The Heat, The Spurs And Changing Perceptions

Photo By Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Photo By Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Four games into the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, and the predictable reactions still permeate the discussion. They’re essentially crafted around the image we have of both teams. The Big Three versus The Big Team, The Heatles against The Quiet Men, and big market style versus small market substance. No matter who wins this series, all of these labels are at best, simplistic and mostly inaccurate.

Yet, there’s something far more at stake when it comes to framing the legacies of the Heat and Spurs, and basketball fans should ask themselves an important question when this series concludes. Will the winner be given credit for being much more than the labels they’ve been given?

Will the Miami Heat be given credit for being more than a collection of spare parts, stars and superstars and be credited as a great TEAM?

Will the San Antonio Spurs be given props for having quite a bit of individualism and creativity while “playing the game the right way”?

When the matchup was set, immediately these Finals were hoisted as some sort of referendum on the design of both teams. However, in pitting these two franchises as polar opposites, what’s been asked is which style of NBA basketball you prefer. Are you a fan of the easy-to-promote superstardom and alpha-male stubbornness that LeBron James brings? Or do you want the ideal “there’s no ‘I’ in team” kind of group that plays and mostly acts with machine-like efficiency?

While many of us have a mutual appreciation for both, there are even more who have felt the need to root for one or the other solely based on those long-standing perceptions of both teams. We were asked to pick sides and not look past the labels slapped upon them.

Though it was evident that James had to do much of the heavy lifting in the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Indiana Pacers, it’s easy to forget that Miami didn’t win have a franchise-best 66 wins and home-court advantage strictly on the shoulders of their Big Three. Since James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade, team president Pat Riley made the shrewdest moves to add complimentary personnel to work in tandem with James’ all-world talents, Bosh’s big man versatility, and Wade’s… whatever his knees can give him. For the defending champs, they made moves like convincing Ray Allen to don his old number 34 for another title run and taking Chris Anderson off the scrap heap before anyone noticed he was available. Let's not forget that Mike Miller is giving every ounce his back allows. This is not the Miami LeBron's; rather, this was a veteran team that ran into two familiar and stubborn rivals in back-to-back postseasons.

The Spurs, meanwhile, have been billed as the ultimate (capital T) “Team” for good reason; four titles, over two decades of playoff appearances, and fourteen seasons as the model franchise in all of sports.  As old as there are perceived to be, the average age of the Spurs roster (28.6) is almost two years younger than Miami’s (30.3), with eight players aged 28 and under. With relative youth being served with players like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the team does boast a great system for them to flourish, but there’s no doubt that there are some strong individual components. Despite playing poorly in this series, we're well aware that Manu Ginobili is one of the craftiest and inventive shooting guards of the era. Tim Duncan is called The Big Fundamental because no one performs said fundamentals better than him. And there’s Tony Parker, whose trial-by-fire ascension to one of the NBA’s best point guards is a story worth telling.

We faced this strong contrast of images before nine years ago during the 2004 Finals as the “Team” in the Detroit Pistons stunned the “Stars” of the Los Angeles Lakers, a franchise which has always been on its own solar system compared to the rest of the league. The “Team” won, yet there was more elation around the narrative. In reality, much of the non Pistons-fan public didn’t exactly love or like this “Team”. That was proven a year later when the Pistons and Spurs faced each other in what was called the basketball purists’ dream. Neither played a telegenic style and they sort of took pride in not caring about entertaining the masses.

This is an entirely different and more dynamic Spurs team from the ones that “bored” most fans in the 2000s. Then again, the Miami Heat is much more of a team than you’ve been led to believe. Both combine system and individual play effortlessly. We’ve seen four games of spectacular ball movement and insane perimeter shooting. We’ve watched great individual defensive efforts from Green and Leonard against the consensus best player in the world. We've seen resilience and grit from a Miami team desperate to live up to its own hype. And said excellent play has overshadowed  Joey Crawford, iffy calls, Alonzo Mourning’s angry cowl, insanely dressed Spurs fans, and even Heat fans showing up to the arena on time.

Most importantly, for the remainder of these Finals, we have a series where two teams may change the images stuck in our heads for so long. That is, of course, if we’re willing to open our minds.

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