The San Antonio Spurs are the NBA's most international team, a collection of imports from Paris (point guard Tony Parker); Bahía Blanca, Argentina (shooting guard Manu Ginobili); and the Slovenian towns of Celje and Ljubljana (backup guard Beno Udrih and backup center Rasho Nesterovic, respectively)--not to mention the U.S. Virgin Islands (superstar forward Tim Duncan). "This team just sounds different than any team I've been on," says reserve shooting guard Brent Barry, a 10-year veteran. "Maybe it's something little, like hearing Tony speak up during a team meeting or Manu talking in Spanish during a timeout. But there's something great about it."
The lingua franca of the Spurs, though, is team basketball. Through the first two games of the Finals, 84-69 and 97-76 home blowouts of the defending champion Detroit Pistons last week, San Antonio exhibited deft ball movement, impeccable defense and unrelenting energy--a universal prescription for victory. Despite such virtuosity, the public yawned and hit the remote. After Game 1 ABC attempted to put a smiley face on its national rating (7.2) by noting that it was high for "a non-Lakers Final." Perhaps the world does crave another heaping helping of Shaquille O'Neal's flapping his gums about Kobe Bryant. But for hoops purists there is far more pleasure to be had in watching the Spurs.
In the second period of Game 2, Ginobili and Parker combined on two plays that should be run on a loop for NBA critics. On a seemingly routine start to a half-court set, Parker passed to Ginobili on the wing. As soon as he dished, Parker cut into the lane; seeing that Parker's defender, Chauncey Billups, had turned his back to the ball for a split second, Ginobili threw a bounce pass just under Billups's arm for a 40-foot give-and-go deuce. Two minutes later Parker had the ball on the right wing when Ginobili ran from under the basket toward the top of the key to receive a pass. But sensing that he was being overplayed by 6'9" Tayshaun Prince, Ginobili stopped abruptly, cut back toward the hoop and took a perfect feed from Parker for a layup. The instant recognition by both players of what the defense had given them was extraordinary, and one had to wonder, Would they have developed such instincts had they been weaned on an AAU team in the U.S., where backdoor means the best way to sneak into the gym?
During timeouts, before coach Gregg Popovich convenes his Spurs as a unit, several side conversations invariably occur. In the first half of Game 2, Duncan pulled aside center Nazr Mohammed and reinforced one of Popovich's defensive tenets: When you get cross-screened in the paint, fight through the pick and stick with your man across the lane as tightly as possible. (Mohammed had just allowed Ben Wallace an open layup.) A few minutes later Bruce Bowen pulled aside Parker after Parker's man, Lindsey Hunter, had grabbed an offensive rebound. "Don't follow the flight of the ball with your eyes," Bowen told Parker. "The most important thing is to locate your man and get a body on him." On how many teams is a starter who's catching his breath tuned in enough to share so fine a point? "We all understand we can learn something from everybody," says Barry. "That [kind of communication] happens more on this team than any I've ever seen."
As the series moved to Detroit for Tuesday's Game 3, the Pistons found themselves in a role reversal from last year, when they so effectively used team play to dismantle the favored Lakers in a five-game Finals. And just as that Los Angeles team was splintered by the Shaq-Kobe power struggle, this Detroit team has been divided and distracted by its coach, 64-year-old Larry Brown. Pistons sources say that several players are angry with Brown for discussing an executive position with the Cleveland Cavaliers during the playoffs. Detroit general manager Joe Dumars did indeed give Brown permission to talk to the Cavs (and vice versa), but it's one thing to have the go-ahead, quite another to go ahead. Brown, who is in the second year of a five-year, $30 million contract, should have said, Call me after my team's quest for back-to-back titles is over.
Despite being pounded in Game 1, the Pistons played with little sense of urgency or poise on Sunday. Had they made the necessary adjustments? "That's what these playoffs are all about," a team source had said during the Eastern Conference finals. "But we can't focus on adjustments because the day after every game the story is always about Larry and what he's going to do." The player most upset with Brown, according to team sources, was Wallace, Detroit's selfless center. While Wallace wouldn't comment on his feelings, he was uncharacteristically out of sorts, with a combined 14 points and 15 rebounds in San Antonio--numbers he would be expected to put up in a single playoff game. Some of the Pistons' on-court difficulties can best be examined through the prism of Big Ben.
