Jun 16, 2014 5:05 AM EDT
SAN ANTONIO – Eighteen years ago, Tim Duncan arrived inside a scrimmage gymnasium for the U.S. national team, lanky in arms and legs and primitive in basketball life, clean cut from his fade to his goatee. His roster of college athletes had been called upon to tune up the gold medalists, and Duncan had executed a domination of veteran future Hall of Fame big men out of everyone’s wildest imaginations.
Hakeem Olajuwon. David Robinson. Shaquille O’Neal. One by one, Duncan administered a college course in low-post moves and soothing jump shots and gave a seminar in sprinting the court and duck-in positioning. He left defenses in his wake, left a San Antonio Spurs star in awe. In this exhibition game late in the 1996 Olympic preparation, Duncan had scored over 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds on this front line built of all-time greats, and Robinson had soon made the call to a most influential front office member for a simple question.
“Who is this kid, man?” Robinson asked Gregg Popovich. “This young kid is phenomenal.”
A year later, the Spurs struck the No. 1 overall pick, and the decision was a no-brainer. From the coach in waiting, Popovich, to the current star, Robinson, everyone sold themselves on Duncan – with ease and impatience. Now, Duncan’s a five-time NBA champion, cemented in San Antonio’s demolition of the Miami Heat in five games of the NBA Finals and a 104-87 rout on Sunday night. He’s made five championship banners possible inside the AT&T Center rafters, through instinctive awareness of self and stature and through sacrifice on contract payouts.
Duncan is a model star for the Spurs, and he’s the face of an era that forever revels in franchise success. All around him late Sunday stood former teammates for whom Duncan’s delivered NBA titles: Robinson and Bruce Bowen, Avery Johnson and Sean Elliott. Duncan roamed the locker room and corridors of the building with his son and daughter, but past and present pledged grace and loyalty toward him. Scattered the walls here are letters, “F … A … M … I … L … Y,” and the same relentless core coming back for more advances the sentiment.
As Kawhi Leonard accepted the MVP trophy for the Finals, Duncan strayed near the back of the stage. He held his daughter and son in his hands, held the words of Bill Russell in his ears. They smiled and laughed, hugged and shook hands. In so many ways, Duncan had represented the values of Russell and these Spurs, those Boston Celtics. Two of the greatest champions and big men of NBA lore, two teams that punctuated basketball’s principles and values on the court.
“This is sweeter than any other,” Duncan said, “whether it be because I’m toward the end of my career or because I can have these two [children] here and really remember and enjoy the experience.”
Duncan uplifted the sport for the Spurs seventeen years ago, came to this rising franchise as a draft miracle once the Celtics lost grasp of a talent surely their own, and now he’s survived every ailment and stiffened his legacy.
“We get Tim in ‘97, and I’m like, ‘Yes!’ People had no clue how good this guy really was,” Robinson told RealGM. “Then we went to Colorado, and I brought Tim to my house in Colorado, started working out with him every day, and just watching him, that guy could score at will on me. I thought, hey, I’m a pretty decent defensive player, and he could do this on me? He could do it on anyone. He uses both hands, shoots off the backboard.
“The first couple of years here, I was the team leader and I still did scoring and whatever I needed to do. But as [Duncan] matured, it was clear: You let a guy do what he does best. He leads.”
In every way, the superiority of the Spurs ran rampant in this Finals and the grace of team merit permeated from San Antonio to Miami. LeBron James called this a beat down after Game 4, and he let out the truth on Sunday night: “They were the much better team. That’s what team basketball and how team basketball should be played. It’s for the team, never about the individual.”
Never about accolades on these Spurs, and there were the Big Three provoking some semblance of outpour from the Most Valuable Player. They ragged on Leonard to smile, to explode in front of the cameras. All over the court, role players did their part – Patty Mills furthering the establishment of his NBA niche, Boris Diaw a 6-foot-8 wizard with the ball, and verdicts stamped on careers throughout the roster.
For everyone wishing for a sequel of last season’s epic seven-game Finals, the Heat simply couldn’t match the brilliance and improvement of San Antonio. No way, no how. Miami lacked freshness in depth, lacked star support for James and waited until the elimination game to remove a regressing Mario Chalmers from the starting lineup. By the time Sunday came, Erik Spoelstra’s trust in his bench had run too thin.
Fifteen years since his first title, a 4-1 victory over the New York Knicks in 1999, Duncan strolled out of the press conference room late Sunday with a slight limp, a shin pad and hands on his kids’ heads. He passed on questions about his future, left open the possibility of retirement, but Duncan has always made clear his playing days will continue as long as he remains productive.
