Spurs vs. Pistons: The Perfect Matchup
If this isn't the NBA Finals you want, too bad. It's the one you should want. It's the perfect series for the folks who don't want their basketball littered with divas, the perfect series for people who believe the game has devolved into something entirely selfish and showy, the perfect series for folks who foolishly believe the pros aren't committed to playing defense, the perfect series for the conspiracy theorists who believe the NBA would go to any lengths to make sure the Finals include at least one team loaded with megastars to ensure big TV ratings.
Spurs vs. Pistons, which begins tonight in San Antonio, is a championship confrontation that will defy virtually every stereotype commonly held about the NBA. For those clinging to the belief that foreign-born players are at best complementary pieces, there is the Spurs' starting back court of France's Tony Parker and Argentina's Olympic gold medal-winning Manu Ginobili. For those who think every game is about isolation basketball, there will be more passing and movement without the ball than any college team could dream of executing. For those who think NBA coaches are mostly guys who go along to get along, there is San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, who graduated from the Air Force Academy, majored in Soviet studies, speaks Russian and toured Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union with the U.S. Armed Forces team in the early 1970s. You don't just say "Go play" when you've spent eight years at a Division III school (Pomona-Pitzer), for one stint living in a dorm with your wife and two kids.
On the other side, Detroit's Larry Brown has been in unspeakable discomfort with the difficulties that followed his hip surgery in November.
Wherever he winds up next season and in whatever capacity, Brown probably should be resting comfortably on a beach somewhere instead of trying to rally a team psychologically set back after the Nov. 19 brawl which, remember, involved Pacers players but no Pistons. Instead, the 64-year-old Brown, who also has to be tired from coaching the U.S. Olympic team all summer, is chasing a second title as if his career on the sideline might end this month, which it could.
With Brown is a star-challenged team of castoffs again riding through the league with the biggest chip-on-your-shoulder attitude you've ever seen. Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Chauncey Billups -- four of the Pistons starters -- play every game as if they were traded yesterday, and the result is a basketball symphony of passing, screening, cutting, shooting, rebounding and defending, set to a soundtrack of whining to the officials over every call.
Anybody who loves basketball, or at the very least understands it, should be drooling to watch these teams play each other for a possible seven games over two weeks. Those who claim to love old-school basketball in its purity and don't want to watch Spurs-Pistons are hypocrites and frauds of the first degree. And those who are still asking "Where's LeBron? Where's Kobe? Where's Kevin Garnett? Where's the sizzle?" are probably too star-obsessed for the league to worry about capturing in the first place.
And, yes, that's a pretty big number. The NBA is largely to blame.
Over the years, the league has done a phenomenal job marketing superstars, from Wilt and Russell to Kareem and Oscar to Wes and E to Magic and Bird to Doc and Jordan to Shaq and Kobe. Just as hockey sells violence, baseball sells its rich history and the NFL sells the uniform (so well that replacement players can play in them and people barely notice), the NBA sells star power. So naturally, people not slavishly devoted to pro basketball tune in to the league's showcase event to see those stars. And when there aren't any, the casual fans who don't know screen from roll are going to be hard to hold.
So the NBA has its work cut out as much as the Pistons and Spurs do in this series.
Tim Duncan could be a star but would rather do a rain dance in his underwear than be involved in the whole star thing. Even the defending champion Pistons are hard to get ahold of outside of basketball circles. Who among them has a national presence? Well, nobody.
The reason Rasheed Wallace works better in Detroit than in Portland is that he doesn't want to be the big scorer and recoils from the notion of being The Man. He wants to concentrate sometimes on passing, sometimes on defense. He's a scruffy irritant, but by most accounts a wonderful teammate. The biggest star on the Pistons is Larry Brown and he got more attention for this recent flirtation with the Cleveland Cavaliers than for anything else he's done this season.
Those of us who are tired of the marketing and TV ratings issues, however, will have what ought to be a wonderful series to dive into.
(Okay, I'll admit to diving in a little late, Game 3 in Detroit to be exact. I've not missed a Game 1 of the Finals since 1988, but the notion of seeing Vijay, Ernie, Phil, Annika and Mike Tyson go local in the same weekend is too irresistible to leave town. If you like stars, you'll love Tyson even if you don't know who's getting in the ring to fight him. Yesterday, three days before a fight he's been drooling over for six weeks, Kornheiser took one look at the Tyson opponent, Kevin McBride, and said, "Uh, you mean the guy Tyson's fighting is white? Oh-oh. This changes everything!")
But beyond the gratuitous shots of Eva Longoria watching Parker (my TiVo is set), it's going to be about matchups and pace, defending screen-and-roll, and claiming control of games.
Duncan is the best player in the series and Ginobili is probably the second-best. If San Antonio's Bruce Bowen guards Detroit's Rip Hamilton, it almost certainly means the lightning-quick but very slight Parker will have to guard the much bigger and stronger Billups, which leaves Ginobili to square off with Tayshaun Prince at least at one end. The matchups between Duncan and one Wallace, Nazr Mohammed and the other Wallace will make for great thought and better action.
That Detroit doesn't have much of a bench may hurt the Pistons against San Antonio, which has a deadly shooter in Brent Barry, a stunningly underrated all-around backup guard in Beno Udrih, former starter Rasho Nesterovic and Mr. June, Robert Horry, who could be looking at a sixth championship ring.
The people who just can't stand the lack of star power in this series should go off to watch midseason baseball or reality TV, while folks who crave basketball at its best should enjoy the first meeting of champions in the Finals since 1987, and one of the rare matchups in recent years of the game's two best teams. Six games sounds about right.
Spurs in six.