As the NBA season was wrapped up Sunday night, a series of conversations began to take place. It was a very different tone and a very different conversation than what had happened before the Finals took place.
Before the Finals, save Spurs and Heats fan bases, much of the talk happening was about the Miami team getting their 3rd Finals win in a row. Ahhhhhhhh, yes, the illusive “3-peat” — so illusive that LeBron James could finally join the ranks of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan by adding that to his resume as well. One more statistical notch on his belt for the GOAT conversation.
Much of the talk was about Miami taking the series, and probably only needing 6 games to do so. Sure, the Spurs wanted Game 6 redemption from last year’s Finals, but they were too old, too tired to ever get it done. Right? With few exceptions, outside of fans and LBJ haters, however, all money was on Miami. And as Miami stole Game 2 in San Antonio, all the Heat 3-peat predictions were assumed to be fulfilled. Miami was unbeaten at home throughout the playoffs. Statistics were seemingly on Miami’s side.
But San Antonio wasn’t hearing it.
Game 3 happened.
Then Game 4.
At the end of Game 4, Spurs were happy to send a message to South Beach, as well as the NBA world: Game 3 was not a fluke; thus handing a second loss in a row to the home team, the back-to-back defending champs.
A friend (A Clippers fan, for what it’s worth) predicted San Antonio in 5, then retracted to 6 games, giving Miami more credit to make it a contest.
And so he waited with everyone else. WWJD: What would James do?? LeBron would be LeBron, right? Miami would fight back……. right?? If anyone could come back from being down 3-1 in the series, it was James & his team. Just ask San Antonio — or their fans — or anyone who watched Game 6 from last year’s heartbreaking Finals. Spurs wouldn’t take their lead for granted. They weren’t going to sleep on the Heat.
Game 5 in San Antonio.
Miami came out swinging.
James came out swinging.
Miami went up 22-6.
That’s when the depth of the San Antonio Spurs became apparent. When Spurs went up before half, they had not only demolished the lead Miami built, they did so while 3 of their starters remained scoreless. Some people are stats people, others not so much. But this one in particular was too big to ignore.
Sure, Spurs had been outscoring the Heat 119-81 in the first quarter of the series before Game 5.
Sure, Boris Diaw was +45 for the first 3 games, with Spurs outscored Miami by 45 points while Diaw was in the game
Sure, they had near perfect shooting to start Game 3, with 71 points on 76% shooting at the half.
Sure, Game 4 had 9 Spurs players in & 9 Spurs players scoring before the half. Epitome of TEAM ball.
But even with a sizable lead at the half of Game 3, Tony Parker made heads turn when he said, they beat us in the 3rd quarter last time. He didn’t care about a lead. He cared about being the best team on the floor, quarter by quarter. After all, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. No one knows that better than the Spurs. Coach Pop echoed a similar sentiment after the game in explaining those high percentages don’t happen a lot. They’re an anomaly. They couldn’t and wouldn’t depend on that happening again.
Then it happened. Almost as quickly as it started, it was over. Miami had run out of gas. They were playing on fumes, and now those were gone too. They had nothing left. It was as if the road to the Finals was too easy, it made them lackadaisical, even with the Western Conference being a stronger conference. To start the second half, Miami saw more than 4 minutes tick away before they added points. Once they took the lead, San Antonio was not going to let it slip away. Like sharks circling, they could smell blood in the water. And they weren’t about to let up.
In the midst of Game 5, the conversations started. But the shift in conversations was deafening. More thought would probably go to Miami & how LeBron lost than credit would go to the Spurs. More attention, more articles would be devoted to what James does next. Shouldn’t really surprise us as media thrives on drama….. & the Spurs simply don’t have any. But what some had figured out, they would share to those who were willing to listen:
At the end of Game 3, Rob Mahoney wrote an article, Secret to Spurs’ system? Selfless stars in which he praises, “this victory belongs to the system. It’s character, though, is drawn from its distinct individual operators.” He praised Tony Parker, in particular, for not having huge box score results, but having more influences in the game than the stats could ever show. He reminds us that many others would simply not play this way, because it would take away from their credit and/or stat line.
Similarly, at the end of Game 4, commentators made a very astute observation about the Spurs, calling them “pure of heart” guys. Great compliment. Fitting description. But also backwards from what is usually praised in sports. More and more commentary would surface about their team chemistry, built on a team philosophy that everyone has bought into. That is started at the top with Pop and Tim Duncan, and found its way to every other player on the roster.
