How the San Antonio Spurs’ unparalleled teamwork squashed the Miami Heat’s superstar-laden attempt at a three-peat and gave many fans something to cheer for
I have never been afraid to chime in about how much I detested the state of NBA basketball from the late 1990’s until the mid 2000’s and every low scoring affair that followed suit. There were certainly many unforgettable moments, Hall of Fame performances, and pulse-pounding seconds in those years to go with the discomfort of watching one ugly rock fight after the next in the NBA Finals. The days of the Showtime Lakers and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics running the score up to 110 or 120 were long past gone by the new millennium, but the thesis of needing superstar players to lead your team to a title remained the same.
By 2000, the new dynasty in town was a familiar logo in the Lakers, only this time with the dynamic (and highly volatile) duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant under the coaching eye of Phil Jackson. By the time that Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich, and the San Antonio Spurs had finally figured out a way to take down the Lakers in the Western Conference in 2003, Shaq and Kobe had already sealed the deal with a three-peat of their own, only done previously by Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Bill Russell’s Celtics. The most logical counter that the Lakers could find to their loss to San Antonio was simply to reload with even more All-Star talent, and they did so by snatching Karl Malone and Gary Payton for pennies on the dollar. Truth be told, the Lakers did get the last laugh on the Spurs thanks to a miraculous shot by (newly hired Knicks head coach) Derek Fisher. As much as fans secretly enjoyed wishing for the Lakers’ demise and lamenting the Spurs’ selfless shortcomings, many had already convinced themselves that L.A. was going to win the 2004 NBA Championship and show once and for all that stars win titles, chemistry be damned.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and that thing was the Detroit Pistons. Coached by Larry Brown, the Pistons were the red letter definition of what made NBA basketball a contact sport on most nights a decade ago: Physical, suffocating defense followed by slow, uncreative offense. To demean the sophistication of team defense in basketball would be like spitting at one side of a painting and fawning over the other, but it should be easy to see why watching a game full of missed shots and turnovers can be detrimental to a basketball fan’s health. By using that comparison, the Pistons were Dr. Death: A team that gave up as many baskets as they gave a crap about your well being. Although many of the Pistons players went on to have great careers, the starting five of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Ben Wallace led by Brown’s defensively minded work ethic were a team not beholden by ego or star power.
When the Pistons measured up to the Lakers on the tale of the tape before the 2004 Finals began, every analyst outside of Detroit had the Pistons as bridesmaids to the dysfunctional ceremony of Shaq and Kobe winning their fourth title and waiting to see which star would take most of the credit. But it became clear right from the get-go that unlike the Pacers, Sixers, Nets, Blazers, Timberwolves, Kings, or even the Spurs, Detroit basketball was an animal the so-called “Fantastic Four” had yet to face. The Pistons punished the Lakers with a convincing 87-75 win at Staples Center to take control of the series. L.A. was almost lucky to win Game 2 thanks to game-tying three-pointer by Bryant, leading to a Lakers win in overtime. The true face of a champion and the ugliness that comes with deflated expectations was reveled in the next three games in Detroit as the Pistons’ team defense bamboozled O’Neal and Bryant to win by shocking margins of 20, 8, and 13 points.
The script had been flipped so swiftly that by the time we got to Game 5 at the Palace of Auburn Hills, with the Lakers one loss away from their dynasty crumbling, the Pistons’ 100-87 beatdown of L.A. to win the title seemed almost like a sacrifice for the sins of the superstar. The most memorable moment for me in that series was not a steal or dunk or even a player but Brown in the huddle in the closing moments telling his team what they were about to pull off, proudly yelling, “We’re the world champs! Us! Us!” As Shaq and Kobe walked with their heads down on separate paths, never to play together again, a team full of players married in play had become permanently intertwined in the annals of NBA Finals lore. Almost never could you pinpoint an NBA Championship team that did not feature at least one go-to superstar or All-Star leading the way before the 2004 Pistons hoisted the trophy (The closest companion would be the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics, whose best player and Finals MVP was a young Dennis Johnson). The Finals MVP in the series was Billups, a point guard who had bounced on several teams for several years before finding a home in Detroit. But Detroit’s title win was so equally shared that it made Billups’ award nearly inconsequential, an award tailored for an individual in a group that was all about the concerted effort.
