MIAMI – The World Cup started on Thursday afternoon, which meant it was time for my personal tradition of cramming as much soccer-related information as possible into my brain so that I have at least some understanding of what I am watching throughout the tournament. Of all of my research, what interested me the most was reading about Spain and how their national team was inseparable from a certain style of play.
I had never heard the phrase “tiki-taka” before reading about the Spanish national team. At first I thought it was a unifying rallying cry like “Ubuntu” was for Doc Rivers’ Boston Celtics. Instead, tiki-taka represents Spain’s unique style of play, which is defined by constant, whip-smart passing, perpetual movement off the ball and a benevolent group of players.
Now, tell me if that doesn’t sound just a little bit like a certain basketball team from San Antonio that just eviscerated the two-time defending NBA champions on the road in back-to-back games to secure a 3-1 edge in the 2014 NBA Finals.
Of course, the Spurs have their own saying that symbolizes the fabric of their organization: Pounding the rock.
Gregg Popovich’s favorite mantra is a reference to an old quote by Jacob Riis about a stonecutter’s dedication to his craft in lieu of results and how his ultimate success comes not because of his last strike of the rock, but because all of the ones before it. In short, the quote, which hangs on the wall in the Spurs lockerroom, sums up Popovich’s “process over results” philosophy.
And throughout these NBA Finals, the Spurs have never wavered from their process, which heavily entails that tiki-taka style of succeeding collectively on every possession, and it’s put them in a position to claim their fifth banner in Game 5 on Sunday night.
San Antonio’s steadfast unity has never been more clear than in Games 3 and 4, where the Spurs used an unprecedented combination of unselfishness, smarts and individual creativity to dismantle what has been the most vaunted post-season defense in the league over the past few years. The Spurs had a historic shooting performance in Game 3, but their dominance was sustainable because it was rooted in their fundamental style of play, and yet another brilliant group effort allowed San Antonio to flourish again in Game 4.
It’s not easy to make this Miami team look vulnerable defensively, at least not when they are locked in. But the Heat either haven’t found that extra gear that they’ve relied on in years past or they have and the Spurs are too good for it to matter. Based on the way Miami reacted to San Antonio’s second straight annihilation of their defense on their home floor, constantly peering at the ground looking dejected and defeated, I’d say it’s the latter.
What’s even more impressive than what the Spurs did to Miami’s defense is how they made them look on the other end. Ironically, the star-studded Heat are not all that different than the anonymous Spurs when it comes to sharing the basketball and the credit. Like Tim Duncan, LeBron James has always been one of the more magnanimous teammates in basketball.
But the Spurs have completely disrupted Miami’s championship rhythm. San Antonio has executed defensively with the same devastating precision and imperative attention to detail that makes them a terror to guard on the other end of the floor. Anytime that LeBron or Dwyane Wade got into the paint in Game 4, they were met by the long, extended arms of Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, and San Antonio blew up some of Miami’s more complex offensive sets all game long by switching on all screens.
So, in what was a must-win game for the Heat if they were going to keep a three-peat within the realm of possibility, Miami looked more and more like Cleveland throughout the night, at least from LeBron’s perspective. Wade turned in the worst game of his Finals career, scoring just 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting, Chris Bosh was nowhere to be found after an initial burst in the opening minutes, Ray Allen only got two open looks courtesy of some lucky bounces and I’m pretty sure someone filed an actual missing persons report for Mario Chalmers.
The third quarter essentially summed up the game for the Heat. James shot 7-of-8 from the field and scored 19 of Miami’s 21 points during the third period and the Spurs still won the quarter 26-21. Given how little his teammates were contributing, LeBron was probably longing for the days when Larry Hughes and Boobie Gibson would hit a three every now and then, although that trio got throttled by the Spurs, too.
And, as usual, the Spurs were operating on the opposite end of the spectrum. Game 4 marked the second straight game where neither of San Antonio’s perennial powers were individually brilliant. Instead, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Duncan once again looked like Leonard’s overqualified sidekicks.
Leonard’s out of this world talent has only been surpassed by his uncanny acumen over these past two games. The defense he has played on James – moving his feet like Baryshnikov in sneakers and waving his arms around like the wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man – has been befitting of comparisons to Scottie Pippen, and his emergence as not just a finisher with the ball, but as another fluid cog in San Antonio’s rhythmic offense has kept things humming along. Despite two below average games to start this series, Leonard’s play in Miami may have been enough to make him the favorite for Finals MVP should the Spurs close this out.
It’s too simplistic to say that San Antonio has put on a clinic over the past two games. In fact, that may be belittling what they’ve done. Calling their offensive execution a clinic means they are setting some kind of example for others to follow. While that may be true about their selflessness, the kind of ball movement that the Spurs consistently display is not easily replicated.
We can talk about how the Spurs play the right way, but what’s more true is that they’ve found the right combination of players – a unique and perfect blend of light’s outs shooters, quick dribble penetrators, nimble and cunning defenders, Picasso-like passers and, most importantly, dedicated brothers – to fit their rare, adventurous and ravishing tiki-taka style of pounding the rock.
And now they are just a win away from being cemented as one of the best teams in NBA history.