“Today, I am… the GREATEST!”
Remember that quote? That wasn’t Muhammad Ali after he rumbled George Foreman in the jungle. That also wasn’t Terrell Owens when he preened on the Texas Stadium Star.
Those immortal immodest words were uttered by Rickey Henderson. Back on May 1, 1991, Rickey broke Lou Brock’s all-time record when he picked up stolen base #939 vs. the Yankees. Henderson yanked 2nd base out of the ground, raised it above his head and proclaimed his greatness with the classy Brock watching from the stands.
Meanwhile, on the same day back at the Rangers ranch in Texas, some pitcher named Nolan Ryan nonchalantly pitched his record 7th career no hitter against Toronto. From the Blue Jays’ perspective, it wasn’t all that nonchalant getting “Ryan Expressed”.
ESPN ran a creative piece that asked the question: “When is 7 > 939?” Then they showed Rickey’s self-declaration of his greatness, juxtaposed with Ryan’s humble celebration after breaking his own no-hitter mark by striking out 16 Blue Jays while walking just two.
Rickey couldn’t spell humility. Ryan personified it.
That is why, ESPN reporter Bill Patrick concluded, that 7 WAS greater than 939.
Since your humble Sports Narrator got a “D” for DONE in Math at college, that makes perfect sense. It also re-crystallized into a new formula in the aftermath of the Spurs’ 120-111 victory over the Thunder in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
That equation: 65+ > 88.
Sure, it doesn’t add up. Until you look at the Game 2 box score. When Oklahoma City’s “Big 3” of Kevin Durant (31 points), James Harden (30) and Russell Westbrook (27) can combine for 88 points in one game, the Thunder should roll over the Globetrotters. And it should have spelled SPLIT vs. the Spurs. SA’s “Three Amigos” of Tony Parker (Playoff career high 34 points), Manu Ginobili (20) and Tim Duncan (11) put together a 65 point three-piece conjunto. Their magic number is usually 60, and it was eclipsed by 5 due to Parker’s going all “Le Magnifique” and Manu’s 10 clutch 4th quarter points.
So how is it OKC gets all this epic production from their terrific trio and STILL loses?
Look at the equation again. 65+ > 88. The “+” stands for the 18 points and 10 rebounds the Spurs got from Kawhi Leonard. Gregg Popovich replaced Game 1’s “I want some NASTY!” viral phrase with “This is a BIG BOY game!” in Game 2. The rookie Leonard proceeded to remove his Underoos and undress the Thunder at both ends of the floor. Kendrick Perkins is still looking for his manhood after Leonard went baseline to deliver a Spalding sandwich.
The “+” reflects the 10 points Danny Green poured in. Or the 9 point, 7 rebound and 2 assist game from Boris Diaw. It even symbolizes the 8 points from Tiago Splitter, six of those somewhat surprisingly coming from the free throw line.
When the Spurs third quarter run of unselfish passing with magical elements of hoops wizardry erupted for a 22 point lead, Thunder coach Scotty Brooks even resorted to the “Hack-a-Splitter”, purposely hugging the Brazilian to put the poor foul shooter on the line. “Hack-a-Splitter” lacks the poetic rhythm of “Hack-a-Shaq”. Or its effectiveness. While it did put the brakes on Parker and the Spurs’ breakneck pace, Splitter sinking 6 of 12 free throws squashed the tactic’s immediate impact on the scoreboard.
Meanwhile Durant, Westbrook and Harden balled as best they can, but 3 on 5 is usually a losing proposition. The “Three Amigos” got help. Lots of it. The “Big 3” stood alone. The rest of the OKC roster combined for just 23 points. So after first squandering a chance to steal Game 1, then a stellar scoring night times 3 in Game 2, how can the young Thunder ever bounce back? OKC is supposed to win 4 out of the next 5 games against these Spurs?
The glimmer of hope: the Thunder do have heart. Brooks is a smart coach. He seems to have found a lineup that worked in their 4th quarter rally to slice the Spurs lead down to six. Using Serge Ibaka on Duncan while sitting Perkins did clog Timmy’s inside game. Too bad Ibaka still had his own SPALDING forehead tattoo from Duncan’s poster-worthy first half facial on the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up.
Westbrook didn’t turn the ball over ONCE. The Thunder outscored the Spurs in the paint 46-42. OKC racked up 67 points in the 2nd half alone. And yet, they STILL lost.
Still, OKC could have gone fetal position and starting mentally driving home on I-35 in the 3rd quarter and didn’t. They stood. They fought. And they finally defended.
The Spurs had a prime opportunity to at least lower the OKC casket in the ground, if not totally bury them for the series. Now the Thunder return to the mesmerizingly hypnotic uni-colored shirt-wearing home crowd. And just like Jimmy Page, Jack White and The Edge realized when they united their guitars, it might get loud in OKC. Just maybe.
But can the Thunder expect their Power Trio to play any better? Can they hope the Spurs perimeter shooters get a case of the cold turkey shooting blues? Unconfirmed rumors say Dick Bavetta, every home playoff team’s favorite ref, was seen landing in Oklahoma City. Allegedly.
All those things can happen. And it still might not be enough for OKC. Not the way this Spurs team is grooving right now. Even Pop, usually allergic to heaping large scale praise on his own team, admitted this year’s Spurs are different from all the others.
Different than the three Championship teams. In fact, even better. At least on offense.
Pop said afterwards that compared to the previous title teams that feasted on the play “4 Down” with Duncan in the low post, when it comes to ball movement the 2012 Spurs are “the best we’ve had here. This team has more pace.”
And they pick up that pace with dizzying speed and efficiency. They do it because the team stays humble and hungry. Case in point: after the Thunder trimmed the Spurs lead down to JUST 16 points late in the third, Pop called time out and lambasted Parker. Verbally roasted him as if Parker was responsible for the Germans taking France. In the midst of his career playoff apex game where he shoots a sick 16-21 from the field, Tony didn’t sulk or pout at the end of the bench after being ripped by his coach. Instead, the word to describe his reaction is every coach’s dream for every player: Tony was being “Coachable”.
ESPN’s Michael Smith summed it up best on Twitter during the game:
“Pop can go at Parker like that because he goes at Duncan like that, because Duncan allows himself to be coached. That’s where it all starts.”
Try using the same comment to describe Dwight Howard. Or Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant. What about Lebron James or Dwayne Wade? Doesn’t work. Doesn’t fit. Doesn’t relate.
So despite being arguably “The Greatest” of all the Spurs teams, we now know the answer to the question: When is 65+ > 88?
When it carries the Texas-sized humility of the Ryan Express. Just replace the fastballs with 3-point bombs, emphatic finishes at the rim and chin music-like pitches on defense.
Only this dummy math leaves the Spurs just six wins shy of a fifth NBA crown.