MIAMI — The one phone call that’s telling, the one greeting that matters, the one word that a few years later puts these NBA Finals into proper context came just a few days after the Heat signed LeBron James.
This was in July, 2010. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich phoned Heat President Pat Riley. These are two men who have spent careers chasing excellence, creating two very different franchises. Now their teams meet Thursday night in Game 1.
One franchise is small-town quiet. The other is big-city glitzy. One was built slowly through the draft. The other was built loudly through free agency. One roster has been together for so long you expect Cain and Abel to come off the bench.
The other, well ...
“We’re still coming together in some ways,” Heat newcomer Ray Allen said.
But three summers ago, after years of salary-cap planning landed The Big Three, as a national chorus decried “The Decision,” Riley got a call from one opposing team executive.
And just one.
“Congratulations,” Popovich said.
And now, sitting in AmericanAirlines Arena, Popovich says: “He put together a team fairly, within the rules, that is a monster. So why wouldn’t he get credit for that? Why wouldn’t you congratulate him for that?”
Excellence, you see, is what matters. However it arrives. There are two uncommon stories pulsating at the heart of these NBA Finals, two opposite ways up the mountain, two smart manners of doing business deep in two contrasting offices that define basketball excellence in their own right.
San Antonio’s core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been together so long that Popovich called a play they hadn’t practiced in four years during the Western Conference finals against Memphis. The result: a Duncan layup in the final minute to help close a Game 3 win.
The Heat are so new that Bosh says: “We’re doing things entirely differently this year than we did two years ago. Play calls, for instance. Every play was called our first year. Now we don’t even call plays out.”
Which way is better? That’s like asking whether fried eggs or scrambled are better; whether sports cars or pick-up trucks are better; whether, as the old-school beer commercial asked, tastes great or less filling matters more.
Duncan was asked about living in a media fishbowl like the Heat does.
“I’m definitely glad I don’t have that kind of pressure, absolutely,” he said.
Bosh was asked about living on a smaller stage like San Antonio does.
“I like being on the big stage,” he said.
That’s just it. These teams live opposite basketball lives, just like the franchises that brought them together today.
Here is how the Spurs built their team: They drafted Duncan first overall, drafted Ginobili from Argentina 58th overall, drafted Parker from France 28th overall, drafted Tiago Splitter 28th overall from Brazil, drafted George Hill 26th overall, then traded him to Indiana for the 15th pick, then drafted Kawhi Leonard.
So it wasn’t just the draft the Spurs built around that’s differed from the Heat model. It’s the worldwide talent they mined. Just off the gold medal-winning Argentine team from the 2004 Olympics, San Antonio took three players in Ginobili, Luis Scola and Fabricio Oberto, who were parts of title teams.
“Other teams were signing players from around the world like we were at the time,” San Antonio General Manager R.C. Buford said.
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