10-30 from the field and committed six turnovers, many of which he candidly admitted were unforced.
The Spurs have won three titles in the past five years and four in Tim Duncan’s ten year career. This was the first time that the Spurs won the Finals with a sweep and just the eighth Finals sweep in NBA history. Duncan and Popovich are the two constants in what has to be ranked as one of the NBA’s great dynasties; the Spurs join the Boston Celtics, L.A. Lakers and Chicago Bulls as the only franchises in NBA history to win at least four championships. The only slight blemish on their run is that they have yet to win in consecutive years but when Popovich was asked about that after the game he replied, "I don’t give a (expletive deleted)" before apologizing for his language. He certainly has little else for which to apologize or express regret. Parker said, "I can definitely give a lot of credit to Coach Pop because I would never be here without him." Duncan attributes much of the Spurs’ success to Popovich’s leadership: "He’s the one who puts us together. He’s the guy that makes it run. He’s the one that stays on us no matter how well or how badly we’re playing. He finds the right way to approach us. I can say no more than he defines the team. He always has and as long as he’s here he always will." Cleveland Coach Mike Brown, who was an assistant coach under Popovich when the Spurs won the 2003 championship, also offered high praise for Popovich: "He doesn’t get enough credit. He doesn’t get enough credit for his Xs and Os but, more importantly, he doesn’t get enough credit for his people skills. He’s a tremendous teacher and a tremendous person and he’s the reason that organization is where it’s at."
Some people will surely try to diminish the Spurs’ dynasty status by suggesting that the Cavaliers were perhaps the worst team to ever appear in the NBA Finals but that objection does not stand up to close scrutiny for two reasons: (1) Three previous Finalists had losing records--the Minneapolis Lakers in 1958-59 (.458 winning percentage), the 1956-57 St. Louis Hawks (.472) and the 1980-81 Houston Rockets (.488). The Cavaliers went 50-32 (.610) and that included a 19-10 (.655) mark against the Western Conference, so they did not just fatten their record up by beating Eastern Conference teams. Two of those 19 wins were against the Spurs; (2) as Tim Duncan pointed out prior to the Finals, "This is the toughest road that we've had to a Finals...Denver was unbelievable with the two scorers they had and the physicality they have; Phoenix, of course (posed a great challenge); Utah did one heck of a job and you know what they're going to bring to the table." Moreover, not only were several NBA Finalists statistically worse than the Cavaliers but Cleveland also beat Detroit, the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, in four straight games after losing the first two games of the series. Part of the reason that the Cavaliers struggled so much in the Finals can be attributed to the greatness of the Spurs. In that sense, the Spurs’ own ability makes it difficult to appreciate how great they truly are; they made a great player (James) and a very good team look quite ordinary.
Obviously, Bill Russell’s Celtics’ 11 titles in 13 years is the gold standard of NBA dynasties. Michael Jordan’s Bulls won six titles in eight years--two three-peats wrapped around his first retirement. That surpassed Magic Johnson’s Lakers because the Bulls won more championships in fewer years. If Duncan and the Spurs repeat next year, their five titles in 11 years would certainly have to be considered to be comparable to what Johnson’s Lakers did (five championships in nine years, one repeat). People can argue forever about which eras were tougher or easier to play in but the only thing a team can do is beat its contemporaries. Duncan’s Spurs have been contenders since he arrived and the only team that has beaten them in the playoffs when Duncan was healthy was the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers (Duncan was hobbled by plantar fasciitis last year when Dallas won a tough series with an overtime victory in Game 7); that Lakers team could very well have become the team of the first decade of the 21st Century but they were broken up before their time while the Spurs keep rolling along. Someone asked Popovich why the Spurs have been able to avoid the pitfalls that led to the premature demise of the recent Lakers’ and Bulls’ teams. Popovich cited two main factors: "Our ownership under Peter Holt allows us to do our jobs...he’s never said no to me about anything. Not one time have I gotten a no. He trusts us to do our jobs and do what we do...(the second factor is) Timmy and the other guys we’ve tried to bring in who have a certain character, a character that’s made up of people who have gotten over themselves, people who care about the team more than an individual...a good example would be Manu, an All-Star, coming off the bench. When you have those kind of guys it’s kind of special."
One of those "character" guys is Michael Finley. While winning championships is nothing new for the Spurs, this title is the first in Finley’s 12 year NBA career. Duncan and Popovich both mentioned how special it is to help Finley to reach the sport’s pinnacle. "They dedicated this Finals to me," Finley said after the game. "It just shows you what type of guys these are. For them to give me the game ball...I mean, I’m blessed." Another "character" guy is Robert Horry, who won his seventh championship. He is the eighth player to win that many NBA titles and the first seven of them were all members of Russell’s Celtics.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:57 PM