Thursday, June 7, 2007
Updated: June 12, 5:24 PM ET
Stick a Spur in the Cavs
By Bill Simmons
Remember that depressing stretch of Super Bowl blowouts from 1985 to 1997, when everyone expected the NFC Juggernaut Du Jour to pound the AFC Sacrificial Lamb Du Jour, but a few media people always went against the grain and predicted a close game or an upset? Only two times did they get their wish (XXIII and XXV). Every other time, they ended up feeling dumber than the cast of "Sunset Tan."
Well, here's a warning to everyone selling the passive-aggressive "I know the Spurs are better, but hey, Cleveland beat them twice this season, and you always have a puncher's chance with LeBron, and that Cleveland crowd should be crazy for Games 3, 4 and 5 ..." crock of counter-hype crap this week: Not only will San Antonio win the title, it'll do it so easily/efficiently/masterfully/overwhelmingly that we'll remember the Spurs as one of the better championship teams of the past 30 years. We'd even be headed for a sweep if not for the NBA's old "shaky referee trick," in which the league sends three of its shakier referees to Games 3 and 4 -- you know, the ones likely to be influenced by Cleveland's crowd -- to avoid an embarrassing four-and-out by fouling out Duncan and sending LeBron to the charity stripe between 17 and 87 times. That's a mortal lock.
Let's face it -- you have a better chance of seeing Billy Donovan's family vacationing at Epcot than Cleveland winning this series. You have a better chance of Michael Jordan or Larry David convincing you to get married without a prenup. You have a better chance of seeing Jeff Van Gundy tell the truth after an ugly divorce with an NBA franchise. You have a better chance of seeing Carlos Zambrano and Michael Barrett making out like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.
(Should I keep going? Yeah, screw it.)
You have a better chance of seeing Charles Barkley at a $10 blackjack table or Miguel Cabrera eating a salad. You have a better chance of seeing Sammy Sosa use his own pee for a urine test. You have a better chance of seeing a diehard Patriots fan give Bridget Moynahan a baby gift. You have a better chance of seeing Memphis interview Chris Wallace multiple times for its GM vacancy even though we're only four years removed from his trading for an alcoholic making max money.
(Crap, that last thing happened this month? Really? All right, maybe Cleveland does have a puncher's chance.)
Here's the point: Cleveland isn't winning this series. But since it's no fun heading into the NBA Finals when the result has already been decided, four myths have been perpetuated this week. So let's shoot them down:
Myth No. 1: Maybe the West was better than the East this season, but not by THAT much.
Ummmmmm ... no.
Did you watch the Pistons-Cavs series? Did you see how gawdawful Game 2 was? Did you see all the coaching mistakes? Did you see how disjointed the offenses were? What about Game 6 when Doug Collins actually said something along the lines of, "I can't remember the last time I've seen that many bad plays in a row in a basketball game"? Seriously, this was Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals! Collins made it sound like he was watching two hungover intramural teams playing in a 90-degree gym at 8:30 in the morning on a Sunday.
This isn't baseball, where an underdog from an inferior league can catch fire for a few weeks and win the title (see: the 2006 Cardinals). The cream always rises to the top in the NBA. Back in 2002 and 2003, when we had the biggest imbalance between the East and West, a decent New Jersey team got smoked by the Lakers and the Spurs in consecutive Finals, losing eight of 10 games, with their two victories coming by a combined total of three points. Everyone who picked the Nets in either one of those series felt like a complete imbecile afterward. You know why I know this? Because I picked the '03 Nets to win in six games. Some of the highlights:
"When was the last time there was an even matchup in a Finals?"
"Maybe New Jersey couldn't have handled the Lakers, Mavs or Kings in a seven-game series, but the Spurs are perfect for them."
"I'm picking the Nets. And I'm not just picking them. I'm telling you, they're going to win. The team with the best player always wins the title ... [and] nobody's playing better than Jason Kidd right now. Nobody. That's why I'm going with the Nets in six."
Call it a lesson learned. When the talent disparity between two conferences becomes this pronounced, the Finals for the weaker conference's representative turns into one of those "Madden" seasons when somebody can't handle the jump from "All-Pro" to "All-Madden." That's what will happen to the Cavs in this series. The Spurs just rolled through three of the best six teams in the league: Denver, Phoenix and Utah, all of whom were better than Detroit. Meanwhile, Cleveland played a ravaged Wizards team, a three-man Nets team and a Pistons team that clearly needs to be blown up. ... Somehow, the Cavs made it through the entire playoffs without facing a team that could (A) attack them with a penetrating point guard (taking advantage of their lack of shotblocking and lack of a true point guard), (B) make LeBron work on defense, and (C) trap LeBron and force his teammates to beat them.
