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Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard graces Sports Illustrated cover after Spurs claim fifth title

Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard graced the cover of Sports Illustrated after the Spurs beat the Heat in five games. (SI)

Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard graced the cover of Sports Illustrated after the Spurs beat the Heat in five games. (SI)

San Antonio demolished Miami so quickly in the NBA Finals that it required real effort to catalog all of the ways the Spurs had distinguished themselves from their previous title teams, from past NBA champions, and from the other 29 teams that competed for a title this season.

Boiling down the Spurs' standout characteristics into a laundry list of adjectives might look something like this: dominant, international, systematic, deep, explosive, fluid, unselfish, balanced, disciplined, focused, redemptive and fun.

In a cover story for the June 23 issue of Sports Illustrated, Lee Jenkins touches on many of these attributes as he traces San Antonio's return from a devastating 2013 Finals loss to Miami.

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Jenkins open with Boris Diaw, a crucial X-factor whose insertion into the Spurs' starting lineup in Game 3 helped key three consecutive blowout victories over the back-to-back champion Heat.

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Boris Diaw stood in a sticky locker room perfumed by Dom Pérignon and Dos Equis, transported to a dusty gym in Bordeaux, where stains on the walls led the way. He was 14, his club team was called JSA and his coach was named Gilles Ortiou, who believed basketball players should be as dexterous as circus performers. So Diaw grew up juggling balls at practice and dribbling three at a time, often between his legs. His father was a Senegalese high jumper and his mother a center on the French national team, known as the country’s first woman to master the jump shot. But her younger son preferred to pass. “He had no choice,” says Martin Diaw, Boris’s older brother by four years. “He had to set me up.” When the gym was empty, Diaw would pick out smudges on the walls and treat them like teammates, hitting the marks from every angle.

The 6' 8" Diaw has spent 10 years in the NBA, beginning as a guard and expanding to a center, and at every stop he requests that coaches hold morning “passarounds” instead of shootarounds. They humor him—“Yeah, yeah”— and roll their eyes. Two years ago the 7–59 Bobcats waived Diaw largely because of his reluctance to shoot. Last year the Spurs benched him in the Finals due to his deference. But Gregg Popovich, who appreciates pinpoint passes as much as Bordeaux reds, came to be the right coach for Diaw. San Antonio occasionally runs five-on-five drills in which no one takes a dribble. Diaw was as comfortable with the Spurs as with JSA.

Finding a way to get the most out of a talented castoff is a quintessentially Spurs thing to do. Jenkins uses Diaw as a jumping off point for an exploration into how San Antonio continually finds a way to do more with less. He finds that age forced a thorough reevaluation in 2010, a shift in focus that produced back-to-back Finals runs and the fifth championship of Tim Duncan's tremendous career.

There is no playbook that describes The System, no mission statement that puts it into words. Guidelines are passed down from Popovich, who developed it, and the Big Three, who adopted it. When the Spurs acquire a new member, the front office holds a meeting. “We get everybody in a room,” says general manager R.C. Buford, “and ask each other, ‘What can we do to help this player?’ ”

The System binds a roster that looks as if it were commissioned by the United Nations. On Sunday night the Spurs gathered onstage for a team picture, which contained two players from France, two from Australia, plus others from Argentina and Italy, Brazil and Canada, New Hampshire and New York, L.A. and the Caribbean. Many wore flags from their homelands, draped over their shoulders, an inclusive and appropriate gesture to cap the spring of Donald Sterling. The Spurs come from everywhere but the heartland, yet they represent its hoop ideals, five players touching the ball and four passes before a shot.

The Spurs struggle to define The System, but they point to their offense as its clearest manifestation: a crew that moves in unison, seeking the best shot, regardless of who fires. That may sound rigid, but The System is in fact elastic, stretching with the times and growing with the men who inhabit it.

Look no further than Kawhi Leonard for evidence of that elasticity. The 22-year-old Finals MVP might grace the issue's cover in the classic superstar's pose -- above the rim, fearlessly preparing to detonate -- but he is revealed to be one more talented, but imperfect, piece molded along with the others into greatness.

Through the first two games Leonard failed to score in double figures, earning a lecture from his coach. “The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu,” Popovich told him. “You play the game. You are the man.” Whether it was Popovich’s words or Diaw’s passes that unlocked Leonard, the shy 22-year-old cracked 20 points in three straight games for the first time in his three NBA seasons. Teammates mobbed him as he cradled the MVP trophy on Father’s Day, six years after his dad was killed in a Compton, Calif., shooting that remains unsolved.

The story hits on a number of other developments: getting over the pain from the 2013 defeat, the logic behind the Spurs' pass-heavy approach and increased pace compared to many years past, just how unprecedented coach Gregg Popovich's minutes allotment was this season, and an eyewitness account of their joyful title celebration.

String all of these threads together, and the piece winds up coming back to Tony Parker's simple message to reporters after San Antonio clinched the title. "We're a true team," he said.

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