WASHINGTON — It’s a notion that’s hard to comprehend.
Miami’s Big 3 assembled like a preordained super team, first making the NBA Finals in 2011, then winning the past two titles on their run to not three, not four, not five, not six, or whatever number LeBron James had brashly promised in the raucous bacchanalia of a team introduction a few years ago.
The San Antonio Spurs were simply better than the Miami Heat.
The Spurs won four times in five NBA Finals games, twice breaking Miami on its home floor. None of their triumphs were even particularly close affairs, the smallest margin of victory in the lot an emphatic 15 points.
So how did this happen? How did the aging, creaking Spurs, underdogs in their own conference to the rising Oklahoma City Thunder, crash the Finals once again to hoist their fifth trophy in 16 years?
They did things their own way.
If any of the hyperbole that always surrounds the post-championship festivities was to be believed, it may have been this one takeaway line, delivered by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver himself amidst the celebration:
“To R.C. Buford Coach [Greg] Popovich, perhaps the greatest GM/Coach combination in all of sports.”
Those two men have compiled a strikingly international roster, full of very good players with excellent skill sets, but devoid of a real superstar outside of Tim Duncan. A quick look at their roster reveals a pair of Frenchmen and Aussies, an Italian, a Brazilian, an Argentine and a Canadian. There are just six American- born players, along with the elder statesman Duncan, himself a product of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Half of this is a testament to Buford, finding talent in far-flung reaches of the world much newer to basketball than Indiana or North Carolina. The other half of the credit is due to Popovich, who learned that the world had just as much to teach America about basketball as we them, and was willing to listen, learn and adapt.
The 1999 roster was comprised 100 percent from U.S.-born players raised in the American NCAA basketball ranks, save for Duncan. But even he attended ACC power Wake Forest.
In an NBA increasingly reliant upon its stars, with team play often taking a backseat to isolation-driven, one-on-one offensive sets, the Spurs have developed an ever-more international style, driving the floor to collapse the defense and create space, passing first, even if a decent shot was available, to find a better one.
That adaptability and unselfish play has led to 17 consecutive winning seasons in 18 years under Popovich. It’s why his tenure is the longest of any head coach in any of the four major professional American sports. And it’s why, amidst rumors of his possible retirement whenever Duncan hangs up his sneakers, he could very well soldier on in perpetuity.
In fact, one could make the argument that the Heat’s potential dynasty, just in its infancy, could already be crumbling from underneath them. There are serious questions about the bench, and even about members of the Big 3 themselves, particularly Dwayne Wade. Once one of the most exciting players in the game, he was just 4-12 from the field, logging just 11 points in 36 lackluster minutes. Bosh, meanwhile, registered the worst +/- of the entire game, coming in at -20 over his nearly 39 minutes of floor time.
All three members of Miami’s core have opt-outs in their contracts heading into the offseason.
But none of that accounted for Sunday night, or the whole series, in which San Antonio was always a step ahead, more balanced, more team-oriented in their attack and defense.
Manu Ginobili, the Argentinian-born swingman who ignited the crowd with his flurry of threes and Father Time-defying throwdown over the 6-foot-11 Chris Bosh, summed it up best, answering ESPN’s Stuart Scott’s question of just how the Spurs did it with a question of his own.
“It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” he asked, grinning ear-to-ear.
It felt like one last hurrah for the old vets, especially the 38-year-old Duncan. But who are we to say this era has closed? Just as Robinson’s career entered its twilight, along came Duncan, winning the Finals MVP en route to hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Now, as Duncan faces the same fate as Robinson — the inescapable hands of time tugging at his jersey, his rebounding legs, his jump shot — along came 22-year-old Kawhi Leonard, the third-youngest Finals MVP ever, besting Duncan’s mark set all the way back in 1999 by a few months.
Maybe the quietest dynasty of them all has some noise left in it after all.