LeBron James could have played better, but even if he had, it likely wouldn’t have mattered. Nobody was beating the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night, not on an evening when they scored 71 points on 33 shots in the first half. The Spurs started their versatile utility big Boris Diaw. In that extra space, with that extra passing, they conjured up a storm that the Miami Heat couldn’t come close to weathering, taking NBA Finals Game 3, 111-92.
The beautiful offensive explosion rendered the best player in the world irrelevant. James is perceived as many different things, but rarely is he considered ancillary to the outcome. On Tuesday, that was the case.
For a team once dismissed as “boring,” the Spurs have come to represent a lot of things to a lot of people. They are a symbol of consistency, longevity, teamwork and innovation. They are looked upon as an antidote to the NBA’s superstar marketing machine. While it’s debatable as to whether marketing superstars is a bad thing, the Spurs are certainly an alternative for those who want a different kind of NBA.
Superstars have ruled the NBA for eons. They exert a lot of leverage on a sport in which five guys play at once on a team. It’s commonly thought that you need one, if not two, to have a real shot at a title. Also, the individual prodigy sells the shoes and the jerseys. It’s easier to market a single avatar than a series of complementary parts. This is a league powered by, and commonly understood through, the exploits of lone actors.
If superstars are the lifeblood of NBA success, then what are the Spurs? They lack what’s supposedly required and here they are, two games from a title.
Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili all have their moments of brilliance, but you could not count on them to play 37 minutes per night at a level we equate with superstardom. It feels unfair to call Hall of Famers “role players,” but the Parker-Duncan-Ginobili trio have slowly become that on the team they’ve built. Fortunately for Spurs fans, their big three plays on a dream team of role players. Danny Green is a 3-and-D specialist to the extreme; Tiago Splitter expertly protects the rim, Patty Mills is a deadly off-the-dribble shooter, and Boris Diaw can do anything that doesn’t require running or jumping.
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s victory, we’ll look to hype Kawhi Leonard for a couple days. Some of this will be because he played an astoundingly good game, and some of it will be a latent desire for the Spurs to provide us a young, exciting superstar to frame our focus.
Maybe Leonard becomes that guy and maybe he doesn’t. What’s intriguing about the Spurs is it might not matter. They could be on the forefront of a new NBA, predicated on “move the ball,” the mantra Gregg Popovich repeatedly beseeches his team with. Right now, San Antonio is an exception to the superstar rule. As more teams follow suit with less individual-based isolation play, the Spurs might be more than an exception, they could be the future.