All five starters (and a sneaky good bench) were quite different in their approach to the games on and off the court, but it was Brown’s defensive singularity that truly bonded that team in a way that gave them tunnel vision as the Pistons locomotive ran over the Shaq and Kobe era. One of my favorite sayings in basketball is that you could either have five fingers or roll them up and make a fist, and that fist was a perfect symbol for what made the 2004 Pistons such an indelible group in the eyes of many. It is difficult to say how much of the adoration for what the Pistons did came from the fact that fans both hardcore and casual simply wanted to watch the spoiled, star-gaudy Lakers burn. If you see the ratings from that Finals, it is clear that most viewers tuned in to give eulogies both heartfelt and tongue-in-cheek to the Lakers as they were butchered by an opponent who cherished team basketball, a group whose whole was far more than the sum of its parts.
The Pistons went back to the Finals the next season to prove their greatness as a squad when they collided with the same San Antonio Spurs team that had feuded with Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers year after year. The ratings were low and the scores were dismal, too, as the San Antonio faced nearly a mirror image of themselves in Detroit. To the surprise of no one, it went seven games before the Spurs took down the Pistons 81-74 in a tightly contested game. Larry Brown left the Pistons after the series to coach the Knicks, and the Finals run for Detroit was over, but it seemed fitting that a team so closely focused on togetherness and cohesion was the only one that could topple the unflappable nature of the Pistons’ starting five under Brown. The Spurs would win another title in 2007 before age, lack of scoring, and various issues left the organization without a Finals appearance for six years.
The Spurs would finally reach the Finals again in 2013 with Pop, Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili back in the saddle, but also with a brand new supporting cast and a drastic change in style of play. Instead of playing defense first and revolving a predictable offense around Duncan, the Spurs had become a reservoir for offensive play calling where every clever scoring design a coach could dream of came to life. It became almost strange watching a slower-footed guy like Duncan move so smoothly through a higher pitch of offense that he had never been accustomed to, even in college. But it became clear that the greatest opponent for the defending champion Miami Heat in the 2013 Finals was not Duncan, Parker, or Ginobili, but the Spurs’ offensive strategy as a whole.
It would have made for a great story that year had it not been taken away from them in heartbreaking fashion in Game 6 in Miami thanks to a couple of hesitant coaching decisions and bad bounces that turned a 5-point lead with 28 seconds left to an overtime loss and another road game left to play. Game 7 was generally well-played, but mental mistakes and missed opportunities by the Spurs altogether ruined their chances to take down LeBron James, who won his second straight Finals MVP in a Game 7 victory. Never had Popovich and Duncan’s Spurs lost in the NBA Finals before LeBron’s Heat did the deed that year, and it was a defeat so hurtful that it was the very first thing the team talked about when they reconvened for training camp for the 2013-14 season.
It was obvious that this season the Spurs were more determined that ever to get back to the promised land. After a slew of injuries in January and February, the Spurs ran roughshod on the league down the stretch with a 19-game winning streak and a 62-win record as they posted top five ranks in nearly every offensive category. The Dallas Mavericks certainly gave the Spurs a scare in the first round, but all that seven-game series did was wake the team up even earlier than usual. The Spurs sliced and diced the Portland Trail Blazers before taking down regular season MVP Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder in six games. We should have known how special of a team the Spurs were when they won Game 6 in Oklahoma City, one of the toughest places to play for a road opponent, without Tony Parker for the second half and overtime, to move on to the Finals.
