Turning up the Heat

The NBA finals are over.  In the end, the San Antonio Spurs got too much LeBron James.  And, although I hate to say it, they also got too much Manu Ginobli.

I picked San Antonio to win in six.  With 28 seconds to go in an elimination game six and the Spurs up five, I was cautiously confident.  But then the bottom fell out.  Miami tied the game, won it overtime, and then eked out a closely fought game 7 to clinch the championship.

Disappointing.  The team I hoped would win didn’t.  But oh my, what a series.  It was truly one for the ages, in which everything mattered: offense and especially defense, 3-pointers and free throws.

It was Big Three against Big Three: James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh for the Heat; Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Ginobli for the Spurs.  Rooting for San Antonio was, at the very least, a matter of principle.  Their three all-stars were all drafted by and have played their entire NBA career with the Spurs; they’ve been together for over a decade.

By contrast, the Heat formed their core by taking advantage of the unusually rich crop of free agents in 2010; all were the best players on their respective teams and came together in a highly publicized fashion as the “Super Friends” with the express purpose of establishing a new NBA dynasty.  As expected, behind the high-priced talent of their Big Three, the Heat rocketed to the finals in their first year together–but lost to the Dallas Mavericks in six.  Consider it a learning curve.  They stormed back to win the title the following year, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in five.

Watch out: here comes the dynasty.

One of the questions going into this year’s series was whether age and health would be a factor.  On average, the Spurs’ core is five years older than the Heat’s (Duncan is a positively ancient 37) and has missed significantly more games this season to injury.  Coach Gregg Popovich rested his stars regularly, and old man Duncan generally came through.  But Parker seemed increasingly weary as each game and the series itself wore on, particularly when Heat coach Erik Spoelstra assigned James to guard him.

And Ginobli?  Popovich had to play him as their backup ball-handler when Parker was on the bench.  In the critical game six, a game the Spurs should have won, Manu turned the ball over eight times, including twice in overtime.  In game seven, he started out looking more like his old self, but was plagued by turnovers again in the later stages of the game, including fumbling a pass that went through his hands and throwing the ball out of bounds.  Ouch.  And you can bet that no one was more upset with Ginobli than he was himself.

What will probably be remembered most about this series, though, is what happened behind the 3-point line.  Spurs sharpshooter Danny Green set a new NBA record for most 3s made in a finals series with 27, shattering the previous mark of 22 held by Ray Allen.  But Miami turned up the defensive intensity on Green, rendering him largely ineffective once the record had been set.  And it was Allen who hit the crucial 3 at the end of regulation in game six that turned the tide for Miami.

In game seven, Popovich gambled by instructing his team not to defend Miami’s 3-point shooters too closely.  In response, James stepped back and nailed five, many uncontested.  And Shane Battier, who had previously averaged less than ten minutes a game for Miami, calmly fired off eight shots from beyond the arc and made six of them.

Yes, it was a memorable series.  LeBron was LeBron, filling up the stat sheet at both ends of the floor with clutch baskets and blocks, rebounds and assists.  But game to game, there were also quiet standout performances from the non-stars.  I look forward to a stellar career from 21-year-old Spurs sophomore Kawhi Leonard, who played brilliantly for a kid who suddenly found himself on the NBA’s biggest and brightest stage.

The most memorable moment for me, however, came when all was said and done.  At the end of games, good sportsmanship demands that the losers congratulate the winners.  Usually this is done rather stoically, with the losing team restraining emotion; their body language says, Okay, let’s get this over with so we can escape to the locker room.  You would expect even more of that at the end of a long championship series.

But Coach Popovich, himself a fierce competitor, not only congratulated Spoelstra and the Heat, he seemed glad to do it, with warm and genuine hugs and smiles.  And even during the intensity of the battle, when Pop is demanding everything from his players and yelling at them for their lapses in concentration and execution, you can tell that there is still a genuine affection between them.

In a culture that celebrates winners, it’s refreshing to see a real-life example of graciousness and goodwill in the face of a difficult defeat.