The Spurs will go to the Finals Thursday night as prohibitive favorites, not just because they're the NBA's best team but because the Eastern Conference champ Detroit Pistons locked into a seven-game brawl with the Miami Heat while the Spurs finished off Phoenix so quickly that they took a week off to rest their wounds.
Everywhere else around the NBA, one sees sideshows, usually about people not getting along. In New York, it's the serial dysfunction of the Knickerbockers under Isiah Thomas, committing the ultimate Gotham sin of irrelevance with the worst team in the worst division. In Los Angeles, it's the pathetic drama of their bended-knee courtship with Phil Jackson, who's already trashed Kobe Bryant in his last book. Now they might kiss and make up.
In Miami, it's Shaquille O'Neal playing through aches and pains to prove, once more, his importance in the NBA after the falling out last year with Bryant in L.A. unraveled a bid for the championship. In Detroit, it's Larry Brown looking for another job again, this time with his eye on Cleveland, where a new owner already pushed aside head coach Paul Silas and GM Jim Paxson after the latter finally cleaned up an inherited mess to wrangle $20 million in salary cap room
But San Antonio confines its dramas to the basketball court. Game Four against Phoenix marked the San Antonio star, Tim Duncan, with the emphatic rejection of his dunk by Amare Stoudamire. The replay showed constantly on the sports channels for two days.
Duncan kept his mouth shut, and teammates kept their distance from him, as the Spurs lost their chance to sweep Phoenix. But Duncan came back with 31 points and 15 rebounds in Game Five, closing the series with a 101-95 win.
The NBA's jabbering class always overestimates running teams like Phoenix, much as it despises and underrates roughhouse teams like the Pat Riley Knicks. Everyone just knew the defense-driven Spurs, who often win by scoring 90, would be out of their depth against the free-wheeling Suns. So the Spurs scored 100 in every game of the series.
Phoenix never recovered. Even its only win of the series, in Game Four, accomplished little except to reorient Duncan to another decisive performance. As completely as the Spurs dominated, they couldn't ever stop Stoudamire -- though no one's going to stop him for a long time. He's 22 years old, 6-foot-10, 250 pounds and a three-year NBA veteran who already holds career averages of 20 points and 9 rebounds. Not even the Spurs know how to guard him.
Stoudamire is one of those guys no one heard about or knows well because he skipped the collegiate step. He went to his senior year of high school with little hype, not even playing junior year due to numerous high school transfers. The Suns took him with the ninth overall choice in the 2002 draft, when no other team selected a high school player.
Credit for legitimizing the Suns went to league MVP Steve Nash, but his true contribution was going to the go-to guy, Stoudamire. After the season, Suns management told Stoudamire to prepare for an expanded role next year as "point center," allowing him to operate in more of a wing capacity so he won't constantly be out of position as center. The kid owns the complete game offensively.
The Suns came a long way this year and promise an unlimited future. Of course, their future is limited by the NBA's salary cap. They're thinking of putting Stoudamire on one of those $100-million seven-year deals, they'll need another $45 million to re-sign Joe Johnson and they owe a lot of money to Nash and Shawn Marion.
Probably the one NBA game this year that told how the season would go was Jan. 21, when the Spurs went to Phoenix for Nash's return from injury. The Suns and Spurs were 32-9 halfway through the season, tied for the league's best record. The Suns, the surprise team in the NBA, went before a rabid home crowd listening for a statement.
And when the third period ended, the statement had been delivered. The Suns led, 88-71. San Antonio entered the fourth quarter down 17, and the guys they put on the floor were Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Brent Barry, Devin Brown and Beno Udrih. The Suns weren't at full strength, either, down three players because they'd traded that day for Jim Jackson.
Anyway, the Spurs' flying circus chipped it down to a 108-100 deficit with two minutes remaining behind Ginobili's demonic work, then Barry hit two three-pointers in the final minute and Duncan made two free throws with seven seconds left to force the game into overtime at 110-110. You could see the Spurs beating the will out of the Suns, going home with a 128-123 win.
And it was all because the Spurs are so systematically proficient with so many players that they can sit three starters and a key reserve in a moment of truth and watch three or four players from the back of their bench make it happen. The Spurs couldn't stop Stoudamire, but they owned the rest of the Suns psychologically.
Gunning for their third NBA title in seven years, the Spurs can't qualify as a dynasty. But no one in San Antonio really cares about that. It's good enough for Spurs fans just to win the title every two or three years.
It always comes back to them. It looks like their turn again this year.