Even now, Duncan’s the most cerebral and fundamental post player in the NBA. He averaged 15.4 points and 10 rebounds and nearly a block per game – a 38-year-old shooting 57 percent in his sixth NBA Finals series.
Robinson had gone from the court to photo opportunities with Duncan, from clutching Duncan in his arms to halting every now and then and discussing the trials to five rings. For an old teammate, a forever friend and a Spurs legend, Robinson’s mind is made: Duncan belongs to play beyond next season.
“I hope this isn’t it because Tim still has so much in the tank,” Robinson told RealGM. “When they needed him, he goes right to the block. He just punishes guys. He’s got a lot left in the tank, and he provides ridiculous leadership for this team. He’s still great.”
Still the cornerstone, the example, for everyone within these Spurs walls, a franchise player David Robinson swore he envisioned back in the 1996 scrimmage for Team USA. Robinson picked up the phone to call his general manager eighteen years ago, questioning: Who is this Wake Forest center taking The Dream, Shaq – and me – to school on the court?
All these years later, Robinson smiles. He always knew. He accepted Duncan’s arrival. Five championships later, yes, you don’t hold back Tim Duncan. You set him free on the league, and reaped rewards come for Spurs players across the generations.
Jun 11, 2014 4:01 AM EDT
MIAMI – Between the gate of an aircraft out of San Antonio and the landing ground here, Kawhi Leonard harnessed frustration for a poor reflection of his basketball gifts. He sits stoically everywhere – from the plane to the locker room – and teammates never misguide his straight face for lack of desire. Somber and contrite, they expect out of Leonard, and they know responsibility will forever be taken on individual setbacks.
Leonard is the connector of present and future on the Spurs’ legendary dynasty of championship contention, an heir to the generational core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and a once in a lifetime decade of sustainability. Gregg Popovich has persistent belief, they all do around the Spurs: One day, Leonard will grow out of his role as a foundational part – and become the foundation.
Never a better time to deliver the Spurs' vision of the here and now, and fortune, than these NBA Finals, and Leonard swept the Miami Heat into a stream they never saw coming. Leonard scored 29 points on 10 of 13 shooting, grabbed four rebounds, blocked two shots and registered two steals in San Antonio’s 111-92 win on Tuesday night, and he struck from every angle on the floor, from three-point range to rim attacks, spot-up jumpers to slivering baseline cuts.
The Spurs placed a beautiful exhibition, once again cemented themselves two games from an NBA title with a 2-1 series lead and Leonard centered their precision and thrust. As Dwyane Wade sighed, “Kawhi was very aggressive.” The best game of someone’s basketball life, and even now so calm, so still, such serenity on the face – just the way these Spurs know Leonard.
“You don’t see emotions in him,” Tiago Splitter told RealGM. “Really, he’s not a guy who shows any emotions. When he makes a mistake, he makes a worse face. Sometimes, he shows, but for the regular basis, he doesn’t show.”
None of the San Antonio players boast and tout, and Leonard is no exception. The press conference area remains a reserved give-and-take for him, and soon, he had trudged past the hoard around him late Tuesday.
A cameraman among the crowd blocked a passage to his locker, so Leonard tiled his head up and asked politely.
“Excuse me, sir.”
He cleared, and Leonard sat on a chair and removed his socks. Off to the showers he went. As much as any factor, the Spurs had come away from Leonard’s pre-draft interviews in 2011 impressed with his demeanor. I’m stone cold but Kawhi takes it to another level, Duncan’s joked. George Hill had earned a niche behind Parker and under Popovich, but R.C. Buford and his staff discovered a gem with the Indiana Pacers’ No. 15 selection, a groomed prospect for whom a price had to be paid.
Everyone noticed Leonard had deviated from his aggressiveness toward LeBron James in the series’ first two games, and Popovich explained to his small forward to simply play like this was the regular season. Leonard suffocated James defensively now, five turnovers out of LeBron in the second half and seven total. Miami had been blitzed with San Antonio’s torching start, and subsequent runs had proved futile. They’ll correct whatever ails their schemes, but Wade had this right: These next two days will be dark, containing all the timid phenomenon’s surrounding the Heat.
Nineteen of their first 21 field-goals made, and no one on the Spurs had seen anything like it. Danny Green’s memory seeped into one of his old high school games in New York, where his team had drained shot upon shot to begin a game. Never like this, though, never a first half that had Spurs players so wishing for a swift halftime.
“We wanted to keep playing even though the half ended,” Green said.