Unfortunately, their opponents weren’t listening. In the press conference after Game 4, Erik Spoelstra said, “They played great. I can honestly say I don’t think any of us were expecting this type of performance.” REALLY?? This was their 3rd blow-out win. Their one loss was by only 2 points. And, yet, you weren’t expecting it?
Oddly enough, it was a conversation had at the dentist office today that put all the pieces of the puzzle together for me. In speaking to different people about strengths and weaknesses being exposed in this NBA Finals rematch, a correlation was made. The church should operate more like the Spurs and less like the Heat.
Game 3 was a pivotal example to this point. It wasn’t about the Spurs scoring effortlessly. It wasn’t about them sharing and passing the ball. It was more about Miami’s response. The Spurs were winning as a TEAM; Miami responded as individuals. There are great pieces on the Heat, but they played like pieces. While Spurs passed the ball an average of 5 times per possession, Miami players were rushing shots they had no business taking, just to try and put a dent in the lead. They didn’t look for open teammates. They didn’t negate their good shot for a teammate’s better shot. They all took it upon themselves, forgetting how to work as a unit. LeBron was the exception. He looked to pass the ball. But when he got no help, he had to resort to being an island, just like he did in Cleveland. The church will never thrive as islands, regardless of the skills of the individual parts.
Spurs is spelled T-E-A-M. No other way to explain it. In Game 4, every player scored. Every last player contributed to the win. Gregg Popovich has a team philosophy that every player bought into 100%. They all closed their back doors. They weren’t thinking of exit strategies to other teams. They weren’t looking forward to free agency or looking to opt out of contracts. They were losing weight. They were practicing harder. They were playing when needed and resting when needed. With limiting minutes to make an impact, their bench made the biggest impact of all. The bench was beating their opponent by a score of 41-11 before Game 5 was over. They understand they as individuals are not more important than the collective, even as starters. If their role was defense, they guarded as if their life depended on it. If their role was assisting, they would do anything to help their teammates score before their time was up. On the bench, they cheered and smiled. Even after making poor decisions or getting a bad call, they didn’t have time or energy to sulk. They knew they were a part of something bigger than themselves and they embraced it. That mentality is not exclusive to sports.
Sometimes in the church, we focus on our skills and/or wants. We want certain things done and we will use our minutes clocked to demand our way. We place a higher value on our ideas because our contracts, read tithes, are greater than others. We see ourselves as veterans, with years under our belts and demand respect, without giving the younger generation a reason to give respect. We don’t want to submit to the new ‘system’ if it means our way of doing things will be changed for something more relateable to trends we know nothing about. Sometimes, we’re like Miami’s coach, simply unprepared and unaware.
But if we truly bought into the system, closed our back doors & gave our coach our full effort like the Spurs, we’d see a return on our investment. If we stopped worrying about how many minutes we got on the floor, how visible our service was to people, how many people knew what our tithe or sacrifice looked like, we’d be an unstoppable force against our true opponent.
If we cared more about developing our bench and reaching a lost world, we’d make a legacy that was greater collectively than it ever could be independently. If we put more emphasis on building a team than buying into the latest cultural fad, we’d make our authentic presence felt.
There’s a reason the Spurs win is resonating with so many people. It’s a return to basketball we grew up with — where teamwork was more important than celebrity endorsement deals. Where the best shot was better than taking a contested shot, just to try to get yourself on a poster. When you get out of the way of the team and make yourself available to be used in the team, you’ll get your chances. You’ll get a chance like Manu to dunk on the enemy. You’ll have a career-high scoring game that leads to an MVP performance like Leonard. You’ll be the Boris Diaw of the team, with a +45 scoring advantage. And you may even, as a leader of the team, go an entire half without scoring — or playing — like Tony Parker. But when you’re part of a team, and you trust the people around you are working collectively towards the common goal, you can be at peace with whatever your role is.
But, most importantly, if you buy into the system of your Head Coach, where His glory is of utmost importance, you will slink into the background to give praise to whom praise is due, like Gregg Popovich. As soon as the win was official, he backed out of the spotlight to let the team celebrate their accomplishment. He taught selflessness of team; that move was him putting into practice what he taught. After all, the Spurs bought into his system because it started with him. That move back was second nature. He wasn’t asking for anything from his players he wasn’t willing to do himself.
Even though the Spurs made it hard to choose an MVP because they all contributed like they did, that’s the one place the church CAN stand alone. It’s not about us, it never has been. Not really. The real MVP (in my Kevin Durant voice) is the veteran who was there at the beginning of time; the One who stood in our place on that cross, who ran out the clock with His words, “It is finished.” Our team philosophy is to know Him and to make Him known, period.