“At times, we approach the ideal of how the game should be played. When one of us moves, the others adjust. We have unselfishness, cooperation, technique. We hit the open man, move without the ball, and help out on defense. Everybody’s moving, taking part in every play. It makes it fun to play basketball.”
Can you imagine Tony Parker saying these words? His voice rising at the end of each sentence with a hint of lyrical Franglais? What about Tim Duncan, sounding nasal and sensible, like your 10th-grade homeroom teacher? Or maybe Gregg Popovich? Well, we know it’s not Pop, whose public speaking style ranges from caustic to monotone to stonewalled silence. And we can rule out Duncan, who’s far too modest to administer such glowing praise upon himself and the Spurs. Likewise, we know it’s not Parker, who mostly just repeats different versions of “I told Pop I can play more, but he says ‘I need you to rest, Tony.'”
No, the San Antonio Spurs, who face the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals tonight, aren’t in the business of preening for the media or jinxing themselves or providing snippets for Erik Spoelstra’s dry-erase board. That quote is from Bill Bradley, who was referring to the 1970 NBA champion New York Knicks. But even though Popovich and Duncan and Parker know better than to issue a glorifying self-appraisal in the midst of a playoff run, it’s hard to deny that when the Spurs are rolling, describing the team in terms as grandiose as Bradley’s doesn’t sound overblown at all. It sounds right.
The Knicks of the early 1970s, particularly the 1970 and 1973 championship teams, occupy a primary role in New York City basketball lore. It’s a complex, multi-tiered mythology, with many New York basketball fans carving out space in their memories for overlapping categories. There are hyperlocal neighborhood legends like Smush Parker in lower Manhattan or Royal Ivey in Hollis, Queens; there are players like Ron Artest and Lamar Odom who defined an era and became NBA stars, and those like Andre Barrett and Omar Cook who defined an era and became journeymen; there are all-time greats, like Fly Williams and Pee Wee Kirkland, who never had NBA careers, and then all-timers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lenny Wilkens, who were even greater in the league; there is trivia, like Manhattan Center high school’s run to the 1992 city championship game, led by Cam’Ron and Mase. You can slice up the categories indefinitely, figuring out different, semi-logical ways to classify everyone from Donnie Walsh and Tiny Archibald to Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond and Lance Stephenson. No matter how one organizes this chaotic hierarchy, the one notion that enjoys anything close to widespread agreement is that the ’70s Knicks belong at the top.
If you believe what journalists have written and fans old enough to have seen those teams have said, the ’70s Knicks were basketball’s version of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Walt Frazier, Dick Barnett, Earl Monroe, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed, Phil Jackson, Cazzie Russell. Their balance of finesse and brawn, their ball movement, their help defense, their chemistry: It was once-in-a-lifetime; it was perfection.
Aside from the grainy archival footage available on NBA TV, the MSG Network, and YouTube, I never saw those Knicks play. But there were moments during the Western Conference finals — like when Tony Parker pulled a U-turn and left his man at the top of the key to dart down the lane and catch an inbounds pass from Kawhi Leonard, then finished with a wide-open layup, it made me tingle with déjà vu for the great Knicks teams that defined basketball beauty before I was born.
These Spurs reminded me of everything I’d heard about those old Knicks. To see how well the comparison worked, I reread Pete Axthelm’s canonical work on New York basketball, The City Game; John McPhee’s study of Bill Bradley at Princeton, A Sense of Where You Are; and Harvey Araton’s 2011 history of the ’70s Knicks, When the Garden Was Eden. Much of what was written about those Knicks seemed like it could be lifted and applied almost word-for-word to today’s Spurs. These five passages seemed particularly apt.
“Soon spontaneous shouts would arise and enthusiastic appraisals would be rapidly exchanged … not merely because this was classic basketball but because it had form, coherence, and a unique communal excitement — a form of joy that could be conveyed from player to player and then outward to the fans.”
