WITH A GORGEOUS DISPLAY OF BALL SHARING THAT PUT THE "FUN" IN FUNDAMENTALS, THE SPURS—SPARKED BY A GOURMAND WHO ALMOST ATE HIS WAY OUT OF THE LEAGUE—ROLLED TO ANOTHER TITLE
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.
He came off the bench for San Antonio this season, averaging a modest 9.1 points with 4.1 rebounds. But Popovich wanted another ballhandler on the floor and unexpectedly moved Diaw into the starting lineup before Game 3 of last week's Finals. What ensued, Gilles Ortiou might say, was a circus. In three outrageous exhibitions that will be played and replayed at summer camps worldwide by coaches begging their young ball hogs to drive and kick, the Spurs flummoxed LeBron James and Miami with an extended clinic that recalled the 1980s Lakers and Celtics. They had 51 more assists in the series than the King-centric Heat, and even more impressive, introduced hoop fans to the hockey assist.
June 23, 2014
"This series was the battle between one-on-one, individual basketball against together, team basketball," said Diaw, after finishing the series with an astronomical +74. "I'm proud that team basketball won." Tim Duncan earned his fifth championship and forward Kawhi Leonard was named Finals MVP, but San Antonio's truest star was its telepathic passing game. "Good to great," Popovich often says, urging the Spurs to turn down decent shots in favor of better ones. They didn't let fly against Miami until they were all alone. There were stretches when it seemed they'd never miss, like the start to Game 3 at AmericanAirlines Arena, when they sank 19 of their first 21 field goals. "A masterpiece," says former Spurs center Fabricio Oberto, who witnessed it.
The following night, Oberto, Diaw, Tiago Splitter and Manu Ginóbili dined at Il Gabbiano, the Italian restaurant on Biscayne Bay where Popovich took the Spurs after they lost Game 6 of last year's Finals, blowing a five-point lead 30 seconds from the title. "We've been here before," Diaw said. "We can't be shy about it." The image of Ray Allen's corner three had run on a loop in their collective memory for 362 days, and when the Heat grabbed a 16-point lead early in Game 5, they may have suffered a few flashbacks. But Popovich urged his players to "pound the rock," which in San Antonio apparently means pass it. They scored 69 of the next 100 points for their third rout in a row, 104--87.
With two minutes left in the fourth quarter of Game 5, and AT&T Center roaring like a thousand mariachis, the Spurs' coaching staff went silent. "Everyone sat down," recalls one assistant. "No one said a word. It was totally quiet until the buzzer." When friends and family finally poured onto the court, Popovich spotted Avery Johnson, the point guard on his first championship team, in 1999. As Foreigner's "Feels Like the First Time" blared from the speakers, Popovich hugged his former floor general and planted a kiss on his cheek. "The misery, the frustration, the anger of everything that happened last year," Johnson says. "You could feel him let it all out." At Pop's feet, Ginóbili's four-year-old twin boys picked pieces of silver confetti off the floor, like seashells on a South Padre beach.
San Antonio's Big Three—Ginóbili, Duncan and point guard Tony Parker—are the basketball equivalent of the Yankees' Core Four. The Yanks seized four crowns in five seasons and then waited nine years for their fifth. The Spurs took number four in 2007 and toiled through six empty seasons, always winning at least 50 games but always falling short. This year the Big Three even leaned on the South Side Five, the self-dubbed quintet at the end of the bench. The Spurs became the first team in NBA history not to have a player average 30 minutes in the regular season, while their bench put up a league-high 45.1 points a game. The intent was to keep the starters fresh, but even in the Finals, Popovich relied on his reserves, who outscored the Heat's by 79 points.
The trio remains potent, but the latest championship was a testament to The System, a term that refers neither to the Spurs' offense nor their defense as much as their soul. "It's a team concept more than X's and O's," says forward Matt Bonner. "A lot of it is intangible. A lot of it is upstairs." Of the eight players who averaged more than 20 minutes this season, only two attended BCS colleges and one was drafted higher than 15th. All but Duncan, the No. 1 pick in 1997, could have been acquired at some point by virtually any other organization. Their talent, in many cases, was their aptitude. "We're not an athletic team," Splitter says. "We don't jump over people and do 360s. What we have is our smarts and our system."