(Important note: Flip Saunders finally realized the trapping thing after Game 5, when LeBron scored 29 of the last 30 points and insured that Flip will spend the rest of his life on ESPN Classic staring out onto the court like Michael Corleone staring out onto the lake at the end of "Godfather: Part II." In Game 6, he adjusted and trapped the living hell out of LeBron, and it even worked for the first 30 minutes -- LeBron was frustrated and the Cavs looked discombobulated, even more than usual -- until they eventually adjusted and Daniel Gibson started bombing those open 3-pointers. Flip's biggest mistake was not mixing up the traps with conventional defenses; he was like an NFL defensive coordinator who called the same blitz for 55 straight plays. Eventually, the quarterback can figure out who's open, right? The Spurs won't make this mistake: They'll trap LeBron one play, play straight-up the next, trap the next two times, and so on ... they'll make sure he never gets into a rhythm. Really, this isn't rocket science.)
Myth No. 2: It means something that Cleveland beat San Antonio twice this season.
If this were the NFL ... yeah, it would mean something. But those wins came on Nov. 3 and Jan. 2. Why is this relevant? In the words of Phil Leotardo, lemme tell you a couple three things. For the first half of the season, San Antonio was a nonthreat compared to Dallas and Phoenix and I stopped monitoring the Spurs almost completely. Starting in February, I missed three weeks of non-Celtics games because I was dallying with college hoops -- yes, the halcyon days of the Oden-Durant Sweepstakes, well before May 22 turned me into a full-fledged alcoholic -- and found myself blindsided by John Hollinger's blog on Feb. 25 that suddenly ranked the Spurs as the best team in basketball.
Whaaaaaaaaaat? The Spurs had a giant fork in their backs! How could this be?
Intrigued, I watched them a few times and wouldn't you know it ... Hollinger was right. The Spurs looked like a totally different team. Ginobili's move to the bench on Jan. 28 eventually energized both him and Finley (more comfortable as a starter), and for whatever reason, Duncan raised his defense to another level (I can't remember him ever defending as well). In a two-month stretch from Feb. 13 to April 13, they kicked it into fifth gear by going 25-3 (including a 13-game winning streak), shifted into neutral for the last three games (all losses) with a No. 3 seed locked up, then kicked it back up into fifth by going 12-4 against Denver, Phoenix and Utah in the playoffs.
Here's the point: Throw out those cruise-control games and the Spurs are 37-7 since Feb. 13. And since the Cavs didn't play them during this stretch, as far as I'm concerned, their 2006-07 history is moot.
Myth No. 3: This Spurs team isn't any better or different than the '99, '03 and '05 teams.
Complete bull feces. It's the best Spurs team of the entire Duncan era and the second-best team of the post-MJ era behind the awesome 2001 Lakers, who peaked at the perfect time and have to be ranked among the top-six title teams ever ... well, unless you're John Hollinger. Let's break down Duncan's four title teams (counting the one they're about to win):
1999: This was the excruciating lockout season, when the overmatched player's union -- led by Billy Hunter and Patrick Ewing, who shouldn't have been trusted to handle a bake sale at an elementary school, much less a labor dispute -- had their ensalada tossed by David Stern (at the apex of his power) and limped back to work in early February, followed by a rushed 50-game season in which too many players changed teams and nearly everyone was out of shape, leading to nagging injuries, shoddy basketball and an absolutely hateful season on every level. The rushed playoffs were such a joke that the eighth-seeded Knicks ended up making the Finals before getting trounced by the Spurs, although there was one silver lining: New York's miracle run inspired a reader named Dave Cirilli to e-mail me The Ewing Theory.
After the season ended, we quickly agreed to pretend it never happened -- just like we agreed to pretend that "Fletch II" never happened, "Caddyshack II" never happened, the "Dancing in the Dark" video never happened, Sly Stallone's porn movie never happened, the Sports Guy cartoon never happened and everything else. Strangely, a few years passed and this '99 championship somehow gained validity, obscuring two facts that nobody seems to remember.
Fact No. 1: During the lockout, San Antonio and Utah were the only two teams that held informal practices, trained together and stayed in shape ... as opposed to Shaq, who stayed in shape by trapping himself inside Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles and eating everything in sight for four straight months, including Roscoe. In a related story, the Spurs and Jazz tied for the league's best record at 37-13.
Fact No. 2: Their best player was Duncan (coming off minor knee surgery, only his second year in the league). Their second-best player was David Robinson (a 15-10 that year and clearly moving into another phase of his career). They had Sean Elliott (his last decent season), Mario Elie (almost washed up), Jaren Jackson (please), Malik Rose (a hard worker, that's about it), Avery Johnson (a 10th man on the '07 Spurs) and Steve Kerr (never clicked with that Spurs team) as their supporting cast. Somehow, they rolled through the playoffs, swept L.A. and Portland and crushed the Knicks in the Finals, squandering just two games along the way. Seriously, does that look like the roster of a team that should be ripping off a 15-2 playoff record?
The moral of the story: We need to go back to pretending that season never happened. Well, except for the time when Antoine Walker got cut during a Celtics game and my dad wondered if gravy would come out.
