The thing about basketball is that we already know who the great teams are about halfway through the regular season. The playoffs don’t even really provide much of a surprise. They’re incurably long, often feature two teams on an obvious collision course, and are just shockingly predictable.
Except when they’re not.
This year, the big story was supposed to be the huge rematch between the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls. This story started before we were even entirely sure there was going to be an NBA season. When the Lockout ended, fans quickly flocked back to the sport because of the unparalleled amount of talent on display. Not since the mid-to-late 1990s has the NBA had this kind of concentration of talent, but there was no more compelling available storyline than Derrick Rose vs. LeBron James. And make no mistake: that’s what a rematch between these two teams would be about.
On the one hand, you have arguably the most gifted athlete to ever play the game, but someone who seems to lack the motivation to reach the level of play everyone knows he is capable of. As the icing on the cake, he turned his back on his home town to chase a title in Miami. On the other hand, you have one of the most physically gifted point guards in the NBA, but someone who for the first few years of his career seemed “too nice” to develop that killer instinct you need to be in the top five. But when LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh pulled their stunt in Miami, something remarkable happened: he got angry. And suddenly you have not only a maximum effort player, you have the reigning MVP and one of the deadliest players in the league. Someone who is getting everything he possibly can out of his talents, someone who is fueled with an inner fire the likes of which we’ve rarely seen.
And oh yeah, by the way: playing and winning for his home town is just fine for him, thank you very much.
The waters grew murky during the NBA Lockout of 2011. But it was the way the lockout was resolved that would bring a halt to this collision course. Amid the huge wave of relief from fans and professional observers that we were going to have basketball after all, only a few voices raised in protest for the players’ safety because of the condensed schedule. Although they were drowned out in the “basketball is back!” wave of euphoria, they would promise with chilling significance that injuries were going to happen.
Derrick Rose’s injury problems started during the regular season. Toe, back, groin. He kept trying to get back on the court, and stay on the court. All of these were pretty flukey injuries (as most injuries are in the NBA). But then, the unthinkable happened. In the first game of the playoffs, with the Bulls nursing a late lead, Derrick Rose went up for a jump shot… and came down in a crumpled heap with what would later be revealed to be a torn ACL. And the Bulls’ season never got back up with him.
Immediately, the title was handed to the Miami Heat. Fans, journalists, bloggers… hell, I even handed it to them. Bill Simmons was one of the most prominent sportswriters to advance the popular notion that this would be an “asterisk” NBA title, like the Rockets winning during Jordan’s first retirement. Wow, this seems to keep involving Chicago, doesn’t it? But the point is, Miami was going to win their first title since assembling their super team, and they were going to do it because their main competitor was crippled by the biggest in a series of injuries due to the NBA’s recklessness.
Chris Bosh’s injury (forcing LeBron James to play power forward) may change the narrative by allowing Indiana to complete the upset in the series which is currently tied at two games apiece. There would be some symmetry to this, as injury did rob us of one half of the epic matchup we were promised, but that would hardly remove the asterisk: it would only transfer it from the Heat to whatever team ended up taking their place.
Until suddenly, Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, and the San Antonio Spurs came running to the rescue.
The only way to eliminate an “asterisk” is to completely change the narrative. In the past, I have referred to the San Antonio Spurs as the NBA’s “Forgotten Dynasty.” That isn’t entirely accurate. No one has really forgotten Tim Duncan’s Spurs from the 2000s… they just don’t like to talk about them, because there isn’t anything sexy or flashy about them. They play fundamentally sound basketball, their main superstar is humble and genuinely seems like a nice guy. I don’t think he’s ever given an interesting interview or done anything controversial in his life. The brand of basketball they play is only entertaining to people who actually like basketball. Casual fans often refer to them as “boring.”
Well, this “boring” team is tearing through the Western Conference playoffs. They swept the hapless Utah Jazz in the first round by scores of 15, 31, 12, and 6. In the second round, a win tonight would give them a sweep over the much flashier Los Angeles Clippers after three straight victories by margins of 16, 17, and 10.
This dominant performance has some wondering whether this is actually the best Spurs team of the Popovich/Duncan Era, an era that I will remind you was supposed to be winding down. In a sense, this is much like last year’s Dallas Mavericks narrative, except they’ve been here before, and it would help further cement their status as one of the best NBA dynasties of all time.
The way they’re tearing through the playoffs brings this team to a level beyond “impressive,” beyond “dominant.” It’s when we start using words like “scary.” It’s when we realize we’re witnessing something special.
So, yes. We should remember this season because of the rash of playoff injuries, and what it says about the irresponsibility of the NBA’s reckless post-Lockout scheduling. We should remember Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, and yes even Chris Bosh.
But most of all, we should remember the San Antonio Spurs. Without an asterisk.