You never liked the San Antonio Spurs that much. At least, you never really liked them if you had a soul. As a decent and honorable human being, you cringed whenever Bruce Bowen not-so-subtly snuck his foot into the landing area of an opposing jump shooter, and you winced when Manu Ginobili barreled into the lane, long hair flapping behind him, just knowing he was going to flop his way to another trip to the free throw line.
Not liking the Spurs was never a crime, because the Spurs were long one of the NBA’s least likable teams. David Robinson was the ultimate gentleman, but his “Who, me?” face after committing a foul made you want to smack the flat top off his head. Tim Duncan picked up that face and has perfected it to a peak level of obnoxiousness. Avery Johnson was just plain irritating.
Admit it. You admired the way they won, sacrificing individual glory for the good of the team, following Duncan, the NBA’s least-flashy superstar, and Gregg Popovich, the NBA’s most no-nonsense coach. But you just couldn’t reconcile how annoyingly they accomplished it all, putting opponent’s ankle bones in jeopardy while dropping their jaws incredulously when the referees dared whistle them for an infraction.
But it’s different now. Bowen is mercifully long gone. Refs don’t even bother to blow the whistle anymore when Ginobili topples down in a heap. Duncan still reacts as though it is blasphemy to accuse him of fouling anyone, but he’s so savvy at 37 years old that it’s mostly just amazing to watch him operate. More importantly, a new crop of Spurs, led by Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, threaten to make the Spurs almost likable.
Everything is relative, of course. Most of the basketball-watching populous is no doubt already rooting for the Spurs against the Heat in the NBA Finals. For anyone who doesn’t remember the Spurs’ aggravating excellence a decade ago, the Heat are the most unlikable team in history. LeBron James is the most polarizing figure in sports. Dwyane Wade hits the hardwood so often he makes Ginobili look like an immovable object by comparison. Even before this series, though, these Spurs were a lot more tolerable than their past incarnations, thanks to a changing of the guard in process in San Antonio.
Leonard, for one, is an unqualified joy to watch. Through the first three games of the finals, he has been the best player on the court. He has the stoicism of Duncan without the disbelieving facial expressions, the defensive wizardry of Bowen without the dirty tricks and the timely shooting of Sean Elliott without the bad color commentating. If Leonard keeps playing like this and the Spurs win the title, he would be the most deserving candidate for the series’ Most Valuable Player award.
Green, and his running mate Gary Neal, are not without their flaws. Green was known for being too cocky coming out of North Carolina, as redundant as that sounds. He was drafted by the Cavs. He was waived by the Cavs. He was signed by the Spurs. He was waived by the Spurs. He was signed back by the Spurs after dominating the D-League, and he suddenly seemed to accept that he wasn’t God’s gift to basketball. He is now 16-for-23 on 3-point attempts in the finals.
Neal is no saint, either. After earning Philadelphia Big 5 and Atlantic 10 Conference rookie of the year honors at La Salle, he was dismissed from the team in 2004 after he was accused of rape. He was acquitted, took a year off and resurfaced at Towson, then bounced around Turkey, Spain and Italy after going undrafted in 2007. His shot selection is terrible. His handle is a little too loose, forcing the Spurs to use him as a 6-foot-4 off-guard rather than as a true point guard. Yet he’s kept his nose clean of late, as far as we know, and he chipped in six of San Antonio’s 16 threes in Game 3. If you can’t exactly root for Neal, at least the courts have said there’s no reason to actively root against him.
It has always been tough for a true basketball lover to really hate the Spurs. Despite all their tiresome antics, they won — a lot — and proved a system can triumph in an era where the focus is increasingly on stockpiling talent. But thanks to the Spurs’ infusion of young, unselfish players, you no longer have to begrudgingly respect what the team does, and can start to actually appreciate the product for what it is.
Then Duncan makes that face, and you hate them all over again.