Friday, June 07, 2013

A keen contest in the offing

It's been a while since I have blogged. I wrote a preview of the NBA finals being played out in the USA for an Indian audience. (The first game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat has already been completed with the former registering a close win to go up 1-0 in the 7 game series). Here goes -

To the average sports fan in India, there is not much of a world in sports beyond cricket and to be more accurate, beyond the hugely successful and yet controversial Indian Premium League and Twenty 20 cricket. But to the Indian exposed to watching high quality sporting action on television over the years, the basketball played in the National Basketball Association in the United States must rank among the most spectacular sporting extravaganzas alongside European football, World Cup football and Formula One racing.
To this aficionado, there is no better sport that encapsulates athletic ability, naturally given body strength, dexterity, chess-like strategizing and execution than the basketball played at the NBA. Basketball with its emphasis on skill, strength, speed, team work and brain power is surely among the most evolved sports today and the soon to be played NBA finals (from June 7th onwards) between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs promises to be a reflection of the best of the above mentioned characteristics of the game.
That is because both these teams are such a contrast to each other. The Heat are the powerfully constructed defending champions who comprise the best basketball player of this generation – Lebron James who defies simple characterization by being a scorer, finisher, passer, defender and orchestrator in equally high quality measures and of such a versatile kind that was rarely seen in the past (only erstwhile greats Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson come close). Lebron James is flanked by a flamboyant shooting guard in Dwyane Wade, a fellow 2003 NBA draftee, who singlehandedly won the Heat its first championship in 2006 and an athletic forward in Chris Bosh, besides sharpshooting role players in Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Mike Miller. The Heat have become an even more formidable team since its victory last year by transitioning into a well oiled machine that combines superlative wing play with high octane defense. The Heat evoke part measures of respect and disdain among the sport watching public in the USA who note that the construction of the squad was made possible through “star collusion” as James, Wade and Bosh came together, during their respective free agencies, promising to dominate the NBA landscape for years to come. Since then, they have reached three consecutive NBA finals, winning one of them last year and as favourites, are poised for another triumph this year.
The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, were more organically constructed. The “winningest” franchise in American sport for more than the past 15 years, the Spurs in that period have had a few constants in their squad – the phlegmatic metronome of a “big man”, Tim Duncan for that entire period, the effervescent, exciting and creative savant in Argentine Manu Ginobili and the younger but mature and speedy point guard in Frenchman Tony Parker, who have been coached by long time coach Gregg Popovich. The Spurs evoke mostly respect from opponents and basketball enthusiasts who admire their selfless team play and their executive office’s foresight in constructing the squad through meticulous scouting, focus on player development and staying true to a near idealistic basketball philosophy. No one believed that the Spurs would endure the latter years of their lynchpin Tim Duncan’s nearly one and half decade long career and continue to remain a contender – not since 2007 when they last won their NBA championship. But savvy personnel decisions, perseverance from their veteran players and their “front office” – general manager RC Buford in particular – has brought them back to contention. The fact that the Spurs have been a “small market team” which has managed to construct a winning squad despite keeping their spending low and within “salary cap” limits generally is also noteworthy. In contrast, the Heat pays luxury tax (a punitive tax that is imposed upon teams crossing the salary cap and exceptions) because of huge salaries for their three main players.
On the court, the Spurs rely more on team work, unselfish play, ball movement and complementary play than the Heat, but the latter has also, over the year, stolen some pages from the four time champion’s playbook. The Spurs’ veteran core has been patient in trying to peak at the right time and remain healthy for “money time” – the playoffs. The team has clinically dismantled their playoff opponents – an injury ridden Los Angeles Lakers, a hot shooting, perimeter play dominated Golden State Warriors and a defense first, “big man” play reliant Memphis Grizzlies – by adjusting their strategies duly for their opponents’ strengths and maximizing their own potential to the hilt. The Heat, on the other hand, has used their inherent talent advantage to pummel their opponents but has come off a very difficult Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers who stretched them to the maximum 7 games.
On paper, the Heat are superior. Their advantage lies in the fact that Lebron James does not have a viable challenger who could defeat him one-on-one and the Spurs don’t necessarily have an answer despite fielding their own young defensive specialist Kawhi Leonard to slow James down. But the Spurs are the best opposition that the Heat are going to face so far in the post-season and are strong in some areas which are weak-spots for the Heat. The Spurs are a terrific 3 point scoring team, have the patience to keep churning their offense through the shot clock to find the open man and have the tenacity to play help defense as good as the relatively offensively challenged but defensively strong Indiana Pacers. Will the collective strength of a savvy team like the Spurs be enough to overcome the stellar Miami Heat? This writer’s expectation is that the Spurs will come up trumps in six grueling, exciting games but there is no guarantee.
This promises to be a close contest and an exhibition of exquisite basketball skills for sport fans. Indian viewers can watch the games live on Sony Six (mostly telecasted early mornings Indian standard time).