MIAMI -- Through all the noise and the sheer force of the Heat’s star power, the San Antonio Spurs kept coming. The Spurs were unrelenting, which is what they’ve been for 15 years -- and especially, what they’ve been since their last trip to the NBA Finals against LeBron James.
James had said before the series that he’s “20, 40, 50 percent better” than he was in 2007, when the Spurs of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili swept his Cleveland Cavaliers out of the Finals. And it was a testament to how overlooked the Spurs’ greatness has been that when James went to Miami to form this super team, it wasn’t the Spurs’ model he was trying to emulate.
You can’t build what the Spurs have in a single July, can’t replicate their intricate and cohesive basketball machinery in a finite window of time. What the Spurs have is forever, and what they did in Game 1 to take a 1-0 lead over Miami on Thursday night was a reminder of their durability, the enduring wisdom of the Spurs’ way.
This was the kind of Game San Antonio’s Big Four -- Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Gregg Popovich -- have been through hundreds of times. This was the kind of game they were built for -- a two-possession game for the final two minutes, the competitive concrete being ground to dust one possession at a time.
And then here was Parker, guarded now by James at the top of the 3-point circle, zigging and zagging and losing James on a pick-and-roll switch. Here was Parker, with no turnovers in the game, nearly committing three on one possession. With the Spurs up by two and the shot clock marching down, Parker lost the handle, lost his balance, then kept the ball bouncing when his left knee hit the floor.
Back on his feet, Parker stepped and then lunged toward the basket, somehow eluding James’ outstretched hand with a pump fake before releasing the ball a mere whisker before the 24-second clock expired. On replays, it couldn’t have been any closer. There was one-tenth of a second on the shot clock, 5.2 on the game clock, when the ball left Parker’s fingertips, caromed high off the glass, off the front rim and through.
“It was a crazy play,” Parker said after the Spurs beat the Heat 92-88 in the first game of what portends to be an epic Finals. “At the end, I was just trying to get a shot up.”
That’s what Duncan was thinking, too. Seeing Parker in trouble, Duncan tried to push Chris Bosh deep into the lane to get an angle on what he hoped, at best, would be a putback opportunity. This is the Spurs in a nutshell – a basketball symphony, everyone playing his part.
“I think at this point, my mind was just blank,” Duncan said, recalling the play that put the Spurs up by four for good. “I just wanted him to get a shot up in the air. I was just trying to get position on the board. I see him go down, and I’m just praying he gets a shot off.”
But this was no prayer. This was the Spurs, whittling away at the same basketball grindstone they’ve been using since they drafted Duncan in 1997 and started winning championships – four and counting.
“I was trying to just chase him around to get him an outlet,” Ginobili said, another musician with no need for sheet music – just playing his melody by heart. “When he turned to the other side and threw it [up], I thought it was late. ... One of those things that could have been either way. It was just so close.”
This is what we will be treated to for this fortnight, a basketball page-turner that it all about the game and nothing else. When the Spurs compete at basketball, it is about a different kind of drama -- the kind that emanates from razor-thin margins of makes and misses, defensive rebounds and offensive rebounds, boxouts and backdoor cuts.
“I have to trust everybody,” Parker was saying in the interview room. “We’re a team. We play as a team. Everybody has to contribute.”
This is not a monster that materialized in the NBA’s constant free-agent merry-go-round to counter the Heat’s Big Three and stand before James in his quest for a second title. This is the team that’s always been here – same coach, same core players, largely the same front office and the same wonderful, unpretentious way of playing the game the same way all the time.
Against the Heat’s pressure defense, with the disruptive James in the middle of it and trying to lock down Parker in the fourth, the Spurs played 48 minutes of basketball with just four turnovers. Their backcourt, Parker and Danny Green, logged more than 73 collective minutes with no turnovers. Zero.
The Heat only committed eight, and James was brilliant in a way that showed proper respect for the selfless opponent he was facing. He never allowed himself to drift into hero mode, never wavered from making the correct play and finished with 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists.
“The Spurs are the Spurs,” James said. “They’re going to put you in positions where you feel uncomfortable offensively and defensively. And every time you make a mistake, they’re going to capitalize on it.”
This knowledge had to come from James’ voracious study habits, because he couldn’t have known it from recent experience. The Spurs and Heat hadn’t played each other at full strength in more than two years. When James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami and started laying the groundwork for the next NBA dynasty, the dynasty that’s been right in front of our noses the whole time didn’t blink.
Until Thursday night, the Spurs were largely folklore to the Heat, thanks to Popovich sending four starters home from that November game in Miami and the Heat holding James and Wade out with injuries against San Antonio in March. The first blows were landed on Thursday night, the first real glimpse for James in six years of a dynasty built forever.
And after 47 minutes, 55 seconds of back-and-forth, it came down to the magic of Tony Parker -- the conductor of this basketball symphony hitting all the wrong notes and then suddenly, the right one.
“Tony did everything wrong and did everything right in the same possession,” James said. “That was one of the longest 24 seconds that I’ve been a part of.”
This is what the Spurs do. This is what they’ve been doing forever, if only anyone would’ve noticed.