Image: Henry Camacho

Why the Spurs deserve better than a Chris Paul circus shot

The idea that a basketball game could finish on a last second shot used to thrill me. In one swift move — or three illusive steps if you’re watching James Harden — a game would suddenly end. There was nothing more dramatic in sports as far as I was concerned.

But Chris Paul’s desperate heave to oust the San Antonio Spurs from the NBA playoffs on Saturday, was just plain cruel. I say this because I wanted to see the Spurs triumph one more time, because, well, I know how hard it is to get up the court in your thirties, as several of the Spurs players now do.
Consider Spurs forward Tim Duncan, who is 39, and played thirty-seven minutes in Game 7 of this series, which let me assure you is no mean feat. Not without layers of strapping wrapped around your most stubborn muscles and by emptying a jar of Tiger Balm onto your sorest spots. And if you ever have aspirations of posting 27 points and 11 rebounds in such an epic finale at 39, as Duncan did, don’t imagine you’ll be able to do so without a long ice bath and a pep talk from the ghost of Red Auerbach.
Duncan’s superb effort wasn’t enough for the win against the Los Angeles Clippers though — not even a moral victory. Not when Paul spent the majority of the game hobbling on a strained hamstring. Seriously? Who can compete with that? Duncan could have scored 47 points over 48 minutes and Paul still would have stolen the show with his one-legged pirate impression. Somehow, the Clip ship sails on.
Just in case you too were ready to argue the case for Duncan’s legendary status, Paul poured in 27 points of his own, and in 37 minutes, no less. The final shot, an impossible toss off one leg while falling to the floor, was just the icing on the cake it would seem.
But had Duncan had the final shot, wouldn’t the Spurs have won?
This game, and indeed the series, was so very even after all, that it was destined to for a buzzer beater finish. And that’s the trouble. When you’re on the offensive side of the final play, you can either force the defense into a foul, or thrust the dagger then and there, knowing full well that the defense is possibly more worried about fouling and sending you to the free throw line than actually making a stop. Paul is a specialist at this sort of play, and worked the advantage yet again.
This is where a full game of basketball, which typically has many twists turns, is reduced to a mere moment. And this ultimate play is amplified because it’s expected that the protagonist will at least get a decent look at the basket for a winning shot. There are few other sports with the game tied, where a team can march into their opponent’s half and so clearly envisage how they might win. Inevitably, in the NBA, the best player does this: He let’s one or two seconds come off the clock and then single-handedly ends the game with a drive, or some trickery, or a desperate toss of the ball toward the rim, just like Paul’s Game 7 classic. As we’ve see with so many great players over the years, the Larry Birds, Michael Jordans, Ray Allens and so on, these shots quite often go down, if not because of a brilliant stroke of the ball, then by sheer will alone.
I’ve long enjoyed such occasions, especially the Jordan ones, which usually saw the greatest finisher ever rise several feet from the floor, wag his tongue over lesser men before popping the ball through the basket below. It never seemed fair that Jordan could kill off his opponents so quickly and decisively, but who cared? It was Jordan. It was spectacular. And with his baggy shorts and cool slinky style, it was so much fun.
But Paul isn’t Jordan, as much as he talks to refs with same condescending tone. He’s just never been as likable, really. So it’s easy for me to say, as a neutral fan in this instance, that Paul’s last second heroics aren’t as easy to digest. Not against the Spurs, anyway. That’s a team that deserves much better. Maybe if CP3, as he’s nicknamed, terminated the less efficient Dallas Mavericks, that may have been more palatable. I mean, at least then Rajon Rondo might have earned the right to bail on the Dalla Mavericks.
But this? This isn’t right. Finishing seven grueling and evenly contested games with a simple lob at the backboard that happens to fall over towering defenders? We may as well have decided the thing by asking each team to pick their best shooter, and have him pay for three shots at the nearest carnival game. You know the ones, where the ball is clearly too big for the hoop but every guy who’s ever made a basket still thinks he can solve it with the right amount of English on the ball.
“You want the giant blue elephant, baby? No problem. Coming right up…”
Fifteen shots later and the elephant’s counting up your singles as he plans his night out with three stuffed Minnie Mouses and a bag of marbles.
Maybe we could set up a game of HORSE instead, that way there’d at least be a chance for each competitor to respond. The Clippers would undoubtedly go with Paul in such a contest, who it seems can make shots with one hand behind his back, blindfolded, or pants down. The Spurs might not have such a player, though Manu Ginobili was the wizard of impossible baskets once upon time. Perhaps now they’d go with Patty Mills, who throws up threes with such abandon that you can’t help but question if he’s machine or man. When he makes a few in a row, you start thinking to yourself, ‘they should really give it to Mills - he can make it from a seated position on the bench while waving a towel.’
I’d truly feel better about this type of frivolous competition instead of letting the teams battle each other over a protracted fortnight, only to see it culminate with one hopeful fling from a hamstrung shooter. But that’s basketball and the reason many people jokingly suggest that they should only play the last two minutes of every game.
You might argue back to these cheeky contrarians, that if not for the arduous slog beforehand, that those final moments wouldn’t feel quite so momentous, so gut wrenching, and extraordinary.
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