The enduring image of Tim Duncan when his career is over – whether that's in a few months or a few years – will be of him cradling the ball in his giant arms. It's a ritual, an act he performs night in and night out before tipoff, in game after game. There's every reason to believe that when his statue is erected in San Antonio, it will be in this pose.
But in the last few minutes of the Spurs' championship-clinching victory over the Miami Heat on Sunday night, the repeated image was Duncan enfolding his teammates' heads in much the same way as they came off the floor: first Manu Ginobili, then Tony Parker, and then on and on. Kawhi Leonard became the youngest NBA Finals MVP since Duncan himself won it in 1999, but there were moments throughout the playoffs where the Spurs leaned on bench players from Patty Mills to Boris Diaw to Aron Baynes to carry the load.
Down at the other end of the floor were the Heat, dark clouds already forming over their heads as Michael Beasley racked up minutes and the hope of a three-peat slipped away. Already the narratives were forming that would paint this as a triumph of team over the individual, of built over bought, of good over evil.
But that's bullshit. Under the microscope of the Finals, the Heat often looked discombobulated, but they ran circles around the Indiana Pacers with ball movement nearly as crisp as the Spurs' and dismantled plenty of talented teams during the regular season. The Heat aren't the opposite of the Spurs – they just hit a buzzsaw they narrowly skirted last season.
You can attribute the Spurs' success to their commitment to teamwork, to their ability to reclaim guys like Danny Green, Diaw and Mills and turn them into important players for a championship team, to Gregg Popovich's hard-nosed, even-handed approach that focuses on making the most of every advantage. But you can't pretend that it doesn't come with a price.
The chatter surrounding the Heat in the wake of their loss (even as soon as the press conference directly following the game) is going to be about James staying or going, and we've already heard plenty of rumors about where Carmelo Anthony or even Kevin Love (who's still under contract with the Timberwolves) might end up next season. But no one ever speculates about a big name going to the Spurs, even as player after player dutifully repeats that it's all about winning, all about contending. Part of it is because of how entrenched Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are; part of it is understanding that the Spurs aren't interested in making a big splash.
But part of it is also that the kind of excellence the Spurs have achieved demands a phenomenally giant quantity of difficult, thankless work best tackled in places where there aren't the kinds of distractions that make New York or Los Angeles or Miami attractive destinations. The monkish Spurs organization is well suited to the small market they find themselves in. They're set apart, even within the NBA. When Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond, he was actually only a couple miles outside of Concord. He isolated himself philosophically and through practice, not strictly through physical distance, and the Spurs have done no less.
Thoreau never threw it down like Ginobili did last night, though, which is one of the rewards of applying yourself diligently to basketball as opposed to, say, chopping wood in a cabin.
After the game, Ginobili talked about the dunk, saying, "The last time I tried I got blocked by Caron Butler against OKC badly, and I was made fun of by my teammates in a rough way. They actually made me promise that I wasn't going to try that again, and I said, yes, I won't try that again." Fortunately he didn't keep his promise, and the dunk, which came as part of a 17-5 Spurs run that turned a seven-point deficit into an eight-point lead in the second quarter, breathed life into the arena.
Of course, a team doesn't need to strive for the Spurs' level of excellence to win a title. The Heat proved that last season, showing that a little nudge this way or that, an injury here or there can tip the balance. There's nothing morally reprehensible about the way the Heat have gone about creating a team that got to four consecutive Finals, something that hadn't been accomplished since the Celtics in the '80s. James took a pay cut to play for the Heat; Duncan took a pay cut to stay with the Spurs. Diaw – an unlikely Finals hero for San Antonio –dogged it on a terrible Charlotte Bobcats team until they cut him, freeing him up to sign on with his friend Tony Parker.
Excellence is no bulwark against losing. Nothing is, really: not talent, not athleticism, not youth, not experience. In different Finals they've all fallen victim to one another because the truth is there is no formula, no recipe, no solution to basketball. The Spurs put their faith in process, in the idea that the utmost attention to every step, the most dogged commitment to making cuts, to bothering players on the catch, to making the right rotation would give them the best shot at winning. The Heat seemed to be dedicated to something less conceptual and more goal-driven: assemble the most talented core possible, add a mix of veterans like Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and Chris Andersen, and figure out what system makes them win.
If you step back, it doesn't seem all that different, but in a culture that's flipped 180 degrees from believing in heroes to basking in the relentlessly dour worlds of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, we should be able to grant a happy ending based not on moral goodness but simply in appreciation of the craft. In one of the most-quoted passages from Walden, Thoreau wrote that he wanted "to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life." There could be no better descriptor for Spurs basketball.
The Heat were a team built to win championships. The Spurs were a team built to play excellent basketball. This time, at least, the Spurs ended up doing both.
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