A three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Wallace disrupted the Lakers' high pick-and-roll in the 2004 Finals by repeatedly double-teaming the dribbler (usually Bryant) and chasing him almost out to midcourt. Wallace tried the same thing in Games 1 and 2, but the Spurs turned it into gold, particularly when Ginobili was the ball handler. Though Ginobili retreated when Wallace came out to double, he kept his dribble and, in effect, started the offense over again. Only now, with Detroit's defense spread, the 6'6" Ginobili had room to Manu-ver. With his swerving penetration he either made it to the hoop or kicked to a wide-open teammate. Four of San Antonio's 11 three-pointers in Game 2 came off Ginobili assists on these "broken" pick-and-rolls.
Since Bryant failed to find fissures in the Pistons' defense in the '04 Finals, it is reasonable to posit that Ginobili is better than Kobe in breaking down a half-court D, a notion that would have seemed outlandish a year ago. True, Ginobili failed to impress forward Rasheed Wallace, Detroit's designated trash-talker--"In my mind there ain't nothing too special about the kid"--but with 53 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists and 4 steals, the 27-year-old Ginobili played the first two games at a superstar level.
No one was happier about that ascent than his teammates. It's all part of the positive culture of the Spurs, which has developed in part because the players come from so many places. At a recent practice the subject of the televised National Spelling Bee came up--Popovich recalled that the word in question was appoggiatura--and Ginobili was mystified. "Who are the bees?" he asked. That led to an impromptu spelling bee. (Nobody did very well.) Duncan may not waste much warmth on outsiders, but he provides plenty to his teammates. The rookie Udrih almost fell over when he arrived at training camp and Duncan grabbed him, saying, "Hey, how you doing?" The feeling is quite different from what Nesterovic, who joined the team in 2003-04, experienced in five seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves. "Rasho told me that he felt all alone there," said Udrih. "But no one is alone in San Antonio."
Don't gag. The Spurs devote little time to analyzing their We Are the World solidarity, and the prevailing tone of the team is sarcasm. When Parker spoke at last October's tip-off luncheon, he stepped to the podium wearing Ginobili's 2004 Olympic gold medal and directed his comments to Duncan, whose U.S. team took only the bronze. "Sorry you don't have one of these, Tim," he said, brandishing the medal.
San Antonio's camaraderie is grounded most of all in the relationship between Popovich and Duncan, who was his usual dependable self in Games 1 and 2, piling up 42 points and 28 rebounds. The coach lets it be known in little ways that his superstar is special--he talks to the press about Duncan's intellect, and in private he frequently takes Duncan's suggestions about practice times and travel schedules. But by and large he treats Duncan like any other player, getting in his face when he does something wrong. "The most negative message a coach can send is when he says nothing to his superstar but yells all kinds of stuff at the 12th man on the team," says sixth man Robert Horry, who won championships with the Houston Rockets and the Lakers. Did that happen in L.A.? "Oh, man," says Horry, "don't make me go there."
San Antonio's 12th man agrees. "When Pop gets in the face of Tim, Manu and Tony, it sends an important message," says forward Tony Massenburg. "It says that the team, not the individual, is the only thing that matters. When you're right, you're right, and when you're wrong, you're wrong." Ginobili knew he was wrong in the first quarter on Sunday when he botched a play called Strong Hold, posting up and demanding the ball instead of cutting through to the other side. Popovich yelled and stomped his foot, and Ginobili could only spread his hands and look sheepish.
Judging by Games 1 and 2, San Antonio is clearly a team in full; Detroit a team in disarray. Both had relied on the same formula to reach the Finals--tough defense, the extra pass, veteran leadership--but last week one was superior in all phases of execution. The outside world may not have been watching their brilliance, but the Spurs clearly had the attention of the reigning champs.
SPURS¬†During a break, the forward gave tips to Parker on boxing out.
PISTONS¬† "There ain't nothing too special about the kid," he said of Manu.