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.
IN MAY 2010 the Suns swept San Antonio in the Western Conference semifinals, and the Spurs coaches took a retreat to downtown Chicago. In a suite at the Peninsula, they watched tape of the series and scrutinized a scheme that brought them four titles. San Antonio's offense was born in the age of Shaquille O'Neal, when pass-first point guards dumped the ball into the low post and watched giants bulldoze to the basket. It wasn't pretty, but it was productive, especially for the Spurs, because Duncan did so much more than maul. He was famous for the bank shot but equally adept at the kick out. When opponents brought inevitable double teams, he could find open shooters with his eyes closed.
But in the summer of 2010, Duncan was 34 and the NBA was evolving, thanks to a generation of effervescent point guards who were too talented just to feed the post. San Antonio had knocked Phoenix from the playoffs in three out of four years, but Steve Nash and his go-go Suns provided the impetus for change, pureeing the Spurs with their high pick-and-rolls. Popovich told his lieutenants at the Peninsula, "We can't win like this anymore. We have to get faster."
The strategy sounded counterintuitive, an older club embracing a swifter pace, yet it is exactly what revived the Spurs. Instead of exiling trusty veterans on lucrative contracts, the common course of action in professional sports, Popovich reshaped their roles. He unleashed Parker, coaxed Duncan out of the paint and surrounded them with marksmen galore. He found that Parker could channel Nash, and Duncan could pass as well out of pick-and-rolls as post ups. The Spurs never changed their nucleus, only their personality, morphing from plodders to pushers. "Pace! pace! pace!" Popovich yelled in timeouts, and his charges complied, jetting from 20th in pace factor (possessions per 48 minutes) in 2009--10 to seventh two years later.
Diaw, who was with the seven-seconds-or-less Suns in Phoenix, calls San Antonio 10 seconds or less. The Spurs don't run constant fast breaks but generate pace through rollicking half-court sets, dribble-handoffs stacked on top of pick-and-rolls, touch passes leading to layups or corner threes. No one deems the Spurs boring anymore, but just six weeks ago they appeared vulnerable, hosting Game 7 against the eighth-seeded Mavericks and flirting with their third first-round exit of the past six years.
"They are so trained on swinging the ball to that weak side and bombing threes," says Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki. "Our game plan was to stay home on their outside shooters and let them beat us with twos. We came up with some coverages that were more random, late switches, big guys taking guards and little guys sliding in front of bigs." The Spurs escaped Game 7, and Nowitzki handicapped their prospects. "I wasn't sure," he says. "They were a little inconsistent. Maybe we got them pissed off."
San Antonio's next 12 wins came by an average of 19.7 points, as the Spurs cruised through playoff series against the Trail Blazers, Thunder and Heat as if it were the preseason. "This is the best basketball I've seen in my life," says Colin Stanton, a 26-year-old video editor in San Diego, by way of Philadelphia, where he used to be a high school coach. "They resemble an elite European soccer club more than an NBA team."
Thirty minutes before Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Stanton uploaded to YouTube a six-minute, 55-second Spurs video tribute called The Beautiful Game, set to classical music and slo-mo highlights. The first sound you hear is the voice of Showtime, Magic Johnson, speaking a few years ago on TV. "So many times we promote the individual," Johnson says in the clip. "Oh, LeBron, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant. But then we leave out something really unique and special. And that's team." By the end of Game 2, the video had more than a million page views.
The Heat declined to follow the Mavs' blueprint, defending San Antonio with the same approach they've used to smother opponents for four years: blitzing the point guard, trapping the ball, trying to create turnovers and transition opportunities. "You have to make their defense work for you," says a Spurs assistant. "You do that by moving the ball—because the ball moves faster than the feet." The Spurs passed an average 353 times per game in the Finals, according to NBA.com/stats, the Heat 256.8 times. "It's not that we're fancy," Ginóbili says. "We can't score any other way against them."
