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The Spurs Take Their Place

The fact that the San Antonio Spurs gained revenge against the Miami Heat in only five games should not diminish the impact of this particular moment in NBA history.

The fact that the Spurs drained the 2014 NBA Finals of the drama they initially promised should not reduce the significance and enormity of their achievement.

The fact that this year’s Finals took a back seat to the Stanley Cup Final in terms of pure theater, and received much less global publicity due to the presence of the World Cup on the sporting calendar, should not obscure the importance of a dynasty’s crowning moment.

Go back 12 months. Go back to the minutes following two missed free throws and two failed attempts to secure defensive rebounds in Miami. Go back to that final half-minute of regulation in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, a half-minute in which the San Antonio Spurs – a championship at their fingertips – somehow allowed the Larry O’Brien Trophy to slip through their hands.

Go back to Game 7. Go back to Tim Duncan’s missed shot from point-blank range against a much smaller Shane Battier. Go back to Duncan’s tortured reaction, which processed what had just occurred… and conveyed a level of heartbreak never before seen from one of the NBA’s greatest players.

The narrative tensions surrounding the 2014 NBA Finals were always simple ones, but that simplicity did not detract from the poignancy of this confrontation. Either the Heat were going to three-peat against the entire league and repeat against the Spurs, catapulting them to a far higher place in the pantheon, or San Antonio was going to bury the memory of 2013, giving Duncan and the organization he transformed a fifth NBA title. The resolution of these Finals was always going to be cathartic for the winner, crushing for the loser. Now, the story has run its course, but the journey’s lack of drama when compared to last year’s Finals should not take away from its power.

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More will be said in the offseason about the ability of these two organizations to return to the Finals. To be more specific, a lot more ink will be devoted to the Spurs’ chances of repeating, which will be given a lot of credence in the NBA community, and rightly so. The Spurs’ continued longevity and durability rate as large storylines in the offseason. On its face, the reality seems so obvious – well, DUHHHH, of COURSE the Spurs won’t go away; did you actually think they WOULD? Yet, almost every NBA watcher felt that after the heartbreak and devastation of last June in Miami, the Spurs’ path to a championship in the later years of the Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili era was better characterized as “extremely difficult” more than “likely to be completed.”

Some pundits felt the Spurs could stick around at the highest levels of competition thanks to the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, but most basketball experts were more inclined to think that either the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Los Angeles Clippers were ready to push past San Antonio.

Recency bias and the knee-jerk reactions of the present moment can lead one to think that as the Spurs revel in their championship, such predictions from October of 2013 were unwise. However, how could it have been irrational to view the 2014 Spurs with skepticism? Age typically works against athletes, especially after age 35. Tony Parker might not have been 35 when last season ended, but he’d logged a lot of miles at age 31, piling up games on the international scene as well as in the NBA. Parker and Ginobili (almost age 36 during last year’s Finals) were so noticeably worn down in Games 6 and 7 last June, a couple of physically spent competitors who ran out of magic and inspiration.

Moreover, Ginobili wasn’t just tired. His body was creaky and frail, suggesting that if he had more than one year left in pro basketball, his minutes would have to be reduced to the extent that teammates such as Patty Mills would need to take on a much larger role. If pressed to answer the either-or query, “Is the Spurs’ window more expansive or smaller heading into the 2013-2014 season?”, most basketball analysts probably would have gone with “smaller.” The tides of time can’t be held back forever, and even though the Kawhis, Greens and Tiago Splitters of the world had plenty left to give, the Spurs’ aging core – coming off a maximum-length season – figured to be less effective, not more, when the long grind of the regular season ran its course and the postseason arrived.

The Spurs weren’t going to fade away this season – that’s something this franchise has never known how to do in the Duncan era – but were they going to retain the degree of staying power they grabbed in 2013? Were they going to continue to compete at the highest level against much younger opponents in a cutthroat Western Conference?

Logic suggested they’d fall short.

Now, look where they are. It gives one pause.

How the Spurs did this is an amazing story in its own right. The mere reality of San Antonio’s presence on a victory podium, showered in confetti and locker-room champagne, is the work of nonfiction that will endure when the history of professional basketball in the United States is written.

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When the final out of the 1955 World Series was made, the legendary Vin Scully said over the airwaves, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world.” That was the entirety of Scully’s call of the Dodgers’ long-awaited title after so many years of coming up short against their fabled nemesis, the New York Yankees. Many years later, Scully told author Curt Smith, “If I’d said another word at that very instant, I’d have broken down and cried.” The simple reality of Brooklyn’s title said more than thousands of extra words.

