OVERTURNING THE NARRATIVE (Old School Mercury Rising: Occasional Sports’ Moment #17)

TAYLORTAURASI

Haven’t had a sports moment in a while. I even laid off when Tim Duncan and the Spurs wasted the Heat in the NBA finals–getting revenge for last year’s heartbreak and sending King LeBron in search of World Peace, a Higher Purpose and a general approach to life and basketball that looks a lot more like Duncan’s (for all of which I certainly applaud him).

Permit me, though, to pause for a quick congratulations to the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, who just completed a season in which they established themselves as the new standard for the greatest women’s team ever.

The playoffs were mostly a walk-through, but there were two moments of possible angst–the end of the third quarter of a deciding Game Three in the Western Conference Finals against the defending champion Minnesota Lynx and the fourth quarter of Game Three of the Finals against the Chicago Sky.

I’ll get to some details shortly, but suffice it to say that, with all the new pieces added since 2009, including Brittney Griner (who, in her second season, developed a fantastic offensive game to go with all those blocks and dunks that have made her famous beyond the usual realm of women’s basketball and turned herself into a real force), when it came to winning time, it was still Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor (pictured above) who delivered the goods.

This was their third WNBA championship together (playing separately they’ve both won numerous times on the international stage, Olympics, FIBA, Euro-Leagues and the like) and the basics still applied: Taylor was the glue, Taurasi the glitter.

You need both to win. It will be a crying shame if Taylor, a superstar talent who has sacrificed her stats for years to do all the “little” things that don’t show up in box scores, doesn’t make the Basketball Hall of Fame just because there’s no stat for “If there are four people in this pile and I’m one of them, I’m coming out with the ball.”

There was a defining moment in their chemistry at the end of that third quarter in the Western Conference decider. The game was tied with about half a minute left–tight as a tick, basket for basket. Taurasi made a jump shot and then a half-court three-point heave to give the Mercury a five point lead and open up the game. They never looked back and those shots made every highlight reel I saw.

Deservedly so. But you had to watch the game to know that Taylor went into a pileup to win a loose ball that set up the first shot. Then she reached in on the defensive end and wrestled the ball away from a jump shooter, forcing a turnover with 0.8 left in the quarter.

As the announcers were chastising Taylor for risking a fifth foul (which would have put her on the bench for most of the fourth quarter in what was then a close game), the Mercury in-bounded the ball to Taurasi who made the “miracle” half-courter that broke the game open.

That basic theme repeated itself over and over in the (again, basket-for-basket) fourth quarter of the championship clincher against the Sky, won (with Griner injured and on the bench the entire game) when Taurasi made the last of a series of acrobatic shots to put the Mercury ahead and Taylor (who was maybe the seventh tallest player on the floor at that point) knifed through a crowd and grabbed the rebound of the Sky’s miss at the other end to seal the deal.

The WNBA has been a punching bag for the Boys Club (especially at talk radio) since its inception. And, truth be told, it hasn’t always been pretty. Too much imitation of the modern, mostly clueless NBA for my taste (the Curse of David Stern reaches everywhere)–though not from these two, who play very Old School.

But the script has definitely flipped.

Right now, at this moment, the hard-core truth is this: The hardest nosed basketball player in the world and the most entertaining basketball player in the world are both women and both pure winners. And they just happen to play on the same team.

Can’t wait for next season!

Here’s Taurasi’s half-court shot, caught by someone in the arena (just missed Taylor’s play, unfortunately, but nice atmosphere!)

And here’s the broadcast version, with the announcers questioning Taylor’s judgment….while the shot is being made…and, believe me, there is absolutely nothing more hilarious than referring to a tussle over the ball that involves Penny Taylor as “fifty-fifty”:

UPDATE: Next season never came. Taurasi sat out the following season when she was offered over a million to play in Russia. The contract was contingent upon being exclusive (hence no WNBA play–the WNBA had max contracts of just over $100,000). With the team thus having little chance to compete for the championship, Taylor chose to sit out the season as well and nurse her sometimes fragile health. They both returned for the current (2016) season, but both are now clearly aging and the magic is gone. As  I write this, they are below .500 and in danger of missing the playoffs. The team I wrote about here will likely be talked about as the standard for a long time. But they’ll never be what they might have been if fate had been kinder.

OH, SO NOW THEY GET IT…SURE THEY DO! (Sports Moment #6)

…Or pretend to, at least.

This week the San Antonio Spurs reached their fifth NBA finals of the “Tim Duncan Era.” The Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade (that’s DBCCB for short if you’re a newcomer here) at ESPN and the other usual outlets are suddenly doing things like wondering if Duncan is the equal of, say, Kobe Bryant!

I didn’t stick around for the debate between whatever intellectual titans actually engaged in this particular argument, just caught the teaser. Somehow, I doubt they called it the no-brainer it is.

Tim Duncan is the best player of the post-Jordan era and a top-ten all time.