With Miami charging at Parker, forcing the ball from his hands, Diaw became the de facto point guard. Parker and Diaw have been friends since they were teens, and at the European championship in September, a weary Parker told Diaw he needed help. Diaw responded, and France seized its first title. Back stateside, in Game 6 of the conference finals at Oklahoma City, Parker missed the second half due to a sore left ankle and Diaw closed out the series, finishing with 26 points. Against Miami, Parker leaned on his old pal again to assume some playmaking duties. Three times the Spurs shot better than 57%, reaping the rim twos and corner threes their offense is built around.
San Antonio could have filled 10 more YouTube videos with its Finals handiwork, but one play was particularly instructional. Late in the first quarter of Game 3, amid the Spurs' 90.5% shooting jag, Leonard dribbled down to the right corner and handed to Ginóbili, who fired a fastball to the top of the key for Splitter, who swung to the left wing for backup point guard Patty Mills, who dumped down for Diaw, who handed back to Mills, who drove along the baseline and flipped to Ginóbili for a layup. Within eight seconds all five Spurs touched the ball, and two of them touched it twice. Besides Leonard, Mills was the only one who required a dribble. "Swing the ball to the other side, play out of the post, and make good hard cuts," says the Spurs' assistant, watching a video of the possession on a cellphone. "Those are all the things we do."
The unit responsible for that little piece of performance art logged only eight minutes together in all of the regular season. There wasn't a lottery pick among them. The chief playmakers, Mills and Diaw, nearly ate their way out of the NBA. Diaw is not a Spurs' headliner as much as he is a metaphor: discarded by one of the worst clubs in the league and claimed by one of the best, less for his athleticism than his understanding and unselfishness. He is a product of The System, and The System is a reflection of him.
ON SUNDAY afternoon you could have passed out five Finals MVP ballots and received five different winners. There was a reasonable case to be made for Diaw, Duncan, Parker, Ginóbili and Leonard. 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.
Leonard was the primary defender on James, holding him under 30 points in three games, but even that required a group effort. San Antonio, which bothered James a year ago by playing off him and daring him to shoot, took a more aggressive stance. They switched most pick-and-rolls, even if it meant matching James with the diminutive Mills, in order to clog driving lanes. After the 2007 Finals, when the Spurs swept the Cavs, Duncan told James, "This is going to be your league in a little while." He was right: James picked off the last two championships, until Duncan and his posse shockingly regained control.
San Antonio's epitaph has been written many times, but Popovich said last week he has no plans to retire. Duncan was not as committal, though he is under contract for another year, as are Ginóbili and Parker. Diaw and Mills are free agents, but both are comfortable in San Antonio. Leonard and guard Danny Green are only improving. The System is humming. "I could see this like one of those classic boxing matches," says a Miami assistant coach, "where we fight a third time." The Heat will have to recover and regroup from a gruesome TKO. "One-on-one they're better than us," Diaw says. "But we have the better team." As Diaw spoke, he tried to gather the group for another pic: the Big Three, the South Side Five, and everyone in between. "Where's Patty?" he yelled. "Where's Manu?" The Spurs are composed of so many crucial parts, it was impossible to find them all, and eventually Diaw headed back to the makeshift bar in the locker room.
"Dude," he said, sounding a long way from Bordeaux, "I'm gonna get another beer." Diaw double fisted Dos Equis, one for himself, one for a friend. Here's to the Spurs, always looking out for each other, from good to great to greatest.
"This series was the battle between one-on-one basketball against team basketball," says Diaw. "I'm proud that team basketball won."
Leonard's slow start earned him a lecture from Pop: "The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu. You play the game.You are the man."
Percentage of San Antonio's baskets that were assisted in the Finals. The Heat had assists on just 45.2% of their buckets.
Losses by at least 15 points suffered by the Heat in the Finals—one fewer than they dropped by that margin in 82 regular-season games.
Age of Kawhi Leonard (below), the second-youngest Finals MVP. Only Magic Johnson of the Lakers (in 1980 and '82) was younger