NBA Purists Swoon Over Spurs' Style Of Play

The NBA Finals begin Thursday night in Miami. Though they haven't won a championship since 2007, the San Antonio Spurs have remained in the hunt because of their style of team play. The Spurs will face the Miami Heat.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The NBA finals begin tonight, and there is greater anticipation than normal as the Miami Heat host the San Antonio Spurs in game one. This series has it all: superstars at the top of their game, coaches at the top of theirs, a defending champion, Miami, against four-time champs San Antonio. NPR's Tom Goldman has this report on the Spurs, whose prickly head coach has helped fashion a dynasty with a style of play that makes basketball purists swoon.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: There was this play, early in the second quarter, game four, Western Conference Finals between San Antonio and Memphis. Spurs point guard Tony Parker fired a one-handed bounce pass to teammate Boris Diaw, who was practically under the basket. But, in an instant, Diaw saw a defender closing in....

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Diaw to Splitter....

GOLDMAN: ...and passed to center Tiago Splitter, who scored an easy lay-in. Parker to an open Diaw, to a more-open splitter. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy kvelled through the slow motion replay.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

JEFF VAN GUNDY: Well, the pick and roll, Parker gets it back to Diaw, which causes rotation, the little one-hand dish pass. That's a thing of beauty.

GOLDMAN: And that was a play with just two passes.

DAVID THORPE: I could cite others where they might throw six passes in a possession. They're constantly in search of the best shot.

GOLDMAN: It's a philosophy of passing up good for great that ESPN NBA analyst David Thorpe says makes San Antonio's offense one of the best he's ever seen. Others, including Miami, play the beautiful game, too. But the Spurs have been the standard-bearers, Thorpe says, as they've adapted to recent changes in NBA defenses.

The league has embraced more zone defense principles, where each defender doesn't have to be glued to his man. Defenders can drift closer to the ball. Thorpe says the way to beat that...

THORPE: Great shooting, to space the floor, share the basketball, move the ball quickly.

GOLDMAN: Of course, if all this doesn't result in the great shot - say, against a supremely quick and athletic defense like Miami's - the Spurs can rely on point guard Parker, whose addition of a great shooting touch to his cat quickness has made him a defense-shredding force.

Which brings us to Greg Popovich, the man considered the architect of the Spurs' system. Everything leads to Pop in San Antonio - mostly for better, sometimes for worse. The veteran head coach has led his team to four titles since 1999, and eviscerated many a sideline reporter along the way, as he did here with TNT's poor David Aldridge.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

DAVID ALDRIDGE: How happy were you with the shot selection, even though they came back?

GREG POPOVICH: Happy? Happy's not a word we think about in a game. You've got to think of something different. Happy. I don't know how to judge happy.

ALDRIDGE: All right. Fair enough.

POPOVICH: We're in the middle of a contest. Nobody's happy.

DAN MCCARNEY: You see this real sarcastic, hard (beep), and he's from the Air Force Academy.

GOLDMAN: Dan McCarney blogs about the spurs for the San Antonio Express-News.

MCCARNEY: I think it's very easy to typecast him.

GOLDMAN: When, in fact, McCarney says, Popovich is so much more: intellectually curious and open-minded enough to allow his Spurs to evolve and be relevant for more than a decade. Of course, he growled in a Sports Illustrated article that his only coaching innovation was drafting Tim Duncan. The all-star forward has been in lock-step with Popovich on court and off, evidenced by an exchange with reporters this week. Duncan was asked about Pop's verbal tussles with the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

TIM DUNCAN: I think it's hilarious. I think it's awesome. But, as I said, he's direct. He says what he needs to say, and he gets out of there.

GOLDMAN: Meaning don't expect much if some brave soul asks Popovich over the next week or so what it would mean to win a fifth title. Probable answer? We won more games than Miami. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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