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Let’s do it again this spring

There were about 20 seconds left in the game when Kevin Garnett [1] and Tim Duncan [2] emerged from their respective huddles and began eying each other down. Garnett, slightly frantic as always, was talking to himself about something. More than likely he was berating himself about his 20-footer that rimmed out and gave the Spurs an opening. Duncan, slightly bemused as always, said nothing.

They came together near the elbow. Fourteen feet or so of NBA Hall of Fame basketball talent ready for one more skirmish. The superficial approaches couldn’t be more different–kinetic vs. cerebral, Rated R for language vs. a silent movie–but deep down Garnett and Duncan and the two teams they represent are like fraternal twins.

As it turned out, it never got that far. Manu Ginobli made a huge play to intercept Ray Allen’s inbound pass and Paul Pierce [3] got called for a clean path foul, which effectively meant this one was all over.
(Click here for a recap [4]).

It’s a shame, really, that this one didn’t come down to a final possession and a final shot, but as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich [5] said, “It’s a 48-minute game, and in the NBA things can change very quickly.”

The Spurs defy change. Oh they have rolled with personnel moves over the year–neatly transitioning from the David Robinson [6] era to the Duncan years, incorporating Tony Parker [7] and Ginobli into star roles and moving from Big Shot Bob Horry to Unstoppable Matt Bonner. At least yesterday anyway when Bonner torched the Celtics [8] for 23 points.

But for the 10 years since Michael Jordan [9] retired from the Bulls, the Spurs have been the gold standard in the NBA. They are accused so often of being boring that it’s become their preferred trademark. They like being called boring. It saves them from answering questions about themselves.

“They have great players and they have great character,” is how Doc Rivers [10] put it. “Everything is about winning.” If that’s boring then sign the Celtics up for boring. What the Celtics have been able to accomplish in one and a half years might be the envy of the league right now, but what the Spurs have done for a decade is what every franchise aspires to become.

The parallels between the two teams are striking both on the court and off. There is rarely, if ever, any controversy coming from anonymous corners of their respective locker rooms and the matchups are compelling because they are similar in many ways, but also different.

“Kevin is a very different player than Tim Duncan,” Popovich said. “Manu and Ray Allen [11] are different players. Paul Pierce and Tony Parker, they’re just different.” And that’s what makes it all so interesting.

Way back in November, [12] I called for a Celtics-Spurs Finals and while it might not be great theater, it would be great basketball. The difference between a Celtics-Spurs Final, as opposed to say Celtics-Lakers, would be roughly the same as the difference between the Red Sox [13] playing the Angels, or the Yankees [14]. On the one had you’d get terrific baseball. On the other, you’d get a psychological melodrama in seven acts.

What it would lack in terms of age-old blood feud would be more than made up for within the matchups.

Rajon Rondo [15] vs. Tony Parker

Outside of having a celebrity wife, Rondo and Parker are eerily similar. Both are fast. Both are great decision-makers. Neither is known as a great shooter.

“They both have a great proclivity for finishing near the rim,” Popovich said. “They both work on their jump shots all the time. If either shot 40 percent from three, they’d be impossible to guard. Hopefully our guy learns how to do it before the other guy does.”

Early in the Spurs run, Parker’s inability to make jump shots consistently forced Pop to use players like Speedy Claxton to finish off games. It’s the same sort of thing with Rondo where everyone fears that at the end of a game he will become a liability because of his shot.

But both players have learned to be effective without a reliable jumper. Against the Spurs Sunday, Rondo got the better of things with 16 assists and only one turnover, as compared to Parker going for seven assists. Neither shot the lights out–Parker went 3-for-12, Rondo went 3-for-11.

Both are the catalysts for their teams. The difference might be on the bench where the Spurs have settled on rookie George Hill as the primary backup, while the Celtics are still weighing their options. Oh, and Hill? The Celtics really liked him coming out of the draft and Rivers made note that if he were still available the C’s might have gone that way. Even their scouting is similar.

Ray Allen vs. Manu Ginobli vs. Paul Pierce vs. et al

There is simply no one in the NBA like Manu. A lefthanded slasher with a good shot, Ginobli needs just a sliver of room to get it off. He is quick and agile where Pierce is strong, feisty where Allen is smooth and controlled.

Although he comes off the bench, Ginobli is the Spurs second-best player behind Duncan. He is the one they go to at the end of games when they need a score, much like Pierce is the Celtics best one-on-one option and Allen is the designated end-of-game shooter.

Where the Spurs have flexibility, and Popovich is great at this, is mixing and matching Ginobli with players like Roger Mason, Michael Finley [16] and Bruce Bowen. Depending on who is with him on the floor, Ginobli can play off either Pierce or Allen. While matched up with Pierce, Ginobli was able to frustrate him defensively, but he had a better time of it offensively against Allen.

The bench is the biggest edge the Spurs have against the Celtics.

Tim Duncan vs. Kevin Garnett

Kobe and LeBron may be more visceral, but for the last 10 years there has been no more intriguing philosophical matchup than Garnett and Duncan. To most, this is a no-brainer. Duncan has won more championships and more MVP awards, and his back-to-the-basket game is more reliable than KG’s jumpers and fadeaways.

Of course, Duncan has had far better teammates in his career than Garnett had before he came to Boston. Depending on whichever kind of analytical study you prefer, Garnett routinely comes out slightly ahead of Duncan. Kevin Pelton at Basketball Prospectus recently concluded that over the last decade KG came out ahead of Duncan based on his number, [17] WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player). David Berri, author of the Wages of Wins, raised his first eyebrow when he concluded the same thing with his numbers [18].

It’s close enough that you can make an entirely credible argument for Duncan based on his superior career achievements, but the truly interesting thing is that the two players are head and shoulders above their peers.

On Sunday, Garnett rarely matched up with Duncan. The Celtics preferred to have him on Matt Bonner, who is more of a perimeter player, and Bonner routinely burned the Celtics, and Garnett, on high pick and rolls when Garnett rolled to help on Parker. It’s the same dynamic when the Celtics play the Lakers and Garnett takes Lamar Odom instead of Pau Gasol [19] and Kendrick Perkins [20] takes the low-post player. (That was something Doc Rivers fretted about before the Laker game when asked about Andrew Bynum’s absence. Yes, it removes a tough low-post defender, but it also spreads the floor).

And, of course, Duncan and Garnett couldn’t be more different in terms of temperament. Garnett, who sometimes seems to be living on the edge of sanity while he is on the court and Duncan, who rarely betrays anything. Yet Duncan’s legacy has suffered from the lack of a true kindred spirit in the Finals. He has not a had Magic to his Larry or a Wilt to his Russell.

That is what he would get with Garnett in a Finals matchup. For one 20-second stretch Sunday it was denied again. It would be a shame if it didn’t happen in June.