As a businessman, David Stern couldn’t possibly have been too happy last weekend; in the span of less than 36 hours, the NBA commissioner watched not one, but both teams from Los Angeles get bounced from the second round of the playoffs. If that wasn’t enough, the two teams from Tinseltown were each manhandled by teams from a couple of the league’s smallest media markets – the Lakers by the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Clippers by the San Antonio Spurs.
But if Stern is also a true hoops fan, he has to be able to appreciate a matchup like the Spurs-Thunder, which tips off Sunday night in San Antonio. In a lockout-shortened season that has been marred by injuries, inconsistent and often ugly play (witness the brick city series between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia Sixers), and the off-putting, diva-like antics of certain so-called superstars, the Spurs and the Thunder have epitomized everything that can be great about the game.
OKC, of course, is the most exciting team to watch in the league, fueled by Kevin Durant’s silky smooth jump shots and Russell Westbrook’s intense, high-flying acrobatics. But the Thunder are much more than just youthful athleticism at work; as most exemplified by their bearded sage off the bench, James Harden, they play fundamentally-sound, smart ball – lots of quick cuts, sharp passing and strong rebounding and defense. And unlike Dwight Howard in Orlando or Carmelo Anthony in New York, Durant and Westbrook don’t spend half their time creating media distractions about which coach they really want to play for, or what big city they want to be traded to.
In all those respects, the Thunder actually reflect the best qualities of their upcoming opponent to the south. The Spurs are famously led by the league’s premier anti-superstar, Tim Duncan, who lets his on-court play do most of the talking for him. At 36, Duncan may not have the same dominating presence he had when he was winning four championships in eight years, but he has already shown in the first two rounds of the playoffs that he is still a better big man than almost anyone else suiting up these days.
In previous years, the Spurs were known for their lockdown defense and a functional, if not exactly inspiring, offense. But this season, San Antonio is the second highest-scoring team in the league – behind Denver and just ahead of Oklahoma City — and many would argue Duncan has the best supporting cast he’s ever had. His pint-sized partner from Paris, Tony Parker, can snake his way through almost any defense, and Manu Ginobili still grunts and elbows his way to an array of circus shots and three pointers. But a team that once seemed like an NBA retirement home is now primarily made up of up-and-coming young guns, like sharpshooting Danny Green, muscle maven DeJuan Blair and Brazilian big man Tiago Splitter, all of whom contribute to one of the most efficient, effortless offenses I can recall watching in recent years.
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But the sheer joy of watching the Spurs calmly dissect helpless opposing defenses is only part of why I suddenly find myself rooting for them to win it all. It also has to do with the lack of drama they bring to each new challenge; to a long suffering Knicks fan such as myself, worn down by the never ending soap opera at Madison Square Garden, the all-business approach is a real draw. That no-attitude attitude comes straight from Duncan and his crusty coach, Gregg Popovich; both men have little patience for the media’s inane post-game questioning or much interest in preening for the cameras.
Duncan, in particular, has always eschewed the trappings of NBA stardom; and after reading Chris Ballard’s unusually up-close-and-personal profile of him in Sports Illustrated, I have even more appreciation for his wry, reticent personality – especially after learning of his absolute disdain for Kevin Garnett. (As Ballard puts it, “Duncan is diplomatic about the topic. Asked if perhaps all those years battling Garnett have softened his feelings for the man, or led to a Magic-Larry type of kinship, Duncan leans back on the couch in his hotel room and grins. There is a pause. A longer pause. Finally he says, “Define kinship.”)
For most of their championship runs from 1999 to 2007, San Antonio wasn’t a fan favorite outside of its little slice of Texas. Hoops snobs liked to dismiss their plodding, unsexy style of play as not worthy of the fast-paced game. I still marvel at how many commentators insist that they can’t really be considered a dynasty because they never won two championships in a row. But now that they have added some more offensive firepower while retaining their distinctive, down-to-earth vibe, it’s pretty hard to root against them. I like OKC as much as the next guy, but I would be even happier to see the Big Fundamental and the rest of the Spurs reach the Finals. Come to think of it, I can’t think of a better way to end this muddled season than by seeing the true class of the league take their long underappreciated talents to South Beach.