Jerry Colangelo couldn't take it anymore. It was early 2001, and watching NBA games, once one of his greatest pleasures, had become a source of constant frustration. He had observed too many defenses get away with so much physical contact that players couldn't drive or cut without being pounded like fullbacks. He had noticed too many offenses that relied on one- or two-man isolation sets in which the other players cleared out, so uninvolved they could have been waiting for a bus. He had seen too many playoff games turn into wars of attrition, with no flow, no fast breaks and no scores even approaching triple digits.
But unlike other fans, Colangelo owned the Suns and could express his disgust directly to David Stern. "You know how much I love this game, but right now I don't like it," Colangelo told the commissioner. "I'm a basketball lifer, and if I'm turned off, we've got a problem." He outlined ways the game could be made faster, more fluid. Stern's response? "He said, 'Then fix it. Go ahead and appoint yourself a committee,' " Colangelo says. "So we did."
In March of that year Colangelo convened a council of creative minds who came at the game from every angle: Hall of Fame players Jerry West and Bob Lanier; former coaches Dick Motta and Jack Ramsay; ex-general manager Wayne Embry; referee Ed Rush; league executives Stu Jackson and Rod Thorn; former forward and director of player programs Purvis Short; and active centers Alonzo Mourning and Theo Ratliff. During two days of meetings at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix they formulated a prescription for change that ultimately would let the game breathe again.
If, as expected, the NBA Finals beginning on Thursday between the Heat and the Spurs are the competitive and artistic success that the rest of the postseason has been, consider it the blossoming of the seeds that were planted 13 years ago. There will be precious little isolation ball, and defenses won't be able to stop penetration by packing the paint. Instead, Miami will stretch San Antonio's defense, at times putting five players on the floor who are all three-point threats, opening up gaps for slashes to the basket from LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and friends. San Antonio will test the Heat's defensive rotations with deft, mesmerizing ball movement. The Spurs don't just find the open man: Their open man makes the extra pass to the even more open man.
"It took a couple of years for what we tried to do to take hold, but if you look at the game now, aesthetically it's just so much better," says Jackson, vice president of NBA operations at the time and now an NBA TV analyst. "The game had come to a grinding halt and become a little bit boring. Now it's improved to the point where teams are refining it into something really beautiful to watch."
The Heat and the Spurs have gone even beyond what Colangelo envisioned, when he primed the panel's discussions by showing an NBA-produced video of the league's different eras. In dividing the game into 10-year increments, from the 1950s to 2000, the regression from the fast pace of the late '80s to the grabbing, holding slog of the '90s was even more obvious. "Evolution in reverse," Colangelo called it. [video:]
There was full agreement on the mission; only the specifics needed to be hashed out. The committee's recommendations, all of which were implemented, are now familiar: abolishing the illegal-defense guidelines designed to keep teams from playing zone; reducing the 10 seconds allowed to get the ball across half-court to eight; and instituting a defensive three-seconds rule that would prevent potential shot blockers from clogging the middle. There was some sentiment for emulating the international game -- making a trapezoid lane and relaxing the goaltending rules -- but the panel decided that would be too drastic. The early returns on the changes they did propose were so promising that in 2004-05 the league followed the committee's lead by making another crucial tweak: tighter enforcement of hand-checking rules.
The proposals weren't met with unanimous approval. Pat Riley, then the Heat's coach and now their president, was one of the strongest dissenters. "I think it's a huge mistake," he told The New York Times. "There's not going to be anybody able to drive. With these rules, you're going to be back in the 70s in scoring. You can't force pace."
But hardly anyone would argue now that the game was better before the rules changes. "We felt these were the best athletes and coaches in the world, and they would adapt," says Colangelo, who sold the Suns in 2004 and is now chairman of USA Basketball. "That's exactly what they have done." That has never been more evident than in these playoffs. It's not just the two finalists that have made the game more entertaining; the entire postseason has been one of the most free flowing in recent memory. The first round had a March Madness feel to it, with the underdogs adding a layer of drama rarely seen early in the playoffs. The No. 8 Hawks and Mavericks pushed the top-seeded Pacers and Spurs to two of a record five Game 7s. Games went down to the wire almost daily -- 19 of them were decided by four points or fewer, a first-round record, and eight went into overtime, including an unprecedented four in a row in the Grizzlies-Thunder series.