As much as anyone, Leonard understood the Spurs’ plight in Game 2, a fountain of missed opportunities and collapsed play sets down the stretch. “Even though we blew the last game, we were back at it,” Leonard said at the center of the locker room.
For a night, the Spurs’ legendary Big Three all yielded to Leonard’s superstar emergence like never before. They performed solid and ordinary, and suddenly a polished 22-year-old recognized a void needed filling.
On his walk out of AmericanAirlines Arena, Leonard’s eyes caught Tim Grover, and they shook hands and Leonard told Grover that he’d connect on workouts with the famed trainer in the offseason. Even now, Leonard understands he must develop as a shot creator, develop his post game, develop into a top-tier option and continue to find edges.
History shows: The Spurs take care of their own – their brand of characters – and work fast to lock up foundational parts, and they’re bound to do the same when Leonard becomes eligible for a contract extension in the summer. For now, only these Finals immerse Leonard’s mind.
The plane ride to Miami overnight Sunday brought the same scene of Leonard. Quiet, nothing new. And still, he had cognizance of two Finals games beneath his talent. Suddenly, his enormous hands and unequivocal length and offensive proactivity wreaked havoc everywhere and it flashed before everyone. This was his shooting night, his game and a vision into destined fate: Kawhi Leonard’s franchise.
Jun 09, 2014 5:25 AM EDT
SAN ANTONIO – No smile, straight deadpan, LeBron James had told everyone the strategy of his historical rival team, of how the San Antonio Spurs essentially disrespected him within the concept of defensive coverage. They truly don’t guard me, James proclaimed, and he spoke honestly and knew this truth couldn’t return to San Antonio under a serious tone, and so a smile curled upon his mouth, backtracking ensued and credit was paid to an old championship guard with a winding, twisting explanation.
Across those two NBA Finals against this Spurs core, all the uncontested space, the pick-and-roll schemes, had come to feel strange for James, and his film study had confirmed it. He was so young in 2007, so close to obliterating this defense’s principles six years later. He broke through with a second consecutive championship last season, believing still that points were left on the court, opportune jump shots gone awry.
James had vented to people around him about everything the Spurs had taken away, insisting he’d recognize this play from the Gregg Popovich playbook again in the Finals. From IV bags to liquids, the Miami Heat’s training staff replenished James’ body and sharpened his regimen after the cramping debacle in Game 1 on Thursday.
James punctuated Miami’s 1-1 series tie with 35 points, 10 rebounds and three assists in the 98-96 victory on Sunday, displaying the purity of his repertoire – the jump shot’s tendencies coordinating with his ferocious basket attack. When James matches his inside disposition with the conniving outside approach, carrying variations of the Heat lineup that resembled his old Cleveland Cavaliers days, resistance is futile. Adjustments go in vain.
LeBron James dribbled and dribbled to his rhythm spots, releasing set shots and fade aways; unleashed jab steps on his defenders, wearing out Kawhi Leonard into six fouls; and decimated San Antonio’s clutch on his floor space.
“We didn’t expect LeBron to shoot that well," Danny Green said, “but he got hot. We didn’t look ourselves, either. He did what stars do in this league.
This wasn’t the everyday star’s task. James vanquished the Spurs, tarnishing San Antonio’s version of a rulebook against James once and for all, if only for one night. He danced, dazzled the basketball up and down and celebrated on the AT&T Center. The Spurs privately never believed in James’ ability to find balance so explosively on the court, find a comfort in his stroke that rivaled his 45-point performance in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012.
Something had to change, James told himself, and an early wake-up call led him to the team hotel’s yoga class at 8 a.m. Sunday. None of his teammates were present, nor his traveling entourage. Something had to be altered, James asserted, and this yoga seminar freshened the body. Mostly, this was getaway, a removal of self from the bevy of opinions punched into his phone about how to solve his cramps, how to sustain his longevity in this final series.
Healthy and able, jump shot and paint game in sync, no player grasps the outline of perfection as deftly as James. With James on the court for 38 minutes in Game 2, everything changed for Miami. Rashard Lewis went off. Chris Bosh became a recipient of a beautiful game-clinching assist. Dwyane Wade came and went unburdened of uneven ball, exhausting the same tactics over and over. James uplifts his team, leaves the opposing veteran roster unsure and scrambling before an airplane flight to South Beach. And even so, all Miami accomplished with the win was establish the depth of the Finals. These Spurs will keep coming. They always do.
“I try to impose my will, scoring or rebounding or assisting,” James said. “I put myself and my teammates in position to succeed.”
