x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Tiki-taka San Antonio Spurs dethroned King James with a new kind of basketball

The San Antonio Spurs are not just winning NBA rings consistently, they also reinventing the game in the process.

San Antonio Spurs players Tony Parker, left, Tim Duncan, centre, and Manu Ginobili have defied age by consistently winning trophies. Ashley Landis / EPA
San Antonio Spurs players Tony Parker, left, Tim Duncan, centre, and Manu Ginobili have defied age by consistently winning trophies. Ashley Landis / EPA

The best team won.

If you were waiting for the Miami Heat to look like the Miami Heat in these NBA Finals, the first seven minutes of Game 5 on Sunday night must have felt like an “aha!” moment, so to speak.

The two-time defending champions stormed to a 22-6 lead and looked like the Heat again. For the first seven minutes of the first quarter, an improbable comeback from three games to one down actually looked possible.

But, as seemed to happen throughout the Finals, the world-beating Heat soon disappeared, their flame unceremoniously snuffed out by Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs were simply better. They were better all season – the best, in fact, showing their quality throughout the year with the league’s top record, 62-20.

And they were certainly better in the Finals, winning by 15 in Game 1, 19 in Game 3, 21 in Game 4 and, finally, 17 in Game 5. The Heat’s 98-96 Game 2 response ultimately was, like their championship-favourites status, an illusion.

Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and San Antonio exacted their just revenge for the 2013 Finals, when only by the miracle of a Chris Bosh rebound and a Ray Allen three with seconds left in Game 6 were they denied a title.

In these Finals, the switch never flipped for the Heat; the Spurs wouldn’t let it, outplaying and out-strategising LeBron James and Co.

The warning signs of a diminished Heat had been there during the season, when they settled for second best in the inferior Eastern Conference, behind the ultimately dysfunctional Indiana Pacers.

In the previous two seasons, though, the Heat had overcome their characteristic sluggishness in time for the play-offs and won a pair of titles. This year, the light never came on.

While it was the Spurs who dethroned them, it’s hard to imagine they would have beaten any of a handful of other Western contenders they could have been matched up with. The Thunder, the Mavericks and even the Blazers provided stiffer challenges for San Antonio.

As it stands, it is hard to imagine that the key components of this team, Duncan and Parker, have another 82 games and four rounds of play-offs in them to claim another title. Of course, the Spurs have made it a yearly habit of defying conventions.

But if it is their swansong, it’s a fitting cap to San Antonio’s time headed by Duncan and Popovich. Five titles in 15 years and an extra West title for good measure that have cemented Duncan as one of the five best big men of all time and Popovich as perhaps the greatest coach.

For LeBron and the Heat, the questions are existential. Does this group have any more titles in them? Can they try to get creative with the salary cap, sign Caremlo Anthony and keep the good times going?

Shall LeBron give up on his promise of ‘not five, not six, not seven...’ titles and start planning a way to take his talents away from the shores of South Beach?

If so, his time with the Heat will almost certainly be coloured by at least a tinge of disappointment.

That’s to say nothing of Dwyane Wade, who looked older than any of the Spurs’ veterans with more years on them.

This series illustrated so starkly that in the NBA a title window can stay open for preciously little time. It’s hard to wrap your head around four years and a 2-2 record in the Finals being all the Big-3 Heat had in them, and yet it’s just as hard to wrap your head around the idea that there’s anything more left in this group after their annihilation at the hands of San Antonio.

Paradoxically it was these Spurs, who extended their own title window to at least 15 years, appearing to slam it shut on them.

These Spurs who, for their part, played like a team like, well, no team has seemingly ever played in the NBA before. The 2013/14 San Antonio Spurs felt like an evolution of basketball. The way Spain played football at the 2010 World Cup. Tiki-taka basketball. The Spurs introduced paradigms that teams led by brilliant individual talents like LeBron James and Kevin Durant could not solve. They overwhelmed opponents with subtle skill, flowing talent and unparalleled cohesion – tangibly constructing the “team basketball” ideal and displaying it for us all like a fine piece of art.

Somewhat oddly fittingly, if Spain’s 5-1 loss to the Netherlands in the World Cup looked like it had the markings of the end to a dynasty, this had a similar feel for the Big 3-era Miami Heat, led by James.

While the Spurs, 2013/14 NBA champions, experienced a renaissance. The Spurs, who 15 years after their first title behind the Duncan-Popovich partnership, look just as good as ever.

In fact, in a way, this might even be their best title team yet.

jraymond@thenational.ae

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