If teen-orientated TV drama has taught us anything – and let’s not try to pretend that it hasn’t taught us everything – it’s that in every high school basement there lurks an ancient, temperamental boiler tended by a wizened, undemonstrative janitor. That boiler is a terror, screeching and threatening to shudder itself to exploding pieces at any moment – taking the hot water supply and half the geography department with it. But whenever the violent gurgling gets too much, that wizened janitor tilts his head, smiles faintly, and twists a strategic bolt or two, bringing the entire calamity calmly back under control. There is no problem that boiler can throw up that he hasn’t seen and fixed a thousand times already. That faint smile is the expression of a man who knows that he will never be surprised again. It’s the same look that crosses Tim Duncan’s face every time he steps on a basketball court.
For fifteen years now, Duncan has spent every day of his professional life confronted with an unpredictable, five-headed machine designed to make him miserable, and he’s learned exactly where to apply his spanner in order to make that machine behave itself. He’s had help of course – the current Spurs team boasts a full custodial staff with Manu Ginóbili, Tony Parker and coach Gregg Popovich bringing a wealth of problem-solving know-how to bear on any given game. During game three of their series against the Clippers last week, the Spurs found themselves down 10 points at the half. As we waited for the third quarter to start, we were treated to a shot of Parker, Popovich and Duncan sitting serenely on the sidelines, no doubt in their minds that they knew exactly how to fix the situation. If you’d supplied them with a set of matching beige overcoats, any teen-orientated drama casting agent would have broken their arms shoving this perfect janitorial trio on-screen.
The obvious narrative for the upcoming Western conference Finals between San Antonio and Oklahoma City will be of age versus youth – particularly as OKC’s playoff story so far has been one of energetic, unrestrained destruction being reigned on elderly teams – but the operative phrase for the Spurs should not be age, rather familiarity. The 2012 iterations of the Mavericks and Lakers that collapsed so arthritically under the Thunder’s loud music and text speak are broken teams at various stages of rebuilding. Their players are old, yes, but also distracted, demotivated and patchwork. The Spurs on the other hand have a seamlessly integrated unit of coach and core players that has had ten years of playing at the highest level to back up their skills – a degree of continuity that is only rarely seen in world sports (the Auerbach/Russell/Jones/Heinsohn Boston Celtics and the Ferguson/Giggs/Scholes/Keane Manchester United being among the few teams similar to the Spurs in terms of quality and longevity). Their intimate, instinctive knowledge of each other’s games allows the Spurs to play with a breadth of tactical nuance that simply cannot be matched by teams who are, comparatively, still wearing nametags around the office. Kobe’s got a fair amount of janitorial savvy about himself, but trying to guess what Metta World Peace is going to do in any given situation is a game of manic uncertainty for Mr Bryant. Tony Parker on the other hand, knows his fellow Spurs’ floor positions so accurately that GPS satellites are calibrated to his passes.
What is most amazing about this season’s Spurs – even beyond the impressive stable of quality role-players built by RC Buford that Popovich has been able to slot around his highly-drilled core – is that the lock-out compressed season was supposed to be the one that exposed the lack of pep in San Antonio’s legs. In November, every analyst thought that it would take youth and stamina to power through the ridiculous schedule and still be standing when the prizes were handed out. Instead, the young players spent the regular season running and leaping and crashing as hard as they ever did, and have reached the playoffs with tanks as empty as a Glaswegian’s vegetable crisper. The Spurs, meanwhile, kept moving the ball instead of their feet, took lay-ups instead of dunks, rested and rotated and have managed to end the season as spry as they began. San Antonio were faced with an extreme physical challenge, thought their way through it, and now the NBA’s elite custodians find themselves sweeping their way to a richly deserved fifth title.