The San Antonio Spurs’ 102-91 win Wednesday night over the Los Angeles Lakers was the expected outcome, gave them a 2-0 lead in their opening-round playoff series and inched the Lakers closer to being put out of their misery.
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It was also the latest showdown between two franchises competing for the right to be called the greatest of modern times and, if the Spurs gain steam, a growing threat to Kobe Bryant’s closely guarded legacy.
These are the stakes at play when these teams face off in the playoffs, when Showtime goes up against Slow Time, when the dazzle of the purple and gold meets the methodical certainty of Gregg Popovich’s team from flyover country.
You see, since Jordan’s Bulls gave up dominion of the league, there has been a battle between the team that has rightfully been its most celebrated and the team that is the most-underappreciated dynasty in any sport at any time.
There is still a long ways to go, yes, but if the Spurs can put this utterly over-hyped Lakers team out of its misery and turn them into a footnote en route to another championship, San Antonio will have a legitimate claim as The Greatest Team Since Jordan’s Bulls.
Another title would give the Spurs five. The Lakers? They, too, have five during that span. But while the Lakers have won their titles surrounded by drama and defiance, the Spurs have done so with a higher mark of consistency and excellence.
This may come as news to some of you, and unwelcome facts to others.
We live in a time when the noisiest among us get the most attention. Fame? It’s now as often a product of the absurd as the deserved. Wealth? You can find enough fortunes spread across the earth made through corruption and dirty dealing to make you forget the many that earned what they have. Respect? Too often we give ours to those who command our attention rather than those who command our awe or admiration.
Which is to say, as with the Spurs, doing it the right way often leaves the world feeling let down or unimpressed.
The Spurs have been the sports team most wronged by this shortsightedness. We call them boring instead of seeing them as a perfectly calibrated basketball machine. We pretend to want teams and athletes who are role models and then bemoan the success of those who do just that while heaping our attention on those luxuriating in drama, scandal, headlines and attention seeking. We say we want to see the greatest of all time reach the pinnacle of their game before turning around and pretending someone like Tim Duncan isn’t one of the great all-time players on par with, well, yes, Kobe Bryant.
Lakers fans might bristle at the very real fact that Duncan may be as great as Bryant, but Bryant gets how good Duncan is, as players tend to. “[H]e’s the best power forward to play and my all time favorite to compete against,” Bryant tweeted last week to a fan. “#realtalk.”
Yes, he is (if you buy the absurd notion he’s a power forward), and Kobe’s real talk could extend further: Duncan, like Kobe, could make a strong case he’s an all-time Top 10 player.
Since Duncan entered the league in 1997, Kobe’s second year in the NBA, their two teams have won nine of 14 titles. Each of them, and each of their teams, has been the greatest of their eras.
Kobe, now 34 years old and facing a challenging recovery from a torn Achilles tendon, sits at fourth on the all-time scoring list. Over his career he has averaged 25.5 points, 4.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game. He’s missed a lot of shots, too, as his 45.4 shooting percentage suggests. He’s been the NBA Finals MVP twice.
That’s some heady stuff.
So is this: Duncan, who turns 37 Thursday, is 22nd on the all-time scoring list and 13th on the all-time rebounding list. He has averaged 20.2 points and 11.2 rebounds per game and has shot 50.7 percent from the floor. He’s been an NBA Finals MVP three times.
Both guys are big, big reasons the Lakers won the NBA title in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2010, and the Spurs did the same in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007.
In head-to-head matchups, Duncan has a 39-38 edge, but Kobe’s Lakers have won four of their six playoffs series against the Spurs.
Another way to see it: During this span, the Lakers have five NBA titles, seven conference titles and eight division titles, giving them the edge in the ultimate-prize department: Titles.
But the Spurs have been close behind in that area while maintaining a more consistent level of excellence. They have four titles, four conference titles and 10 division titles. Ten. The Spurs have also won over 70 percent of their games and have never finished lower than 61 percent for a season. That’s simply astounding.
The Lakers have won 65 percent of their games, which include three lousy seasons between the Shaq and Gasol eras.
So Wednesday’s game was about more than this hot mess of a Lakers team getting closer to the elimination that, quite frankly, they deserve. This was another showdown between the two teams that have defined the past 15 years.
The Lakers have gotten all the love, as a team featuring Kobe and Shaq, Phil Jackson and Dr. Buss, and all the extravagances of Showtime – to say nothing of the dramas of too many sagas to recount here – tend to.
But the Spurs have been almost as good. And if this series is another in the playoffs in which the winner goes on to win it all – as has happened five of the six times they’ve played one another in the playoffs – then those of us obsessed with the flash and glitz of Lakers lore might need to look at something more lasting: History.
Because if the Spurs do somehow win it all, Kobe Bryant and his Lakers will enter next season as second-best during his reign.