San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, center, celebrates with teammates in the closing moments of a series-clinching win against Oklahoma City, setting up a rematch between the Spurs and Heat in the NBA Finals. (Reuters)
Smart, sharing, versatile, deep and most of all consistent are the San Antonio Spurs, who hunger for revenge against the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
Leading by five points with 30 seconds to go in a potential Game Six clincher in Miami last year, the Heat rose up to send the game to overtime, force a Game Seven and prevail to dash San Antonio’s hopes for a fifth NBA crown.
“It’s unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss that we had last year,” said Spurs’ future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan after beating Oklahoma City to reach another NBA final. “But we’re back here.
“We’re happy it’s the Heat again. We’ve got that bad taste in our mouths still.”
In an NBA where the cult of personality has dominated in recent decades from Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James, the low-key Spurs have thrived the old fashioned way - through teamwork, dedication and stability.
And talent, of course.
Duncan, their stabilizing, stoic presence in the middle, dazzling French point guard Tony Parker and all-purpose Manu Ginobili of Argentina have formed a core four with cerebral coach Gregg Popovich for an unprecedented run of 17 seasons in the playoffs.
San Antonio won their first NBA crown in 1999 and their last of four titles in 2007 with a four-game sweep over the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were led by 22-year-old LeBron James.
It has been an unquestioned success story for the only original American Basketball Association (ABA) team to win an NBA title.
The franchise was born in 1967 with the upstart rival league to the NBA as the Dallas Chaparrals, a nickname related to drought-tolerant scrub plants, but the team did not flourish.
In 1973 a group of 36 San Antonio businessmen leased the team for three years to move it to their city and agreed to return the team to Dallas if they could not arrange a purchase.
The team was renamed the San Antonio Gunslingers, but by the time they played their first game in San Antonio the name was changed to Spurs.
The city embraced its only professional sports team, the purchase was made and the club was folded into the NBA in June 1976 when four ABA teams merged into the NBA.
San Antonio’s best known player in the early years was high-scoring guard George “Iceman” Gervin.
Gervin, a 6-foot-7 run-and-gun scorer, won three NBA scoring titles in a row from 1978 and added a fourth in 1982, compiling a 26.3 average in his dozen seasons with the Spurs.
Although the team consistently made the playoffs, they were not able to break through to a championship and after Gervin left San Antonio in 1985 the team struggled.
Their fortunes changed when first overall draft pick David Robinson joined the team for the 1989-90 season.
U.S. Naval Academy graduate Robinson, nicknamed “The Admiral,” lifted the Spurs back into a perennial playoff team.
In 1996-97 a spate of injuries led to San Antonio’s worst season ever, 20-62, but it brought them another number one pick in the NBA Draft and they hit the jackpot again by taking Duncan out of Wake Forest.
In Duncan’s second season with the team, the so-called “Twin Towers” of Duncan and Robinson combined for San Antonio’s first NBA title and launched, with Parker and Ginobili joining in, a stretch of four championships in nine seasons.
Under Popovich, a disciple of longtime former NBA coach Larry Brown, the Spurs stressed ball movement, unselfishness and defense.
The Spurs amassed a team with a distinctly international flavor including France’s Boris Diaw, Italy’s Marco Belinelli, Australian guard Patty Mills and Brazilian Tiago Splitter.
Another key piece is third-year forward Kawhi Leonard, who last year played nagging defense on James and is considered by Popovich to be the future face of the team.
“He’s gaining confidence … starting to figure out that he’s a hell of a player,” the coach said. “He’s probably the future of the Spurs, partially because everybody else is older than dirt, and somebody younger has got to take over eventually.”
Popovich said there is no secret formula to their success.
“Every coach in the league is trying to get his guys to go good to great, and hit the open man, so that’s not unique with us. I happen to be fortunate enough to have some players that are built that way.”