So it is with this Spurs title.

THIS San Antonio team became the first in the Duncan-Gregg Popovich era to make consecutive NBA Finals. THIS Spurs team beat an elite and decorated opponent in the Finals, one that would rate several notches higher than any foe the Spurs handled in their four previous wins on this stage (Knicks in 1999; Nets in 2003; Pistons in 2005; Cavaliers in 2007). THIS Spurs team powered its way through difficult situations, creating enough leverage in hinge-point games to avoid being felled by a Derek Fisher buzzer-beater (2004 playoffs) or a Dirk Nowitzki and-one (in 2006).

When Parker’s body briefly betrayed him in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the rest of the Spurs – the old men included – conquered their demons in a building where it seemed they weren’t going to win again. Experience has its place, but basketball is more a young man’s game than the province of graybeards. Magic Johnson didn’t win another NBA title after 1988, and Larry Bird didn’t win again after 1986. Kobe Bryant’s final title will likely wind up occurring at age 31 (in 2010), barring a remarkable resurrection with the Lakers.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the San Antonio Spurs are the champions of the world.” That simple sentence is now a living, breathing, eternal fact, seven years after Tim Duncan’s previous NBA championship. It’s testimony enough to the greatness of these reinvented Spurs, who won with a plodding, defense-first style in 2007 but have entirely reimagined themselves to reign again in 2014, with a level of basketball as good as anything seen in the NBA in quite some time.

The 2001 Los Angeles Lakers were dominant, but they weren’t challenged in multiple rounds the way these Spurs were. The 1996 Chicago Bulls owned virtually no weaknesses; their standard of play from start to finish stands above many of the NBA’s other great champions. The 2001 Lakers, the ’96 Bulls, the ’87 Lakers, the ’86 Celtics, the 1983 Sixers – these are the five best seasons over the previous 33 seasons of professional basketball in the United States. The 2014 San Antonio Spurs are more than worthy of being held in the same lofty regard.

Here’s the heart of why the Spurs’ latest NBA title should also rank as the franchise’s greatest:

Unlike those five other teams from 1983 through 2001, the 2014 Spurs had an established veteran core (Duncan-Parker-Ginobili) with an average age of at least 35. As a point of comparison, the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen-Dennis Rodman core for the ’96 Bulls had an average age of just under 33. The other three-player centerpieces – Bird-McHale-Parish for the Celtics; Julius Erving-Moses Malone-Maurice Cheeks for the Sixers; Magic-Kareem-Worthy for the ’87 Lakers; Shaq-Kobe-Rick Fox for the ’01 Lakers – were not as old.

Furthermore, the ’96 Bulls were newly constructed, with Rodman joining them following a sour stay with Bob Hill’s San Antonio Spurs. Jordan also had fresh legs following his baseball adventure and a less-than-full-capacity 1995 season that was cut short in the second round of the playoffs. The ’87 Lakers didn’t play in the Finals the season before. The ’83 Sixers brought aboard Malone to be their new piece.

The Spurs? They made additions on the margins, but not at the center of their roster. Their younger players and their role players certainly improved, but the on-court leaders who set the tone for the team were all back for another battle, following a prolonged 2013 season and all the wear and tear it involved.

He might not stand alone relative to anyone else who's played the game, but Tim Duncan certainly stands tall, a champion after the 2013 Finals he vowed to avenge.

He might not stand alone relative to anyone else who’s played the game, but Tim Duncan certainly stands tall, a champion one year after the 2013 Finals he vowed to avenge.

These Spurs, this season, this far down the road – it’s impossible to fully express how amazing this accomplishment is, given that it stands in the face of so much of what we expect from sports teams when measured against the ruthless march of time.

Winning an NBA title obviously lifts Tim Duncan to another level in the annals of the league’s greats. This accomplishment makes San Antonio just the fourth team to win five NBA championships, and it prevents the Miami Heat from becoming the fifth team to win four Larry O’Brien Trophies. The stakes on the line in these Finals were made plain from the start, and San Antonio gets to keep them forever. That’s reward enough for Popovich, Duncan, and the dynasty they set in motion 15 years ago.

Yet, when this Spurs title is ultimately assessed in 20 or 30 years, it will very possibly be remembered most because a franchise’s old soldiers didn’t die, and didn’t even fade away after the kind of loss in 2013 that drives daggers through the hearts of lesser competitors.

The San Antonio Spurs and their ageless icons got better.

Now, once more and with feeling, they’re the best.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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