He’s placing everyone in position to flourish now, and off he went to the Heat’s team bus late Sunday. Decked in blue, James had met his representatives and inquired about Johnny Manziel, the superstar client of his marketing agency. Johnny Football had long left the arena, attending the game in a Cavaliers hat, but this sight – James greeting his friends and friends of friends – was something else. Everywhere, the media shielded, pictures snapped of this perennial group.
He had recently told them all, told the world of a most daring revelation: These Spurs are demanding I shoot, no hands within sight on most attempts. Privately, James earnestly believed in his words – his theory of San Antonio’s defense – and only backpedaling made sense in the days leading up to the Finals. Oh, the Spurs’ hands rose for contesting and infiltration now, and LeBron James soared above them all and hit liberating daggers that could go a long way in a title three-peat.
Jun 06, 2014
The most dominant player on the planet has also been the most indestructible, treating injuries with tape and pressure, not rest – and suddenly, on the grandest stage of professional basketball, a catastrophic malfunction left LeBron James at his body’s mercy.
May 29, 2014
No one’s amassed the identical amount of energy and physical toll defending LeBron James in the last two years, no one but Paul George. Before each matchup across the regular season and late in the playoffs, James and George pound each other’s chests in acknowledgement, and then the understudy thrusts into duty.
May 21, 2014
LeBron James continues to vindicate his free agency decision of 2010, but time and time again the Cavaliers validate everything for him. Winning and losing. Organizational structure. Worthy sidekicks.
May 18, 2014
Indiana isn’t afforded Lance Stephenson behaving like every other 23-year-old, nor afforded his lapses in judgment. So, yes, Stephenson had issued a challenge on the eve of this Eastern Conference final series, a calculated approach to work Dwyane Wade, work his legs to swell on the court.
May 12, 2014
Jamal Crawford received a direct order from his new coach, a message his teammates reciprocated: don’t change. Absorb the finer details of the sport. Be Jamal Crawford, one of the NBA’s remarkable enduring scorers. To him, nothing was doctored for the sake of spewing.
May 03, 2014
Roy Hibbert had clapped on the sideline, gathered teammates for huddles on the court and punctuated a defensive revival in Game 7. This resembled the Hibbert of last season, and these were the Pacers of last season.
Apr 30, 2014
For years, Ted Leonsis ensured these Wizards’ rise again as long as patience sustained. We’ll be bottom-dwellers, until we’re be reputable again, and then this core will go on and on for contending runs, he’d preach. Still, he sensed teams hoping for them to rush the process; those on the hunt to capture a star let go too soon.
Apr 23, 2014
D.J. Augustin kept shooting and hitting, slashing and cutting, and soon it had come to a weary halt for the Bulls in Game 2. Ultimately, they all understand these playoffs fall upon their production, and the ranks of reliability are closing fast.
Apr 21, 2014
Everywhere around the Wizards, everyone knows Nene is capable of these big nights. Twenty-four points, eight rebounds and three assists, force, skill and a 1-0 series lead.
Apr 15, 2014
DeMar DeRozan had to prove the organization’s old vision of him as a cornerstone, as an efficient guard and reliable leader. He needed to mature as a two-way, inside and out player. For DeRozan, the departure of Gay had been the precise sign. His stats couldn’t be empty anymore.
Apr 02, 2014
For three seasons, Xavier Henry had been a meager part and less heralded talents rose above him in rotations. He was a five-star college recruit fleeting out of a role in the NBA.
Mar 26, 2014
Upon his release from the D-League, Aquille Carr started a purifying process around him, eliminating distractions and creating a gym regimen.
Mar 11, 2014
John Wall had grown so accustom to the scene: a lackluster start to the season and segments of the Wizards' locker room slowly griping. This team meeting, teammates had settled upon the chair of the franchise’s max player.
Feb 23, 2014
How close Nuggets management ever came to consummating a deal is uncertain, and every round of speculation surrounding Kenneth Faried had presented like a hopeless plea on the outside. His youth and blend of athleticism and ferocious knack for the ball make him a self-starter.
Feb 13, 2014
Anthony Davis talks to RealGM about the model leaders on burgeoning teams, how he stays focused and the story behind finding out about his All-Star bid.
Feb 10, 2014
The Rockets didn’t promise Dwight Howard winning, as much as it promised the comfort and attainment of his own locker room to lead again.
Feb 03, 2014
As superstar players applied supreme caution healing from significant knee surgeries, Leandro Barbosa was steadfast and sought an unconventional technique – training with Brazilian soccer players, consuming their conditioning exercises.
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