NBA opposites to attract crowd for final showdown

They have a phrase in American sport: “the Face of the Franchise”.

It’s a title which is bestowed on the star player around whom a team is built and a brand is marketed.

The Miami Heat have LeBron James — flashy and overbearing like his city, but an undeniable talent whose forcefulness in big games marks him out as the best player in the world.

Meanwhile, if you were to flesh out the San Antonio Spurs, their ethos and their success, you’d arrive at the face of Tim Duncan every time.

Moody and coy, his sullen demeanour has always belied an other-worldly determination to wring every drop of potential out of his abilities and those of his team-mates.

In this modern age of eye-catching highlight reels, Duncan is set apart by his reluctance to dunk.

So no, they’re not the NBA’s most entertaining team, but their coach Gregg Popovich, a man whose tactical acumen is revered in basketball circles, never cared for what people thought of him or his win-at-all-costs methods.

While the great teams put together by the LA Lakers and the Boston Celtics have come and gone since the Spurs first won the biggest prize in 1999, Duncan and Popovich will this month be going for their fifth NBA titles since the unassuming centre was drafted No 1 overall by the Spurs in 1997. They will enter Game One tomorrow against the Heat who, with the Spurs, boast unrivalled experience on the game’s biggest stage as LeBron and company head to their third straight finals.

Picking Duncan was a franchise-changing decision for San Antonio that is still bearing fruit.

Within just two years, Duncan was the fresh-faced thorn in the side of the New York Knicks at Game Five of the 1999 finals in Madison Square Garden. With little in the way of fuss or showiness, he helped his team win their first NBA title in an extraordinarily dominant performance that justified Popovich’s decision to install himself as coach having previously held the role of general manager.

That same year, a young Argentinian-Italian Manu Ginobili was drafted by the Spurs. As fate would have it, however, he wasn’t signed by the team until after a French point guard called Tony Parker was drafted in 2001. Together, they became the final two pieces of a devastating trio that would deliver three more titles to the Texas border town in 2003, ’05 and ’07.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Parker last week after San Antonio obliterated the much vaunted Memphis Grizzlies 4-0 to win the Western Conference and give their creaking bodies 10 days of rest and recuperation.

“It’s really hard to go the finals, to win a championship. I was 21 when I won my first one. You think it’s easy. And six years go by, and every year it gets tougher and tougher. That’s what makes it even more special to go back after all those years, with the same coach and the same big three.”

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are the first big three of players from outside the Lakers and Celtics to reach four finals, while they have won 98 play-off games together, the second-most in NBA history behind the 110 won by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper for the LA Lakers.

“We’re a team that’s probably been written off and that seems logical,” Popovich said this week. “I might have said the same thing if I was a fan on the outside looking in. But it doesn’t show the way these guys compete and what they think. If you stay the course, and you have leaders who are quality character people, you follow them for as long as you can.”

Meanwhile in the East, it’s a futile exercise to draw any conclusions from what was a rip-roaring battle that went the distance between the Heat and the Indiana Pacers.

On Monday night in Miami, the Heat finally shook off the stubborn and youthful Pacers, who have oscillated between deadly exposition of Miami’s weaknesses and meek capitulation in the face of the versatile dominance of LeBron James. It leaves the path clear for James to enjoy one last championship in the company of the aging side which was built around him.

Whatever happens over the next couple of weeks, most of America will find themselves suddenly hoping that the brooding brilliance of Tim Duncan is rewarded with one more title.

“The last couple of years, my game has declined and changed,” the 37-year-old said last week. “I love playing and I’m going to miss it when I’m gone. So I’m enjoying every minute. I know my time is running short here. Every minute I’m on the court — in practice, whatever it might be — I’m enjoying being here.”

*johnwriordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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