It was a rare moment of brashness from a serious competitor who consistently shrouds what drives him. Even more unusual than the audacity, Duncan betrayed an awareness of how the outside world views his team.
“We were ready last year, too,” he said. “People keep talking about it like we weren’t close to winning it. We were ready last year, we just couldn’t get over that hump. We’re happy to be back there this year. We’re happy to have another opportunity at it. We’re happy that it’s the Heat again. We’ll be ready for them.”
Perhaps he knew. This is a better San Antonio Spurs team than last season's. This is a worse Miami Heat team than last season's. And while it’s difficult to envision the Spurs as fueled by “revenge,” a want for vengeance is certainly understandable as the Spurs moved past the Heat 107-86 for a 3-1 NBA Finals lead.
There’s even precedent against this very Heat team. Just like the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio had been so close to beating Miami. Just like the Mavericks, the Spurs had been cast as a team on the wane. And just like the Mavericks, the Spurs look like they’re about to exorcise that which haunted them. On Thursday, with Dwyane Wade's eurostep conjuring old men playing bocce ball, the Heat looked like a crumbling empire. With young, ubiquitous, Kawhi Leonard playing so brilliantly, the “been there” Spurs looked like a power on the rise.
It’s incredible to behold San Antonio’s seemingly boundless capacity for improvement, but we’re unlikely to hear the Spurs tell us what that feels like. After Timmy’s Namath moment, it was back to SpursSpeak, a language that rarely conveys a sense of anything apart from a monk-like dedication to process.
The Spurs, as we experience them, are the team that gives people little to draw off. It’s not just a dearth of bulletin-board material. San Antonio refrains from knocking foes asunder in the lane. When Ray Allen fell down in the third quarter Thursday night, Duncan gladly helped him up. Perhaps the Spurs have found that not playing like jerks is a market inefficiency. Other teams, steeped in the hyper-macho culture of the playoffs, throw elbows and scowls at their rivals. The Spurs offer a blank expression and a helping hand.
It numbs the foe to a fueling kind of hatred and the team’s implacability makes death seem all the more inexorable. After San Antonio crushed Miami in the first half, LeBron James pushed himself hard to close the gap. He scored 19 points in the third quarter, good for one third of Miami’s total 57 points in the game. All through it, the Spurs didn’t panic. They just used crisply run sets, smothering defense on the other Heat players, and big baskets by household names such as Patty Mills.
Game 3 wasn’t shocking, even though the Spurs killed the Heat at home. Big losses happen sometimes, even at home. Sometimes a team gets hot. What’s shocking is they did it again in Game 4. That’s the Spurs for you. It’s not just that they achieve brilliance on the court, it’s that they keep sustaining it. They’re perhaps the most floor-bound team in the NBA, but they now seem like someone who jumps impressively high and confoundingly never comes back down to earth.