Gregg Popovich chose his celebration wine awhile ago: a 1982 Petrus, which, in his opinion and that of many fellow oenophiles, has reached a loftier status than any of the five legendary French first growths. Such expertise means little to the five uninitiates who constitute the San Antonio Spurs' starting lineup, or to the other seven on the bench, but Coach Pop may tell them about the Petrus anyway. "From time to time," says Spurs star Tim Duncan, "Pop likes to lay some random knowledge on us."
Decisions more critical than which Merlot to uncork confront Popovich and the San Antonio brain trust in the coming days. But for now let us raise a goblet to a wine guy who looks like a longneck drinker, who acts like a longneck drinker, who coaches like a longneck drinker and who guided his team to victory in an NBA Finals that only a longneck drinker could appreciate—and then only after several longnecks.
The Spurs' 88-77 Game 6 victory over the New Jersey Nets on Sunday night at the SBC Center in San Antonio earned Popovich and the franchise their second title in five years. It also wrapped up an offensively challenged Headbangers' Ball of a Finals. There was no marquee team (such as the Los Angeles Lakers), no love-him-or-hate-him protagonist (such as the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal) and no distinguishing story line (such as the Lakers going for a four-peat)—nor, for the Nielsens' sake, were there any corpulent crooners, teenage strippers or cameos from cast members of Friends. Even true hoopheads were turned off by what some generously called the "defensive orientation" of the series, which resulted in a combined 169.8 points per game (third lowest in Finals history) and field goal shooting of 43.2% (Spurs) and 370% (Nets).
At least there was suspense, unlike in last season's Finals, in which the Lakers rampaged through the Nets like Donald Rumsfeld through a staff meeting. This time three games were decided by single-digit margins, and even Sunday's finale required a 31-14 fourth-period turnaround by San Antonio that included a 19-0 run. "This series represented the best of basketball, not the worst," said ABC analyst Bill Walton, the eternal contrarian. "Here were two teams extending absolute maximum effort in every game. What's not to like?" Hmmm. The 3-for-23 shooting of New Jersey forward Kenyon Martin in Game 6, following his eight turnovers in a 93-83 Game 5 loss, would be a decent place to start.
Still, the clincher produced a few unlikely heroes among the Spurs, such as guard Stephen Jackson, who in the fourth quarter suddenly emerged from a gamelong fog (his six turnovers gave him an alarming 26 for the series) to hit three key three-pointers. And backup point guard Speedy Claxton, supposedly an open-court player, who confidently conducted the half-court offense (they rarely played any other kind in the Finals) in place of an ineffective Tony Parker. And another reserve, the squirrelly swingman Manu Ginobili, whose fourth-period open-court steal from Richard Jefferson and subsequent dunk was, according to the Nets' Jason Kidd, the play that began to erode New Jersey's confidence.
As for likely heroes, there was Kidd, who made only 36.4% of his shots but infused every game with the manic energy that makes him sui generis among NBA play-makers. There was the energetic David Robinson, who went out with one last loud roar. And, of course, there was Duncan. Always there was Duncan. He wrapped up this series in his long arms, just as surely as he cradles the ball before every tip-off, a gesture that represents the outer limit of his demonstrativeness.
In a Game 6 in which two Spurs point guards had six assists between them, the 7-foot Duncan had 10 to go with his 21 points, 20 rebounds and eight blocked shots. To say that he fills up a box score with effortless brilliance is to damn him with faint praise; there's maximum effort in everything he does, but there's also a remarkable economy of motion, a fundamental elegance. In the Lakers' sweep last year Shaq bruised and bullied the Nets, averaging 36.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.8 blocks; Duncan killed them softly with 24.2 points, 170 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 5.3 blocks.
"Did you know you were close to a quadruple double?" Duncan was asked after Sunday's game.
"No, I didn't," he said, shrugging his shoulders and looking as if someone had just informed him that the new phone books had arrived. "That's cool."
Clearly, it is time to mention Duncan—27 years old with seven superlative seasons behind him, two championship rings and as many regular-season and Finals MVP awards—among the greatest players of all time. That's cool.