2013 NBA Finals: A changing of the guard, doppelgangers, and basketball immortality

Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) shakes hands with San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (21) after game seven in the 2013 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena. Miami defeated San Antonio 95-88 to win the NBA Championship. (Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports)

Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) shakes hands with San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (21) after game seven in the 2013 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena. Miami defeated San Antonio 95-88 to win the NBA Championship. (Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports)

“Two lives that once part are as ships that divide.”—Edward Bulwer-Lytton

June 20, 2013 will forever be a special day in NBA history. Much like Isaiah’s Pistons toppling Magic’s Lakers, or Jordan’s Bulls felling Detroit’s Bad Boys, it was the night a torch was officially passed.

San Antonio has been atop the league since 1999. Even in years they didn’t win the title, anyone associated with the NBA, fans included, considered them amongst the elite. They were the flag bearers for 16 years, championing team basketball during an era of selfishness. On Thursday night Miami put one final nail into the coffin of an older generation. There’s a new sheriff in town.

The entire series between Miami and San Antonio was fantastic. No team won two games in a row until Miami bested the Spurs in Games 6 and 7. Games ranged from blowouts to buzzer-beaters. It was a rope-a-dope series if ever there was one. After a wild—understatement of the century—Game 6, there were high expectations entering the deciding game. It didn’t fail to deliver.

Game 7 was everything fans could have hoped for. Players’ fatigue was so palpable that it exhausted viewers. The game was less of a basketball contest, and more like the 12th round of a heavyweight-boxing match. Neither team could pull away; both refused to fade. It looked like two tired marathoners carrying each other to the finish line.

The most beautiful thing about Game 7 is that no team “lost” the game. Too often lazy debaters ask the question of whether Team X “won the game” or Team Y “lost the game.” It’s an insulting conversation, really. Sometimes teams play better than others. The concept of sport is imposing your will on an opponent until they break. Fortunately, this game had no such moments of defined failure.

People may point to Manu Ginobili’s late game turnovers, but hey, live by the sword, die by the sword. Remember that Manu essentially won Game 5 for the Spurs. Plus, he had 18 points in Game 7—not too shabby.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Critics will undoubtedly rake Greg Popovich over the coals for sitting Tony Parker in a crucial late-game possession. The man coached his team to Game 7 of the NBA Finals. He has four championship rings and an Olympic medal. He built the Spurs and coached them to prominence. Don’t we owe him the benefit of the doubt? It’s unlikely that such a great coach, with the game on the line, would sit his star point guard unless he had a damn good reason.

Game 7 came down to doppelgangers one-upping each other. Dwyane Wade is the new Manu Ginobili. Both have wild crossovers and complete disregard for their bodies. They’re each supremely confident in themselves, regardless of how bad their game has been. At heart, each is a gambler. Most noticeably, both men’s bodies are breaking down from their reckless play. At this stage in their careers, Wade simply has a little more left in the tank.

For Games 1-5 Danny Green was unstoppable. Games 6 and 7 belonged to a familiar nemesis, Shane Battier. Any college sports fan can respect the irony of Carolina and Duke carrying their rivalry to the game’s biggest stage. After Game 7 Battier said, “It’s better to be timely than good.” Danny Green was better for most of the series. Battier came through when a title was on the line. One more earmark for the best rivalry in sports.

The most obvious duality was that of Tim Duncan and LeBron James. Duncan is arguably the best player of his generation; LeBron is unquestionably the best of his. Coming into the series a popular talking point centered on each man’s legacy. This series would forever define both players.

Passing-the-torch moments are rarely immediately evident. We tend to notice them in retrospect, but not so much in the middle of an event. Game 7 was one of the few times you could definitively point out the generational shift. In wrestling there is a term for this: double-turn. Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals was a superstar double turn.

Tim Duncan has been a model of stoic consistency. He’s so good that we forget about him. I compare him to Andre 3000. On Youtube there’s a clip of MCs listing their Top 5 rappers of all time—usual suspects are named: Jay-Z, Rakim, Tupac, Biggie, Nas, Eminem, ad al. Then the interviewer asks about 3000, to which guys respond with something like, “Ah man, he’s so good it doesn’t count. Yeah, you just leave him off, ‘cause he’s that good.” That’s Tim Duncan: we just expect him to be there.

Duncan had been great throughout the Finals. He even played one of his best halves ever in Game 6. Game 7 was also solid for Duncan … until the end. Down by two, with an open lane and a smaller defender, Duncan missed a gimme layup. A bunny, as guys call it. Not only did he miss the initial shot, but he also missed the put back. Tim Duncan never misses these shots when stakes are this high. But there’s a first time for everything and, at age 37, Tim Duncan came up short in the clutch.

Conversely, LeBron James’ big-game career has been wildly inconsistent. Sometimes he dominates; sometimes he shrinks from the moment. With a flat jump shot and moderate free throw percentage, James has always been a gamble in tight situations. He’s the best player in the world, unquestionably, but he’s also prone to turnovers and mental gaffes in tight situations.

In Game 7 LeBron grew up. Any lingering demons he had were put to bed. He attacked the rim. He hid midrange jumpers. He nailed open threes. He calmly put down free throws. Beyond all of that, he defended one of the league’s quickest point guards for a majority of the game.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Duncan, the surest bet in basketball missed two point-blank baskets. LeBron, a high-risk, high-yield gamble nailed every big shot he took. It’s a tale of two superstars: a jarring blow for Duncan, an ascent to immortality for LeBron.

In each man’s postgame interview they reminded us why we love them. Duncan was absolutely distraught. He was shell-shocked. The consummate teammate had let his team down. Never mind the championships, MVPs, all-star appearances, NBA and defensive first teams, and all the adulation. Those two missed shots will haunt Duncan for the rest of his life. After 16 years and a laundry list of accomplishments, he still cares. I could’ve cried watching him on the podium. It’s not so much that they lost a title, it’s that he let his entire team down. Regardless of your feelings on Duncan, you have to respect his passion and dedication to the team.

After the game LeBron looked more carefree than he has since his rookie year. Last year’s title purged some questions. This year’s title exorcised every demon. No longer can people poke holes in his one title. He’s not an aberration anymore. James played his best game of the series in Game 7. He put his stamp on the series and the season with his performance. Critics will undoubtedly continue to nitpick. But there can be no argument against the fact that LeBron James, right now, is the best in the world at his given profession.

It was a series for the ages, and one I’m sure David Stern is wildly proud of. What a way for him to go out. Tim Duncan begrudgingly passed the torch to LeBron James, setting forth a new era in the NBA. If this season was any indication, I’d say the league is in great hands.