It was two weeks ago when the Spurs wrapped up their final practice before the start of The Finals and I had just walked out of their training facility on the northwest side of San Antonio when a shiny Mercedes-Benz pulled up along side of me in the parking lot.
The automatic window slid down on the passenger side and a voice yelled out: “Hey, could you answer a question for me?”
When I bent down to look in, Gregg Popovich pulled off his sunglasses and asked several: “Could you please tell me why I’m driving to the airport right now? Could you tell me why I’m making this trip to Miami? Could you tell me why I should even bother wasting my time with a foregone conclusion?”
When I smiled, he kept on going.
“I don’t know what everybody expects out of us, out of me. I mean, I’ve got Timmy Duncan. He’s 37 and a broken down old man. I’ve got another old man with Manu Ginobili, who’s always falling apart. I’ve got this skinny French kid Tony Parker. And then just a bunch of guys.
“They’ve got LeBron James. He’s the greatest player in the league right now, maybe the greatest of all time. And they’ve got Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. This is lopsided. This is unfair. This is ridiculous.”
So the Spurs have a 3-2 lead and a chance to clinch the fifth NBA championship in franchise history tonight at American Airlines Arena.
This, of course, is why we play the games and don’t settle them on paper or in the minds of the so-called experts. Otherwise, we’d already be joining in the James’ proclamation from the summer of 2010: “Not one, not two, not three…”
Standing in the Texas swelter that afternoon in the parking lot, the daunting image of the defending champions rose like the shimmering heat off the blacktop, the team that had a league-best 66-16 record and won an incredible 27 consecutive games — second-best streak in NBA history — in the regular season.
But that was all before a 21-year-old Kawhi Leonard stoically accepted the challenge of matching up with the best player on the planet and began to do everything he could to keep him from blowing like the top off a volcano dome. He’s making shots inside and outside. He’s rebounding. He’s passing. All while having primary responsibility on the series’ biggest threat.
The Spurs have used a smothering, suffocating, double- and triple-teaming effort to keep the cork in James’ bottle and have held him to 21.6 ppg in The Finals, down from 29 in the Eastern Conference finals and down from 25.6 ppg for the playoffs. He is shooting just 41.2 percent. James has certainly made his presence felt, but not as an unstoppable force who can take over a game singlehandedly. Rave over all those 3-pointers by the Spurs, if you must. It says here that Leonard is the MVP to date, along with the coach who entrusted him.
That was all before the Spurs had for the most part kept Wade from hitting their beach like a tsunami. Before Danny Green became the reincarnation of “Mr. Clutch,” Jerry West. Before Popovich lit a fire under the struggling Ginobili by inserting him into the starting lineup for Game 5. Before Parker hit his iconic “up-off-the-knees” banker to win Game 1. Before Duncan showed just how much professionalism a 37-year-old big man can still deliver. And before the Spurs have been able to match Miami’s small-ball lineup effectively and thereby kept the nuisance effectiveness of Chris Andersen chained to the bench.
That was all before the Spurs have done what they’ve always done — kept their heads down and focused solely on the task at hand, never doubting themselves and never wavering, even in the six years that it’s taken them to get back to The Finals.
They’re too old, too worn out, too overmatched by the high-flying marquee names of the Heat. Until they’re not.
All I can think of is leaning into the window of Popovich’s car, while wondering why the floor in front of the passenger seat is filled with dozens and dozens of empty plastic water bottles.
“Is this an eco-friendly green machine that you bought from Al Gore or are you just a slob?” I asked him.
Pop finally stopped his rant.
“The truth is I’ve been looking for a recycling center for weeks now, but I can’t find one,” he said. “You know what? That’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll just keep driving around town until I find a place to dump all of these bottles instead of going to the airport.
“I mean, really, what’s the point of going to Miami if you’re the San Antonio Spurs? What can happen there?”
He pushed the sunglasses back on his nose, shifted the car into gear, gave a wave and drove away, grinning.