The Spurs were openly inviting a rematch against the Heat to try to exorcize the demons that had doomed them in last year’s Finals, and they got their wish this year. This time, the Finals would begin in San Antonio, and even though the air conditioning infamously went out along with LeBron James’ leg muscles, the Spurs had no trouble speeding along to a 110-95 win. It seemed like we were in for the long haul once again after Game 2 when the Heat, led by LeBron’s 35 points, won 98-96 and took home court from the Spurs. However, the Spurs’ offense ran rampant all over South Beach for Games 3 and 4. The first half of Game 3 was basically a clinic on how to run perfect offense in basketball as the Spurs shot over 75% from the field and had 71 points at halftime. The Spurs went on to win 111-92. Game 4 was more of the same but with a spice of defense defusing the Heat as the Spurs took a 55-36 halftime lead and never looked back, winning by 21.
It became perfectly clear going into Game 5 back in San Antonio due to the change in Finals format starting this year that the goose was all but cooked on Heat president Pat Riley’s second attempt to cash in on a potential three-peat. Then the sometimes-unbearable Bill Simmons said something that truly enlightened me as Miami fans hurried out of American Airlines Center after the Spurs sealed the Heat’s fate in Game 4. Simmons mentioned how the Spurs’ exquisite offensive display and teamwork had the same markings as the Pistons’ brutal defense did back in 2004 when the star-studded Lakers went down for the count. It made me look back on that simple pronoun Larry Brown had said to his Pistons team as the unlikely ones were about to take down Goliath: “Us.” Every championship team in the NBA has its share of loyalty, togetherness, trust, and sacrifices for the sake of the team, but no team since the ’04 Pistons has exuded the selfless, cohesive philosophy of teamwork like this Spurs team did in the 2014 Finals.
Granted, the Spurs had won four titles before (including one over that very same Pistons team) and Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili are all surefire Hall of Fame players down the road. Hence, to downplay the individual talents of the Spurs players compared to those Pistons players would be like comparing apples to oranges. But there is something to be said about a league where so many championships have been won riding on the back of superlative individuals like knights in shining armor (as LeBron did in last year’s Finals). For once, and on a very rare occasion, the victors consist of a team where the culture of ball movement, accurate shooting and passing breeds a pedigree of success, where not one star player lords over the masses. It is funny that so much was made in the battle between Miami and San Antonio about how the Spurs had the “original Big Three” in Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. Yet when the Spurs finished off the Heat in a 104-87 win in Game 5, the Finals MVP was neither of those three but Kawhi Leonard, a third-year small forward who lets his game do all the talking.
Through the series, only three different Spurs players (Duncan, Parker, and Kawhi Leonard) scored 20 points or more throughout the Finals. One of the most clutch shooters for the Spurs throughout the series was Australian point guard Patty Mills, who scored 14 points in Game 4 and 17 in the clinching Game 5. The 107 PPG average in the Finals was the highest by a championship team in over a decade. The Spurs’ 52.8% shooting is the best field goal percentage in the Finals since the advent of the shot clock era, made even more amazing by the fact that they attempted well over 100 three-pointers and made nearly half of those. Even when LeBron got off to hot starts and willed his team back into the game, all it took was a barrage of roundabout passes or a 10-0 spurt by the Spurs to put the Heat defense on roller skates. It almost felt like Miami’s overmatched head coach Erik Spoelstra was fighting a ghost that continuously haunted his team until the game was over.
Just as Larry Brown’s verbal emphasis on “Us” felt like a rallying cry for the case of team over individuals, I could feel that same sense of oneness and solidarity come to fruition for the Spurs as they exacted revenge on the Heat without the pitfalls of selfish play or hero ball. The Spurs’ championship victory is likely to only lay as an exception to this wonderment of an offensive machine that the organization has built as we prepare for a summer in which superstars like Carmelo Anthony look out for number one in their quest for a title. Superstar-centric tactics to win a title are as traditional as the nets that hang below the rim, and that will never change. But just as the Pistons became a fundamental outlier to the theory that only stars win titles, it is a splendid thing to see a Gregg Popovich’s team-oriented San Antonio Spurs disprove that theory for old time’s sake. Besides, you can’t spell the word “Spurs” without “U” and “S.”