2003: No question, Duncan was at the absolute peak of his power (averaging a 25-15-5 for the playoffs). But Robinson was on his last legs, Tony Parker was still feeling his way (don't forget, they spent the ensuing summer trying to sign Jason Kidd) and Manu Ginobili was a precocious young bench player with a full head of hair who hadn't considered bastardizing the sport with his flopping yet. They did get a breakout year from Blackjack Bowen (he needs a wrestling heel nickname at this point, I refuse to call him "Bruce" anymore) and some quality minutes from Stephen Jackson, who turned out to be their make-or-break perimeter shooter (and delivered for them), even though the thought of Jackson playing with guys like Duncan, Kerr, Parker, Danny Ferry seems as ludicrous on paper as Roger Mayweather filling in for Rosie on "The View."
But who are we kidding? The Lakers should have won five straight titles from 2000 to 2004 and didn't because of the Shaq-Kobe alpha dog battle, some boneheaded front office moves and Shaq's breaking out his smash-hit conditioning program, "How to take the summer off, then use the first 60 games of the regular season to get in shape." Anyway, this was a very good Spurs team, not a great one.
2005: Duncan was still in his prime, Parker and Ginobili were emerging as elite players, Blackjack Bowen was an elite defender and Big Shot Brob was now involved ... but still, look at the rest of the roster. A floundering Brent Barry was getting 20 minutes a night. Nazr Mohammed was playing big minutes. So were Devin Brown, Rasho Nesterovic and Beno Udrih. There was also the bizarre running subplot of Duncan's losing his confidence at the charity stripe (60 percent for the season), to the degree that he seemed terrified to get fouled in close games. They certainly didn't win the '05 Finals over Detroit in convincing fashion; it was an ugly Finals and an out-and-out ratings catastrophe for ABC (which should have preempted Game 7 with a rerun of "Lost"), although the highlight was when Al Michaels confessed to Hubie Brown during Game 4, "Hubie, I'll admit it, I'm only here because ABC wrote me a gigantic check to pretend I like basketball for two months."
(Or maybe I imagined that. I can't be sure.)
2007: Now in his 10th season, Duncan has never been better as an efficient offensive player (54 percent shooting in the playoffs), as a help defender and shot-blocker, as a passer out of double-teams, as a leader and competitor, you name it. Maybe he'll never top his ungodly 21-20-10-8 performance in the 2003 Finals clincher -- a forgotten classic that should be mentioned in any "greatest playoff performance ever" discussion -- but with the sport going smaller and faster over the past three years, amazingly, he's a bigger asset than he was four years ago. Once the perfect power forward, he's now the perfect center.
As for his supporting cast, Parker remains one of the best scoring point guards in the league, and Ginobili is one of its better all-around guards (depending on the matchup, one of those two always becomes the No. 2 crunch-time scoring option behind Duncan). Michael Finley is the most reliable guy they've had at the Elliott/Jackson/Barry "shooter who's always open" spot. Blackjack and Big Shot Brob are playoff-proven warriors who've slipped some but remain valuable in any big series. The underrated Oberto-Elson combo is better than anything they've had since Mr. Robinson. Even Barry and Jacque Vaughn are reliable as far as ninth/10th men go. These guys can play run-and-gun, they can play slowdown, they can defend, they can play smallball, they can come from behind, they have one of the best coaches in the league ... you name it, this team can do it.
Again, it's the second-best NBA playoff team since Jordan retired. For some reason, only a few people realize this. Leading to our final myth ...
Myth No. 4: The Spurs aren't fun to watch.
Not true. Maybe they aren't that likable, and maybe the flopping and eye-rolling and constant bitching isn't defensible ... but if you can't rally around Duncan's all-around brilliance, Parker's uncanny ability to score in the paint, Ginobili's penchant for rising to the moment, their superb role players and the obvious affection these guys have for each other (as well as their coach), then I don't know what to tell you. Their fast breaks are great. Their slash-and-kick game is great. Duncan's low-post play and footwork isn't just great, it's unparalleled right now. Their spacing is great, their rotations are great, even their flopping is great. Their outside shooting is good enough that they're averaging 39 percent for 3s in the playoffs ... as a team.
Maybe the 2001 Lakers had a higher ceiling because of the Shaq-Kobe combo, but the '07 Spurs are the most brutally efficient group in recent years. Their closeout game against Utah was straight out of the '80s, back when dominant teams won the first two at home, split Games 3 and 4, then sent their opponents packing with a Game 5 butt-whupping. It was nice to see a killer team taking care of business again. Reminded me of the good old days.
And that's why I'm excited for the Finals: Not only do we get LeBron playing in his first Finals, not only do we get an all-star flop-off between Ginobili and Anderson Varejao, not only do we get the biggest coaching mismatch since Norman Dale dismantled the coach from South Bend Central, not only do we get extended details of the Longoria-Parker wedding and LeBron's girlfriend's pregnancy, not only do we get Drew Gooden's vertebeard and David Wesley doling out chest bumps in a five-button suit ... but we get the Spurs quietly submitting their audition tape for the "Best Playoff Team of the Decade" discussion. Within seven to 10 days, this will all make sense.
THE FINAL VERDICT: SPURS IN 5
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.