NBA Finals 2013: The surprisingly sympathetic San Antonio Spurs

USA TODAY Sports

Once seen as the big, bad evil empire, the San Antonio Spurs are assuming a different role as the 2013 NBA Finals gets underway.

MIAMI -- During their long illustrious run, the San Antonio Spurs have been many things. They have been dominant at times, respected always and usually precise to the point of what some would call boredom. What they have rarely been is sympathetic, but as the Finals begin, they have become something of a sentimental choice.

Part of that, of course, is the opponent. The Heat are still reviled in many quarters, and while some may side with LeBron James as a sort of protest vote against the reactionary wing of the sports public, there is the enduring idea that they may get their comeuppance. In that sense, the Spurs occupy the same place in the Finals as the Thunder and Mavericks before them.

Unlike the Mavs, who featured a great player like Dirk Nowitzki trying to fulfill a lifelong quest, or the Thunder with their appealing young superstars, the Spurs have nothing to prove to anyone but themselves. Certainly, another championship would add to their history, but win or lose, Tim Duncan’s legacy is secure, as is Gregg Popovich’s, Tony Parker’s and Manu Ginobli’s.

That attitude was best summed up by the taciturn Duncan during Wednesday’s media availability. (Note: I was flying at the time and all quotes are courtesy of ASAP Sports).

"Will it matter at some point?" Duncan responded when asked about his legacy. "Maybe it will, but I have nothing to do with how people see me at that point. I'm just here to enjoy it and do the best I can."

Duncan’s answer was so very Spurs and in keeping with their curmudgeonly persona. He has never been embraced by the public, nor has he made much effort to connect on a large scale the way other superstars have in the past. Time has a way of softening those rough edges, however. What was once frustrating is now met with a collective shrug. That’s just Timmy and that’s just the Spurs.

"But as far as personal accolades or legacy, it doesn't even enter his mind. Very honestly." - Gregg Popovich on Tim Duncan.

"I don't want him to sound disrespectful," Popovich said, coming to his player’s defense. "He has great respect for those that have come before him, and he loves the game. But as far as personal accolades or legacy, it doesn't even enter his mind. Very honestly. That's not disrespectful to basketball. It's who he is. He plays the game, he enjoys the game and respects it. But anything that's put towards him in an accolades sort of way, that's not something he spends any time thinking about. I guarantee it."

There’s something to be said for maintaining relationships through the years the way the Spurs’ core has. Three years is an eternity in this league -- as the Heat are finding out -- but 16 long seasons as Duncan and Pop have managed? That’s unthinkable. Not even the great Bill Russell lasted that long with Red Auerbach.

Parker came on the scene in 2001 and Ginobli appeared the following season. To put it into perspective, Duncan and Pop had already been together for a half-dozen years by the time the core was in place and another championship was secure, which is exactly the same amount of time as the modern Celtics have been together. A decade later, they’re all still in one place.

"I think that it's a real simple answer," Popovich said. "Nobody really likes it. They want me to say something different. It's a total function of who those three guys are. What if they were jerks? What if they were selfish? What if one of them was, you know, unintelligent? If, if, if."

"But the way it works out, all three of them are highly intelligent. They all have great character. They appreciate their teammates' success. They feel responsible to each other. They feel responsible to Patty Mills or to Danny Green. That's who they are and how they're built. I think when you have three guys like that, you're able to build something over time."

It should be noted that these are not the same old Spurs that beat teams into submission during their glory days. Parker has assumed a larger share of the responsibility and he emerged this season as arguably their best player. (No one ever argues or cares about this the way they do in other NBA cities, obviously.)

Where once they were slow and methodical, the Spurs are now quick and sleek. They ranked third in pace this past season, a far cry from when they were routinely in the league’s lower third. The stylistic evolution is a new phenomenon, brought on by Parker’s emergence and the addition of younger reinforcements like Green and Kawhi Leonard.

That says something else about the Spurs, particularly Pop, who has evolved with the times. Most notably, his relationship with Parker has grown over the years to the point where they can both laugh off the early days when the two weren’t always so in sync. When you get older, as Parker said, you begin to appreciate the moment a little more than when you were young.

"Because when I was 21 and I won my first one, it was kind of fast and we think it's going to happen every year," Parker said. "We think it's easy. But after a lot of years in the league, you realize it's really hard to go to the Finals. Now we take nothing for granted. We appreciate every moment."

As the Spurs take the floor on the league’s biggest stage one more time, that’s what endures: an appreciation for everything they’ve accomplished and the time they’ve been together. It’s a rare thing in sports and practically unimaginable in the modern age. Lest we get too sentimental about the league’s most endearingly sardonic franchise, here’s Pop sending us off with an explanation about the time he held Duncan out with a DNP-Old.

"He loved it. He thought it was funny as hell," Popovich said. "There were some others who did not enjoy it, but Timmy got a kick out of it and I got a kick out of it. It was fun. And it was true. He was older than dirt. That's the deal. He was tired that night. He's old. So I could have lied. I could have said he has a broken ankle or something. I just said he's old."

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