I was shooting a sloppy game of hoops with a friend of mine the other day and she said to me, “I can’t watch the playoffs anymore. The Spurs are boring.”
“You are wrong,” I responded, “And let me tell you why!”
Halfway through The Godfather, hothead eldest son Sonny Corleone (James Caan) is cut down by a bullet onslaught of no less than twenty Tommy-Gun wielding mobsters, refusing to go down despite the encouragement of literally hundreds of gunshot wounds. The Russian mystic Rasputin was given wine laced with cyanide, shot at close range four times, and ultimately dumped in a freezing river that finished the job poison and bullets couldn’t. The bullish French President Charles de Gaulle weathered thirty-one assassination attempts. The obvious NBA analog to a near supernatural force of nature that refuses to be murdered is the San Antonio Spurs. Year in and year out the aging Spurs have beaten expectations to remain relevant and dangerous. Will this be their last year as a true contender? Probably. But we waste time obsessing over their mortality and we forget just how lucky we are to have witnessed it all. The Spurs don’t just play basketball well. They play it with brutal elegance and it is worth celebrating.
The great teams of the last decades have all fallen. We just heard the death rattle of the Boston Celtics, a kind of brash Eastern Conference Spurs-lite. The Detroit Pistons that used to roll through teams like a pitiless katana have been gone and forgotten for years. The Los Angeles Lakers were pretty much awful this year even before Kobe Bryant went down with a season ending injury and they were certainly only marginally better the year prior. Successful teams like the Mavericks and the Suns have imploded to varying degrees. But the Spurs aren’t in the imploding business. They keep trucking along and people keep writing pretend obituaries for them. Don’t worry about all that. Worry only for the disappearance of something quietly magnificent.
Back to my original point: The Spurs are not boring. At least, they aren’t anymore. The old stuff we like about basketball? The willing extra pass? Superstars without egos? Knowing exactly what to do when it matters? The Spurs have it down to a science, but as any scientist will tell you, science isn’t all plugging numbers into stodgy formulas and waiting for the answer. Science is also metaphor, science is also literature and art, and while the Spurs have a system that allows them to succeed, it is still the magical stuff that makes them go. It is the relentless speed of Tony Parker, the crafty hops and left-handed bombs of Manu Ginobli, and of course the absolute glass mastery and gloomy composure of Tim Duncan. All of this happens at the margins of what we both know is possible and cannot conceive of. They are the Aurora Borealis of the NBA, if you will. Admittedly the flopping can be bothersome and the almost robotic stoicism isn’t the way some of us like our super-humans to behave, but that is just an extension of the personality Gregg Popovich has imbued into his team. Popovich is a taciturn tactician, keeping his players in constant motion, almost willing them to a feisty defense, calling plays like a an admiral who trusts his captains. He coaches with wit, and his halftime sideline interviews are hilarious in their terse brevity. Popovich, like the Spurs, doesn’t have time for that shit.
With their Game 3 victory in Memphis, San Antonio is one game away from the Finals for the first time since 2007 when they won it all against a severely overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers. Take a moment to appreciate the relative ease with which they’ve reached this point, this point that so many franchises have never even glimpsed. They swept the Lakers. They weathered their two worst performances this year against the dangerous Stephen Curry and the rowdy Warriors to win in 6. And now they are on the verge of another possible sweep against one of the most physical, rough and tumble, street fighting teams in the league. The Grizzlies are a good team, a legitimate contender, and a team that could probably give the Miami Heat a scare in the Finals. But the Spurs don’t care. The Spurs just do their thing over and over and all the hustle and heroics don’t seem to matter.
As a Warriors and Grizzlies fanboy, it may seem strange to be so eagerly penning hagiographies for the Spurs, but I can’t shake the impression that they have made on me, for they are the pinnacle of what every franchise in professional sports lusts after but so few attain, and almost none attain for so very long. As a follower of teams where failure is acceptable and sometimes even lauded, watching this sleek and quiet war machine suit up like jersey adorned hoplites has been a treat of consistency, a comfortable joy. Every year they say it, but what if it is true? What if this is their final stand? What if brittle legs and huge bald spots and nagging injuries and age above all will finally pull them out of the great game? San Antonio is a team that has defied time, but time will have its final say and as the Faceless Men of Braavos say, all men must die. Remember the Spurs. We shall never see their like again.
Until next year, of course.
Tags: Boston Celtics Detroit Pistons Game 3 Golden State Warriors Gregg Popovich Los Angeles Lakers Manu Ginobli Memphis Grizzlies NBA Playoffs San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan Tony Parker Western Conference Finals