Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
"They don't have the greatest athletes in the world," James told the media Wednesday, on the eve of Game 4 of the 2007 NBA Finals. "They don't have the greatest shooters in the world, but they have probably the greatest team in the world, and that's what this sport is all about. It's not about an individual. It's not like tennis, it's not like golf. You have to have one unit. You have to have everybody on the same page at the same time to win basketball games."
This series was a display of just that, as the Spurs used a total team effort to sweep James' Cavaliers in four games for their fourth NBA Championship in the last nine years.
The slogan of last year's champion Miami Heat was "15 Strong." Now, the Spurs aren't exactly a slogan-touting organization, but we could certainly apply that one to them as well.
From top to bottom, the Spurs did what it took to win a championship. It wasn't always pretty. In fact, it rarely was. But it was always effective.
It starts at the top. Gregg Popovich is a no-nonsense coach with a military background who knows what he wants from his players and makes sure he gets it out of them. He's probably the best coach in the NBA, and maybe the most underrated as well. Robert Horry, who has played for Rudy Tomjanovich and Phil Jackson, was quick to praise his team's leader while celebrating his seventh championship.
"He doesn't get enough credit for what a great coach he is," Horry said.
Of course, all of Popovich's four titles have come with Tim Duncan as the focal point of his team.
Before this season began, I was writing about Dwyane Wade and I called him the best player in the NBA.
Can I take that back?
At the time, Duncan was coming off probably his worst season as a pro, battling plantar fasciitis most of the way, with his team falling nine wins short of its goal. Meanwhile, Wade had just carried his team to the championship with a combination of blinding quickness and unrelenting aggressiveness that hasn't been seen in this league for a long time.
A year later, a banged up Wade had his season end early and Duncan is back celebrating another title. Right where he belongs.
Offensively, he wasn't at his best in Games 3 and 4, but he was always anchoring the defense, protecting the paint and guarding James on the perimeter when needed. No flash. Just substance. When it's all said and done, he will be regarded as one of the best to ever play this game.
"Tim is the common denominator," Popovich said before Game 4. "It doesn't matter what year he's been in or what championship year. He's got a different cast around him from '99, '03 and '05. He's welcomed them all, he's found a way to help them all fit, feel comfortable in their roles, and not many players can do that. But he is that easy to play with and his skills are so fundamentally sound that other people can fit in more easily, and I think that's the key to the whole thing, the way they fit around him."
But as good as Duncan is, it was Tony Parker that carried the Spurs offensively in this series, well deserving of MVP honors.
Tonight, while his big man and fellow Finals MVP candidate struggled in the first half (0-for-5 from the floor and three turnovers), Parker returned to the level he was at in Games 1 and 2. He sliced through the retreating Cleveland defense and knocked down a couple of jumpers, scoring 15 points on 6-of-7 from the floor in the half.
He finished with 24 on 10-of-14. And if you ask someone who has been around this team since Parker arrived, like perhaps, David Robinson, Parker's performance in this series is the culmination of a long journey.
"When he first came in, he was young and he was a little bit sporadic," Robinson said tonight. "He was a lightning fast guard, but Pop really had to work on some of his decision making. And just watching him mature over the last couple of years has been an incredible process. Obviously, he's the MVP of the Finals. He's matured a tremendous amount. He outplayed every single point guard they threw at him this year. And that's no small thing, considering you're talking about Allen Iverson, Steve Nash and then Deron Williams playing at the level he was playing. That shows you how far he's come."
As important as Parker was offensively, Bruce Bowen was the key to San Antonio's vaunted defense. And holding the Cavs to just 80.5 points per game on 39.5 percent shooting for the series, it's clear that the Spurs' defense, particularly defending James, was the key to the championship.
"I think it just starts with Bruce," Duncan said. "I've got to give a lot of credit to Bruce. He did an awesome job of standing in front of that guy and making life tough for him."
But tonight, the Cavs made a run and with six minutes to go in the game, held a second-half lead for the first time in the series.
That's when Manu Ginobili took over.
It started with a relentless drive to the hoop that gave his team the lead back. Then, two possessions later, with the game tied, he hit the biggest shot of the game, a three from the top to make it 69-66 with just over four minutes to go. Two possessions after that, he threaded the needle to countryman Fabricio Oberto for a layup to make it an eight-point game. Then another drive for two, and finally, he connected on all six free throws he attempted in the final minute, sealing the game and the series.
That's 13 points and an assist in the final 5:24 of a tightly contested NBA Finals clinching game. That, ladies and gents, is clutch.
"Tonight, offensively down the stretch," Popovich said, "we went to him a couple times, called his number in a couple situations, and again, he's done what he did so many times, in Olympic games, in European championships, in NBA championships. He's just an ultimate competitor."
And Oberto just didn't have that one layup. The biggest possession of the game may have been the one after Ginobili's three. Manu missed a drive, Duncan missed a tip, and then Oberto grabbed an offensive board in a crowd. After Duncan rebounded a Bowen miss, Oberto kept the possession alive once again by tipping Duncan's miss back out. Then Duncan drove and found Oberto under the hoop for a traditional three-point play. And Oberto had another tipout that led to Ginobili's final field goal with just over a minute to go.
Two years ago, he was watching his friend Manu win his second title. Tonight, he helped his friend win his third.
"The end of the fourth quarter for me might be one of the best quarters in all my life," Oberto said after the game.
And while they may not have had many heroics in the clinching game, the rest of the rotation still had their moments in this series.
Robert Horry only averaged 3.0 points in the four games, but he had six assists in Game 2 and an incredible all-around game (five points, nine boards, four assists and five blocks) in Game 3. Ring No. 7 was well deserved.
But in the end, as good as they are as individuals, the true sign of a great team is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And that can certainly be said of this team.
According to Vaughn, it all starts with the relationship between Popovich and Duncan.
"When you can see your head coach get on your best player," Vaughn said as he soaked in his first championship in his 10th NBA season, "demand from your best player, and then hug your best player, that's important for the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th guy on the team. And their relationship is special. I think that's what makes our organization what it is."
And that is the 2007 NBA champions.