— Axthelm, from The City Game
The Spurs make me make strange noises. Elated squawks and goofy chortles and the choking/spraying/gurgling sounds that accompany a swig of Diet Coke being blown through my nostrils. They happen when Manu Ginobili touch passes the ball through Tayshaun Prince’s legs for a streaking Cory Joseph layup or when a Ginobili pick-and-roll with Tiago Splitter leads to an entry pass for a posting up Boris Diaw, who shovels the ball to the diving Splitter, who finishes the play. The ball movement makes San Antonio’s opponents look like bumpers in a game of human pinball while Popovich and the Spurs apply a Tommy-esque level of mastery. And for me, at least, watching the Spurs read and react to defenses, catching the moment when preparation meets improvisation — it’s breathtaking. It makes me hoot and slap my forehead and giggle because it looks like so much fun.
Axthelm’s phrase “unique communal excitement” is perfect. It captures the social aspect of basketball and why many of us love the sport. Plays like Ginobili’s between-the-legs pass or Parker’s U-turn remind us of the best times we’ve had on a court, when for a half or a quarter or even one possession, we entered mind-meld territory with our teammates, executed pretty give-and-go handoffs, and spun off defenders to catch lob passes and finish them for layups. For 99 percent of us, nothing we have ever done on a basketball court remotely compares to what Parker and Ginobili do, but we have felt something close to what they’re feeling on those perfect possessions. That emotional charge you get when you and four teammates are truly clicking — it scales down to your playground or your YMCA or your high school gym. The Spurs don’t just achieve the sublime; they allow us to share in it.
“DeBusschere and Bradley were such good passers and it made their team so difficult to defend everywhere on the floor … How many teams have there been where everyone could hurt you from almost anywhere on the floor?”
— Pat Williams, former Chicago Bulls GM, quoted in When the Garden Was Eden
It’s probably impossible in today’s NBA to achieve scoring balance like the Knicks had in the 1973 Finals, which they won 4-1 over the Lakers. Each player in New York’s starting five averaged between 15.6 and 18.6 points per game in that series. Every Knicks starter, from Frazier to DeBusschere to Reed, was a consistent outside shooter, and their mantra of “hit the open man” carried them through possessions until someone found a good look at the basket.
The 3-point line, which was added to NBA courts in 1979, along with modern defensive schemes, make the notion of a team where “every guy is deadly from 20 feet” kind of laughable. Efficiencywise, that team would be full of players looking to shoot the worst shot in basketball. Specialists are necessary. Tiago Splitter isn’t going to burn Miami with his perimeter shooting. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard probably aren’t going to look to create too much of their own offense off the dribble. Matt Bonner is only allowed to do one thing. But the Spurs come closer to the Knicks’ “anyone can hurt you from anywhere” ideal than any other team in the league. They may look to shoot from certain spots on the floor, but everyone in San Antonio’s rotation except Splitter (who attempted just 29 shots from outside 8 feet in the regular season) is a threat from outside. What makes the San Antonio offense even more dynamic is that in addition to being able to knock down jump shots, almost all of the Spurs are dangerous screeners and passers, they move without the ball, and the way they read defenses would make Johnny Five proud. When all five guys on the court can not only hit the shot but make the cut or the pass that leads to the shot, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s also damn hard to defend.
“It happens so quickly that the slightest hesitation or flaw in timing would ruin it; but when it works, it’s as striking as it is simple. And its very simplicity adds to the crowd’s appreciation, because, in a sense, the back-door is a microcosm of the sensitive and selfless play that distinguishes the entire offense at its best.”
— Axthelm, from The City Game
“When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this. You develop a sense of where you are.”
— Bradley, quoted in A Sense of Where You Are
These passages reflect the feel for the game that the Spurs possess, the instincts they’ve refined and the chemistry they’ve developed. They know where they are on the floor and where they need to be to create space on offense or take it away on defense. They have the confidence in themselves and in one another to make the tricky interior passes that lead to easy shots at the rim. But as Axthelm suggests, the timing it takes to execute these plays is delicate, and in the Finals, the Heat may be able to disrupt it. If Miami’s aggressive, swarming defense forces Tony Parker to take a couple extra steps while turning the corner on a high screen, or if a defender in Boris Diaw’s face forces him to be a split second late on a pass to Duncan flashing in the lane, San Antonio’s elegant offensive machine might be derailed. In the Finals, if San Antonio can perform some basketball judo and use the Heat’s pressure against them, maybe the Spurs’ passing will stretch out Miami’s defense, get the Heat defenders out of position, create easy baskets, and force Miami back into a more conservative, stay-at-home defensive posture.
Or, the Heat will smother the Spurs and say, “Thanks for two weeks of beautiful basketball, now give us the trophy.”
