Bill Russell, for NBA.com
POSTED: Jun 5, 2014 2:02 PM ET
The Heat will look for a three-peat while the Spurs aim for a fifth championship.
I'm an old guy that has this really bad, bad habit: I like to watch good teams play. And the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs in this year's NBA Finals are not only two really good teams but two teams I particularly enjoy watch playing.
As a fan, I focus on the nuances of the game, the chess match that goes on between both teams. And this series will be no different. How will Miami try to exploit the Spurs? What will San Antonio do to offset the Heat? Last year, we saw the Spurs allow LeBron James to shoot from the outside while packing the paint, deterring him from driving. Will they try to do the same this year? The team that is most successful in exploiting the other team will win. Make the other team make adjustments and the team that has to make the most adjustments always falls behind.
There is a lot of talk about what is at stake in this upcoming NBA Finals. Miami is going for three consecutive NBA championships, trying to become only the fourth franchise in NBA history to achieve that milestone. The Spurs are going for their fifth title in 15 years. Both franchises are being celebrated for their consistency over the years and this Finals rematch is drawing great anticipation.
While these accomplishments are looked at as a collective body of work, when I played, there was always a singular championship focus because if you look ahead, it won't be long before you are eliminated.
The 2014 Finals: Legacies on the Line
It might seem strange but I did not know our Celtic teams won eight championships in a row until about 20 years ago when I read about it in a game program. Our focus was always on that particular season, always one year at a time. The year we played had nothing to do with the previous year or the next year. That's just the way it was.
Now, I don't know if Miami is thinking about winning three in a row. In the NBA Finals, there's pressure and you always see how players react to the pressure. For some guys, it makes them a step slower while for other guys, it makes them a step faster. I like to watch to see how teams react to the pressure because for the really great players, there isn't any pressure, you just go out and play.
While fans, media and even some former players like to compare great teams with other great teams from different eras, it's just not practical. The game today is a different game than when I played or even when George Mikan played. For example, you were not allowed to play zone defense and today, everyone plays a zone. On the Celtics, we had seven players who averaged double figures. Today's good teams have only three. In my 13 years, the Celtics never had a player who led the league in scoring. As a result, when someone retired, it allowed another player to step into that slot, which enabled for a high level of consistency.
It's a different game, which requires different skills. So, I could not legitimately compare these teams today with any of my teams nor can I compare myself to any of the players today. It's still called basketball but it's applied differently.
While the game today may be different, I still have great admiration for today's players, particularly those playing in this series. I would have liked to have played with the three guys in San Antonio -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- because they put the most pressure on the defense and if you could play at all, it would be easy and fun to play with them. The same thing is true of LeBron and Dwyane Wade. Both guys are really, really good. And when I say good, I'm not limiting it to only scoring. They also excel as defenders and passers. They both have different starting points, which makes it difficult to guard them. See, each player has a favorite spot where he starts, not where he finishes but where he starts. Both of these players have multiple places where they can start, which makes it very challenging defensively. A lot of people like to call them natural athletes, which I disagree. There's no such thing. I like to think that they simply know what they're doing, which makes them great.
I'm a big fan of Tim Duncan. He's playing at a high level at an age (38) where a lot of people are not playing. He has successfully been able to intelligently change his game to fit his body this year. But as far as I'm concerned, he's a center, not a forward. Most of his work is done in the post. I wouldn't list him as a forward or as a guard. I would list him as a great player. Period.
One of the attributes that makes Duncan great is his integrity. When he said after the Spurs eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder that they were going to win this time against the Heat, he was saying what he believes. He wasn't sending a message to Miami or his teammates. You have to take in consideration, maybe he sees something that no one else has seen.
When I played, I never, ever tried to send a message. Before the playoffs, when a reporter asked if he thought we had a chance to win the championship, my reply was, 'We've done it before.'
In the playoffs and especially The Finals, one of the big advantages is to play the same team over and over with no other team in between. This way, you can make intelligent adjustments. Now, this is a second year in a row the Heat and Spurs will play each other and with the Celtics, we've had some experience playing the Los Angeles Lakers in back-to-back Finals on three separate occasions. The last time being in 1969 when we went to a seventh game against them in L.A. That season, we had finished fourth in the Eastern Conference, securing the last playoff spot. We get to the seventh game of The Finals and I said to the guys, 'The Lakers don't have a chance tonight.' And they looked at me like I had lost it.
One of the things we knew how to do was to play our opponents. We played the Lakers six games and by this time we knew what worked. We knew they were an excellent team but they were so slow a foot. In the half-court offense, they will beat you to death plus we were an undersized team. The reason we are going to beat them is because we are going to fast break them. And you always hear that you cannot fast break in The Finals because other teams won't let you.
Well, I learned from experience that the key to a fast break is defensive rebounding and outlet passing. I told my guys, 'I am the best to have ever done those things. So, I want both of our guards and our small forward to line up at each side of the court between the foul line and half court. So that when I rebound, I can quickly get the ball to the guy on the same side. So, that's what we did and we ended up scoring 59 points by half time. Fast-break offense was not new to us. We were very versatile. We could play to our strengths against every team.
Intelligent adjustments. Ultimately, this NBA championship will come down to intelligent adjustments. Who will make the most of them and when? The beauty is that no one knows until it tips off Thursday night. While I'm not in the prediction business, it wouldn't surprise me if this series went the distance like last year.
One thing's for sure: I'll be watching. At my age, some bad habits are really hard to break.