Spurs are better than Heat for this NBA Finals rematch
June 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
With the San Antonio Spurs returning to the NBA Finals for a grudge match against the Miami Heat, they suddenly started using a word that coach Gregg Popovich once said wasn’t in his basketball dictionary: “happy.”
Popovich didn’t use it himself, of course, but everyone from Tim Duncan to Manu Ginobili to Boris Diaw to Danny Green did while describing their latest feat. Still, the shelf life on “happy” is about as short as Popovich’s leash, and Duncan spoke for them all in the moments after their Game 6 victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday, when he declared on TNT, “We got four more to win. We’ll do it this time.”
So can they exact revenge against the Heat?
They can, and they likely will.
The status of All-Star point guard Tony Parker’s sprained left ankle is a hugely relevant and fluid factor. He missed the second half of Game 6 but gets four days off to rehab with the hope that he doesn’t have to hobble his way through the Finals as he did last year. But these Spurs — who won eight more games than the Heat while playing in the much tougher Western Conference, had the league’s best record at 62-20 and earned the home-court advantage that was Miami’s last time — simply are better than they were then.
Ginobili is Ginobili again, having recovered from an awful 2013 playoff run and retirement thoughts to play his crucial sixth man role. His late fourth-quarter three-pointer in the series-clinching win against the Thunder was another vintage moment for the Spurs’ family photo album: Duncan crushing Derek Fisher with a screen, Ginobili rising up to bury the shot from the top and Duncan hugging Ginobili and cradling his head like he often holds the basketball.
Duncan still is Duncan, a surreal fact that the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka can confirm. The continued evolution of 22-year-old small forward Kawhi Leonard means San Antonio is that much more capable of containing LeBron James. The offseason addition of backup shooting guard Marco Belinelli hasn’t paid off lately, but his presence makes the Spurs that much deeper should Green struggle. Role players such as revived big man Diaw (26 points in Game 6) serve as reminders that anyone can get it done in the Spurs’ anti-star system.
But the psyche matters more than the scouting report here; San Antonio has used the pain of what came before to push so hard these last 11 months. Popovich shared this substantive truth with anyone who would listen during the season, acknowledging that their memory banks simply wouldn’t let the Spurs forget. Duncan, a 38-year-old four-time champion, knows as well as anyone what’s on the line, how much it would hurt if they fell short again.
“We just had a weird year this year,” Duncan said. “We were pressing hard early on and grinding on each other, just because of what happened last year.
“We were able to settle ourselves down. We played with a bunch of different lineups all year long. We had guys ready to play, and it’s shown throughout these playoffs where guys just step up and step in and are ready to play. I’m proud of the team for just being ready, just not letting that weigh on us and using it as an excuse for anything. We’re back here now, and we want to get it done this time.”
Diaw, whose 2012 signing continues to pay dividends, can’t help but remember last season, along with the rest of his teammates. “It was something that fueled us the whole season,” he said. “That’s the first speech Pop gave starting the season in preseason: ‘It was OK we had a shot last year. We didn’t do it, but we have to go back there.’ … (But) you don’t get a ring by just making it to the Finals. You get a ring by winning it.”
Green, who went from nearly being Finals MVP to having to re-earn his starting job with Belinelli’s arrival, spread the message that had been unofficially endorsed by all. “We are not by any means satisfied,” he said. “We know we have a lot of work to do against a very good team.
“There is a reason why they’re back there and are two-time champs. We have our work cut out for us, but we are happy with going back — just not satisfied.”