“What’s important is that the Knicks in their supreme moments forced hardened observers to defy logic and history and statistics. Their achievements were meant to be savored immediately and viscerally, like the theater of the playgrounds.”
— Axthelm, from The City Game
Axthelm writes this after quoting a former St. John’s coach who called the ’70s Knicks “the greatest basketball team I have ever seen.” But those Knicks were not even a dynasty. They won two championships during a five-year stretch of competitiveness. Coming on the heels of Bill Russell’s 11 titles in 13 seasons with the Celtics, New York’s run could be called little more than a historical lark. Those Knicks played their best basketball at the beginning of the 1969-70 season, when they started 23-1 and won an NBA-record 18 straight games. (The Lakers, of course, set the record that still stands — 33 games — two seasons later.) The point, however, is that even though Red Holzman’s Knicks were not the greatest team in NBA history, at their best they made the game look so graceful and simple and joyous that observers couldn’t help but laud them with superlatives, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.
At times in the past two seasons, the Spurs have exhibited some of the same beautiful, ephemeral greatness. Heading into Game 3 of last season’s Western Conference finals, they had won 20 straight games and NBA analysts were beginning to wonder if San Antonio might sweep the entire postseason. Then the Thunder beat them in four straight games. Against Memphis in this year’s conference finals, there were times when it felt like the Spurs should have been leading by 25 points when they were really only ahead by five. Possession after possession, the Spurs scored with artistry and skill and wonderful guile, but there are no style points in basketball. The Spurs’ baskets may have been dazzling, but they were still only seven points better than the Grizzlies in Game 4, and even if San Antonio finishes just 10 dazzling points behind Miami over the course of the Finals, the Spurs will still be runners-up. The beauty of Popovich’s team can be appreciated in the moment, but for it to be remembered, they need to win.
“Had that team been transported to Madison Square Garden or assembled in New York, it would no doubt have been characterized very differently. In the nation’s media capital Tim Duncan would have been cast as the second coming of [Willis Reed], celebrated for his quiet leadership, his fundamental purity. The Spurs would have been a proud reflection of the great melting pot, with their rich blend of international stars: Duncan of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Manu Ginobili of Argentina, and Tony Parker of France. With their beautiful pick-and-roll passing game, they would have been hailed for reinventing basketball as an art form, just as the Old Knicks had been.”
— Araton, from When the Garden Was Eden
Araton is right. New York is big and diverse enough to find a reflection of itself in whatever group of players wears blue and orange. The ’70s Knicks were an earlier, less international version of the melting pot, with Bradley, the banker’s son and Rhodes scholar; Frazier, the strutting man about town in his Clyde Barrow hats; Jackson, the anti–Vietnam War longhair; Reed, the quiet, dignified leader from rural Louisiana; and DeBusschere, the ale-guzzling, blue-collar everyman from Detroit. Patrick Ewing’s ’90s Knicks represented the toughness and grit of Giuliani-era New York. And it’s easy to see the flash, hype, and underlying emptiness of Carmelo Anthony’s Knicks reflected in every Trump high-rise that goes up along the West Side Highway and every brownstone currently under renovation in “Bush-Stuy.” Even the dreadful Isiah Thomas Knicks of the mid-2000s could stand in for a certain unruly, maddening incompetence that has always been part of city life.
So yes, the Popovich-Duncan Spurs would probably be celebrated and cherished if they were the Popovich-Duncan Knicks, which is funny because in San Antonio they’ve become one of the most underappreciated great teams in NBA history. We’ve all heard this before, yet pundits keep predicting the end of San Antonio’s run and Twitter celebrities keep insisting that the Spurs are boring. Once upon a time — when they featured guys like Bruce Bowen, Kevin Willis, and Ime Udoka and the franchise rode an airtight defense and a prime Tim Duncan to multiple deep playoff runs and a few championships — they were pretty dull.1 That’s no longer the case, however, and it hasn’t been for several years. Now, “the Spurs are boring” is a canard spun out by people who watch the NBA to generate memes. Well, after enduring a social-media season for the ages — from Iman Shumpert’s hi-top fade to Honey Nut Cheerios to J.R. Smith’s l’affaire Rihanna — I’m one New Yorker who’d be more than willing to swap this highly GIF-able team for an actually good one.