If you ask someone to explain what was so great about Michael Jordan, you're likely to get "competitor," "winner," "killer instinct," or some other psychologically-based adjective that does little to convey the tangible skills he demonstrated on the court. While there is still some appreciation for the grace of his actual play, the Jordan competitiveness narrative has come to obscure memories of his full-speed inside-out dribble, and footwork that would stub a ballerina's toes. His post game, his passing, his strength -- all of it is subsumed into a broader story about a man's will. It's like remembering Mozart's works by declaring "no one loved music more," or explaining all of Ben Franklin's breadth of contributions with "he just thought harder than everyone."
Basketball punditry probably reached that Jordan moment with the San Antonio Spurs long ago. Whatever they do, however they do it, is largely explained by either "smart" or "veteran," and sometimes "fundamental." And just like with the odes to Michael Jordan's winning desire, the story isn't exactly false. The Spurs are mostly powered by smart veterans, after all. But in extolling general, psychological traits like this, we can oversimplify the story while sapping the wonder out of how greatness happens.
For instance, two rounds ago, when the Spurs went on an 18-2 run to force overtime and eventually take a Game 1 from the Warriors, the response was oddly unfazed. Of course the savvy vets would get one over on the young pups. It all fit snugly into a panic-versus-experience narrative. This messaging totally ignored how strange and, well, fun San Antonio was in that fourth quarter.
The flurry of points came from a squad that was more unconventional than fundamental. Four different San Antonio players scored during the sequence. Basketball tradition -- which the Spurs eschew -- favors a star dominating the ball down the stretch. While Tony Parker got the comeback started, the two final "clutch" 3s were hoisted by two young role players: Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The closing lineup was a super-small unit of three guards plus a Leonard-Boris Diaw frontcourt, with Tim Duncan watching from the bench. A lineup of five perimeter players? No Timmy? Young role players taking the biggest shots? There was an oddball, resourceful genius to the Spurs that night, and it will mostly be remembered as hare versus tortoise. How boring.
When you step away from "Savvy vets, at it again," you might notice that exciting, unexpected things are happening in Spurs Country. Tim Duncan is playing perhaps the best overall basketball of anyone we've seen at age 37. Tony Parker, in what would have seemed an improbable turn years ago, is growing into a Nash-like distributor role. Manu Ginobili is fighting his own body on every possession, channeling creativity through a disintegrating vessel. After a decade together, these guys are in the Finals pulling off the seemingly impossible, fighting Father Time to a draw at the present moment. How does Duncan maintain forever? How does Parker get even better?
The young guys are forging their own incredible paths. Danny Green played for the Erie BayHawks before finding success in SA. His basketball history isn't wholly dissimilar from Jeremy Lin's, superficially. Kawhi Leonard couldn't shoot in college. Now he's deadly from the corner. Instead of remarking on how flabbergastingly cool these success stories are, it's mostly chalked up to, "They're the Spurs." Of course San Antonio would know Green was a diamond in the rough. Of course they'd teach Kawhi how to shoot. Of course. It's not like either player was widely expected to thrive in this way. Now that they are, the outcome is retroactively considered predictable.
The repeated psychological trope of "Savvy Spurs, at it again" makes the difficult triumphs seem preordained, which doesn't allow us to even be impressed by the impressive. Ironically, the broad reverence for Gregg Popovich and company gets in the way of our Spurs appreciation in the specific. So much of this Finals run is surprising. So much of it is thrilling. And so much of it won't be remembered that way because we already have a story to remember it by. The Spurs are at it again.