Warszawski: San Antonio Spurs give gift of ‘beautiful basketball’

The Fresno BeeJune 14, 2014 

There are teams that leap higher, score more and are all kinds of flashy, but no team can surpass forward Kawhi Leonard and the rest of the San Antonio Spurs when it comes to executing the fundamentals of team basketball.

LARRY W. SMITH — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Thank you, Tim Duncan. Thank you, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard. Thank you, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Danny Green.

Thank you, Gregg Popovich and the rest of the Spurs for your selflessness and synergy. Thanks for your precision and cohesion. For playing a brand of basketball worthy of NBA champions.

Sunday's Game 5 looks to be their coronation.

It's possible -- though unlikely -- the Heat will win on San Antonio's home floor to extend the NBA Finals. But so what? No team in league history has come all the way back from a 3-1 deficit, and barring a miracle this flawed, fatigued Miami squad won't be the first.

For that, all true hoop heads should be thankful.

The aesthetics of basketball, more than any other sport, is bound by its participants.

When played as it should be, as it's meant to be, with multiple passes every possession and by players who move without the ball and forgo decent looks at the basket in favor of teammates with great ones, the game becomes high art.

Unfortunately, what we see far too often is a dreary finger-painting of one-on-one moves and isolation plays. Just so the game's stars can get theirs.

Probably it's those indelible Lakers-Celtics memories of my youth (the Magic vs. Bird years, smarty pants, not Chamberlain vs. Russell), but I've always felt the team that wins the NBA championship should also play basketball at its highest level.

These Spurs are doing precisely that.

Much has been made about San Antonio's shooting in this series: 54.2% overall and 46.7% from beyond the arc. Both, if they hold up, would be NBA Finals records.

The reason isn't necessarily because the Spurs are great shooters. They're simply getting great shots.

As ever, it comes back to passing. San Antonio has made 154 field goals during the Finals with 102 of them coming off assists. That's 66%.

Think about that for a moment. Each time the Spurs score a basket during this series, nearly two-thirds of the time those points come as a direct result of a teammate's selflessness.

As Heat forward Chris Bosh put it, "The Spurs are playing beautiful basketball."

Miami, by contrast, has 138 field goals in the series and 62 assists. That's a shade under 45% -- and well below the Heat's 59% rate during the regular season.

This discrepancy also shows up on the defensive end. One reason Heat players look so gassed is because they must expend valuable energy chasing down passes from one side of the court to another.

A basketball passed between teammates travels faster than any set of legs. That's been a fundamental of the sport since James Naismith hung up his first peach basket.

Duncan wasn't around back then; it only seems that way. The 38-year-old power forward extraordinaire is on the cusp of his fifth NBA championship, equaling Kobe Bryant among active players.

Certainly, Duncan is no longer the force he used to be, and the same can be said about Ginobili and, to a lesser extent, Parker. Those two are about to win No. 4.

During this series, however, many of San Antonio's best runs have come with all or most of their Big Three watching from the bench.

It's been Leonard, the third-year small forward who played two seasons at San Diego State, establishing himself as one of the NBA's premier two-way players capable of both springy dunks in traffic and stifling defense against LeBron James.

It's been Diaw, once cast off by the Bobcats, making no-look, behind-the-back passes to Tiago Splitter for easy layups.

And, of course, it's been the brilliance of Popovich. Far too much attention gets paid to what he says (or doesn't say) during interviews. When it comes to making adjustments, during games or between them, the man has no peer.

Inserting Diaw into the starting lineup before Game 3 was Popovich's latest stroke. The doughy forward plays defense and shares the ball without worrying about his own scoring total -- exactly the kind of player the Spurs are looking for.

What kind of player is the Heat looking for? Even while the two-time defending champs were getting bulldozed back-to-back at home, there was talk in Miami about adding Carmelo Anthony during the offseason.

You've gotta be joking. The last thing the Heat need is a me-first ball hog focused on his own stats and not one care about making his teammates better.

But Anthony is a star, and he's a sexy name. ESPN would gobble it right up. Their loudmouths would spend the entire offseason dissecting the story like a fetal pig.

No one talks much about the Spurs. They go quietly about their business, shuffling and retooling the roster with players Skip Bayless wouldn't waste three words on.

Am I predicting a San Antonio dynasty? Not quite. Seven years have passed since the Spurs' last championship, and this one will feel more like retribution from last season than the dawn of a new era.

The NBA is a star-driven league -- and has been since those halcyon days of Magic and Bird. I get that. But every once in a while basketball fans need to be reminded teamwork matters above all else.

Thank you, San Antonio. It's been a pleasure.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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