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Monday, June 11, 2007
Finley's long and winding road

By Jemele Hill
Page 2

SAN ANTONIO -- This is the latest edition of "When Good Things Happen To Good People," starring Michael Finley.

Finley is every cliché in the book, the player every coach wants. He stays late after practice. He mentors younger players. He's involved in the community.

But for a time, it seemed as if Finley was destined to stay on the list of extremely talented NBA players that would never have a chance at a championship.

Finley came to San Antonio last season for the sole purpose of playing for a title, but the Spurs were ousted by his old team, the Dallas Mavericks. That hurt a lot worse than the fist Jason Terry planted in Finley's groin in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Finally, though, it's Finley in the Finals. After 12 seasons, carrying a bunch of irrelevant Dallas teams, being dropped by the Mavs so they could avoid a nasty luxury-tax hit, Finley has the moment he's wanted since he was a kid growing up in Chicago.

"Hey, everything happens for a reason," Finley said, smiling broadly.

Things do have a way of working themselves out. It was assumed Finley's best chance to reach the Finals was with good friends Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki. And once the three of them were on different teams, most would have bet Nash or Nowitzki would win a championship before Finley.

But Dallas lost to Miami last year in what some regard as one of the worst choke jobs ever. (That is, until Golden State buried the Mavericks in the first round.)

Then Finley's Spurs took care of Phoenix and now it looks as if it will be Finley collecting a championship ring.

"I finally made it," he said. "It's something I always dreamed about as a kid. Once I got in the league, it's something I thought that everybody gets an opportunity to get here. But the reality hit once I got to the league that you can go your whole career and not get a chance to play in the Finals. I'm just blessed and honored to be a part of this and I'm going to take full advantage of it."

Finley could have very easily been at home watching this series with Nowitzki and Nash, who both sent congratulatory text messages to Finley once San Antonio advanced to the Finals.

When Finley was looking for a team in the summer of 2005, one of the teams in play for his services was the Suns. According to Finley, the Suns lost out because of an ill-timed trip by their two-time MVP point guard.

"When I was a free agent, Steve was out of the country," Finley said. "If Steve was in the country, you never know what might have happened."

And wouldn't you know it, Robert Horry was there to sway Finley into coming to San Antonio.

Big Shot Rob strikes again.

Finley has played like a first-timer so far in the Finals (2 of 11 shooting after two games), but no one could accuse Finley of gravy-training his way to a championship.

He has started all of the Spurs' postseason games and came into Game 2 averaging 13.1 points and shooting 46.2 percent from the 3-point line -- which has made his back-to-back two-point performances in the Finals uncharacteristic. Although Finley admitted he worried about tripping over the replica NBA trophy set up as a prop during introductions, he said he hasn't played poorly because of nerves.

"To be honest, I just missed," Finley said. "I missed shots I usually make. Coach [Gregg Popovich] told me he was more upset about the shots I didn't take than the shots I missed. I'll be OK."

But despite what adding Finley would do for the Spurs on paper, it wasn't an easy transition to San Antonio. Finley could not forget some of the battles he had with the Spurs -- particularly Bruce Bowen -- as a Maverick.

"It took awhile," Finley said. "We went to training camp in the Virgin Islands. We would do one-on-one drills and I felt like I was the opponent. I had flashbacks to Dallas against San Antonio. Coach would say, 'Mike, it's just practice.' He'd tell Bruce the same thing. It wasn't until probably around Christmas that I felt a little bit more comfortable."

Popovich is ingenious when it comes to adding players high in character and talent, but he acknowledges he got even more than he bargained for with Finley.

"He's even more of a leader than I thought he would be," Popovich said. "He's more vocal than I thought he would be. And he commands even more respect than I thought he would. He's really a remarkable individual."

In fact, there are times Popovich says Finley is "almost too professional of a player."

"He wants to please coaches so badly that he's just too hard on himself at times," Popovich said. "I think that he's learned with some humor and some discussion that it really is easier to play well if one can let go of a turnover or a missed shot and just go play because the consequences aren't very huge. We're all going to get up in the morning like everybody else on the planet and conduct real life, so I think that's all helped him."

Since everything is coming together for Finley, it shouldn't be surprising that a piece of his past recently resurfaced.

Dallas owner Mark Cuban recently said the Mavericks would love to have Finley back. Finley has one season left on a sweetheart, player-option deal. The Mavs will pay him $18.6 million and the Spurs $3.1 million for 2007-08.

Asked if he would entertain Cuban's offer, Finley said: "Cuban? No comment."

Like Finley said, everything happens for a reason.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.