The improved quality of play has been evident by almost every measure. According to Basketball-Reference, the average offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of playoff teams entering the Finals is 108.6, the highest since 1995, which is also the last time that effective field goal percentage was as high as the 50.1% this postseason. The pace of play, measured by the average number of possessions per 48 minutes, has been faster than in any postseason since '93. Despite the accelerated tempo, playoff teams have kept their mistakes to a minimum: The turnover rate is the second lowest since '73-74, the earliest season for which pace can be calculated. In short, teams are scoring more efficiently, playing more quickly, shooting more threes, making more shots and turning the ball over less than at almost any point over the last 20 years.
No one has taken better advantage of the game's evolution than the Heat, who even hastened it. Offensively, they look nothing like the team that lost to the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals, at the end of LeBron's first year in Miami. James and Wade spent most of that season trying to find a balance between deference and aggression while figuring out a way to play around big men like Joel Anthony, Erick Dampier and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, whose offensive skills were either few or fading.
Two months after that Finals defeat, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was standing on the sideline watching an Oregon football practice. The NBA was in a lockout, so he made the most of his forced free time by touring the country to learn from his fellow coaches, regardless of the sport. Spoelstra and Ducks coach Chip Kelly spent several hours talking about the principles of speed, explosiveness and unpredictability on which Oregon's spread offense was based, and Spoelstra began to see how a similar approach could be adapted to his team.
"Pace and space" became his mantra. After the lockout ended, the Heat signed free-agent wing Shane Battier, a resourceful defender and 38.5% three-point shooter, then brought in alltime three-point leader Ray Allen the following year. The big centers were gone or mostly benched, and the offense has flourished ever since, especially in this postseason. Miami averaged 115.9 points per 100 possessions in the first three rounds of the playoffs, which would be the highest offensive rating ever in a regular season.
If there is still any belief that Spoelstra is just a caretaker of talent, his reinvention of a Heat offense that now makes full use of James's versatility should put that to rest. LeBron is both a low-post scorer and a high-post passer, a floor spacer and a pick-and-roll practitioner, a primary creator and a potent decoy. His credibility in each of those roles -- as facilitated by floor-spacing three-point shooters, and Wade's corresponding flexibility -- has allowed Spoelstra to create a more appropriately dynamic system. Miami's attack isn't turbocharged; it ranked 27th in pace during the regular season. The Heat's success lies in their half-court game in which the floor is spread, the cuts are precise and the ball moves crisply among players attuned to one another.
San Antonio's philosophy seems to have been in place forever, or at least for the 17 years that coach Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, his stoic, resolutely reliable big man, have been together. Once dismissed as boring, the Spurs have now become almost fashionable (not to mention favored against the Heat, who are going for their third straight title). A highlight video of San Antonio running its offense through the years -- cutting, curling, screening, sharing -- has gone viral in recent weeks, the antithesis of the dunk clips that usually circulate.
The Spurs will never be the coolest team in the league, but Duncan & Co. have gained a certain popularity, in part because of the rise of advanced statistical analysis and the fans who embrace it. San Antonio was ahead of the curve in its emphasis on efficient basketball, in concentrating on less traditional concepts like exploiting corner threes and by finding overlooked players with hidden value, from Bruce Bowen and Gary Neal in years past to Boris Diaw and Danny Green today. The Spurs are a litmus test for basketball knowledge. If you find them bland, you will be dismissed as a superficial fan. If you find them beautiful, you are an aficionado.
Popovich's charges are even more respected within the league, of course. "They never stop playing," said All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, whose Trail Blazers lost to San Antonio in five games in the second round. "If you guard their first option, they've got a second option. If you guard their second option, they've got a third option. They're persistent. They're going to run their stuff over and over, and once you mess up, they're going to make you pay. They play consistent, championship basketball."
Neither finalist needs to be told of the other's strengths, particularly after their seven-game classic last June. The Spurs have carried the wounds from squandering the lead late in Game 6 that would have clinched the title and then dropping Game 7. "It's unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss we had last year," the 38-year-old Duncan said after the Spurs eliminated the Thunder in Game 6 last Saturday. "We've got four more to win. We'll do it this time."
It was an uncharacteristically bold statement for the Spurs' buttoned-up elder statesman, but then there is no need for either team to try to hide anything from the other at this point. These Finals will not be remotely influenced by bulletin-board material or motivational ploys. It should be the kind of series that Colangelo and his fellow panel members hoped for during those 48 hours in Phoenix. "We wanted to get the game back to the way it was meant to be played," Colangelo says. No matter which team ultimately holds up the Larry O'Brien trophy, the Heat and the Spurs are equally strong proof of a mission accomplished.