He’s also probably the most underrated player in the history of American sports (off hand the only competition that comes to mind is Chris Evert but that’s another topic for another day–in any case the list is very, very short.)

Consider this:

In the history of the modern NBA, which effectively began when Bill Russell arrived in Boston in 1957 and ushered in the recognizably modern game, NBA titles have been won by “small market” teams exactly seven times. That’s seven times in fifty-six years.

Four of those seven titles were won by the San Antonio Spurs (currently the 24th largest market in a 30-team league). For the record, the others were the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971, the Portland Trailblazers in 1977 and the Seattle Supersonics in 1979 (ah, the seventies!).

So to put it yet another way, since the beginning of the truly modern NBA (which began with the twin arrivals of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird–to major markets of course–in 1980), only four championships have been won by small market teams (four in thirty-three years) and the Spurs won all four.

Duncan led every one of those San Antonio teams–each of whom had the deck stacked even more thoroughly against them than the teams that won in the seventies–in both scoring and rebounding. The only other player who led four championship teams in the two most important statistical categories was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (As Lew Alcindor, he led the Bucks to their title, then repeated the feat for three of his five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers.**)

(Just as an aside, Duncan and Jabbar also led their teams in blocked shots each of those four years–to my mind a more important, game-controlling statistic than the more popular “assists” category, which is rather randomly applied in any case.)

In addition to all that, Duncan never once played alongside a fellow twenty-point a game scorer in any of those championship runs. (Tony Parker had the best scoring season of any of his teammates when he averaged 18.6 in 2007–Parker also edged the now thirty-seven-year old Duncan as the team’s best scorer this year, so Duncan will not be in a position to break his tie with Jabbar when the championship series starts next week.)

Just to put that in perspective, [and granting that team scoring totals have come down somewhat over the years] Jabbar only failed to play beside at least one twenty-point a game scorer on one of his championship teams (and even then, he was abetted by Oscar Robertson and Bobby Dandridge who averaged 19.4 and 18.4 respectively–in other words, in the season when he had the least big-time scoring support, he still had two scorers as effective as the 2007 Tony Parker, the closest thing to a consistent big-time scorer Duncan played with during any of his championship runs.)

Bear in mind that Duncan did all this while routinely playing for something like half his market value–thus providing the only means by which his franchise could possibly pay the competitive salaries to other players that have allowed them to compete.

All of this has been accomplished so quietly that Duncan has rarely been mentioned as a truly era-defining player. Journalists–and not only the DBCCB membership–tend to be impressed by flash and stats. Duncan has never been big on either. Yes, he can fill a stat sheet, as evidenced above. But his career numbers aren’t eye-popping by any stretch and the myriad ways in which he effects and controls games are rarely if ever pointed out by commentators or morning-after talking heads. Whether they don’t know the value of making percentage plays that don’t show up in box scores more consistently than anyone who has played in the last forty years (the time period I’m qualified to pass judgement on–I missed Bill Russell sad to say) or simply think it’s not worth talking about–i.e. “too boring”–I don’t know.

Some of this might end up being discussed further if Duncan’s team manages to win a fifth championship in the next few weeks–especially if it comes at the expense of LeBron James and the Miami Heat. There are some who are saying that Duncan might, in effect, “take the leap” into the land of players who define the history of the NBA.

That’s nonsense. He took that leap long ago. Nothing has changed just because the people who get paid to pay attention to such things have finally decided to do their jobs. And I’ll put very long odds on ever seeing his like again.

[**NOTE: George Mikan led the Minneapolis Lakers to five titles in the pre-Russell era and he almost certainly led his team in both scoring and rebounding all five years. But rebounding totals were not kept as an official statistic during his first two title seasons. The only other players to lead championship teams in scoring and rebounding more than once were Shaquille O’Neal, who accomplished it three times with Los Angeles, Hakeem Olojuawan, who did it twice with the Houston Rockets, and Larry Bird, who, remarkably since he was not only a small forward, but playing on teams with Hall of Famers at center and power forward–the traditional positions for rebounding leaders–did it twice with Boston. As with Jabbar, O’Neal and Bird were, in all cases, assisted by more accomplished scorers than Duncan ever had. Olojuwan did do it once with less, or similar, support (the second time he had Clyde Drexler averaging over 20 a game).

Michael Jordan, of course, led six teams to championships in a large market (Chicago). It’s difficult to compare a swing man to a post player in terms of impact since he isn’t likely to lead a team in rebounding or blocks. But it’s worth noting that Jordan certainly had more scoring support. His number two man, Scottie Pippen, met or exceeded Parker’s 2007 scoring average in five of Chicago’s six championship seasons (and was only a fraction below it the other year). And no, that doesn’t make Duncan “better than” or necessarily even as good as Jordan or any of the others. But it does mean that whatever belated consideration he is getting when it comes to being mentioned in their company is long overdue.]