For the first time, I actually followed the NBA this season. That was due to my Oklahoma nationalism–that being where I grew up–and getting hooked on the Oklahoma City Thunder, with MVP Kevin Durant and company.
I had always thought the playoffs, which involve a best-of-seven series on every level with days between games, lasted forever. But now that I had a horse in this race, I found myself drawn in, as the Thunder advanced two levels–each filled with drama, soap-opera intrigue, and thrilling games–until they were beaten by the San Antonio Spurs. That team just won the championship by decisively beating Lebron James and his superstar team the Miami Heat. Watching the Thunder play the Spurs for so many games made me appreciate them, and I’m glad they won.
The observation was posed to Spurs general manager R.C. Buford before Game 5 of the Finals, with his Spurs boasting a commanding 3-1 lead over Miami:
Armed with one of the deepest rosters in history and a rare team ethos, the Spurs were setting a new standard for what professional basketball could be.
Humility and pragmatism prevented Buford from agreeing. Championships are so hard to win that nobody would willingly limit their options. Few know this better than the Spurs, who have won championships with defense, and by riding an all-time great at the peak of his powers.
And now comes their latest, won by a cadre of smart, skilled players whose teamwork elevated the game to an art form. If Buford wouldn’t say it, Miami star LeBron James did for him after the Spurs completed the most lopsided rout in Finals history on Sunday, crushing the Heat in five games by an average margin of 14 points.“That’s how team basketball should be played,” he said. “It’s selfless. Guys move, cut, pass. You’ve got a shot, you take it, but it’s all for the team and it’s never about the individual. That’s their brand of basketball, and that’s how team basketball should be played.”
The Spurs completed the regular season as the first team in NBA history without a single player averaging at least 30 minutes. They were the first team to enter the postseason with nine players averaging at least eight points since Boston in the mid 1960s. They finished their run with the lowest leading playoff scorer — Tony Parker at 17.4 points per game — of any champion since Rochester in 1951.
And despite the lack of star power, the Spurs had the eighth-highest scoring margin in postseason history at 9.3 points per game. The seven teams ahead of them are all historically revered, including the 1985-86 Celtics (10.3); the 1995-96 Bulls (10.6) and the 1986-87 Lakers (11.4).
Exclude their seven-game battle with Dallas in the first round, and they look even more dominant with a plus 19.3 net rating (the difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions) against Portland, Oklahoma City and the Heat, who averaged nearly 56 wins between them in the regular season. Twelve of the Spurs’ last 13 playoff victories over those opponents came by at least 15 points, an NBA record for a single postseason.
Eight players averaged at least 7.3 points in the playoffs, with Kawhi Leonard — their sixth-leading scorer per 100 possessions during the regular season — becoming the youngest player since Magic Johnson to win Finals MVP.
“We’re a true team, and everybody contributes,” Parker said. “Everybody did their job. We did it together, and that was the whole key this season.”