The San Antonio Spurs, a quiet, consistent, dominating presence in the NBA for the past decade and a half, are on the brink of hijacking a season and a title from one of the league’s most-watched teams, not to mention its single-biggest superstar.
If the Spurs manage to defeat the Miami Heat at home in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, tipping off Tuesday night at 9 p.m. Eastern time, it will be the fifth title in 14 years for the franchise, all five with future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan and head coach Gregg Popovich. The Spurs currently lead the series 3-2 and are coming off a 114-104 victory over the Heat in San Antonio Sunday night.
It will be no easy task. League MVP LeBron James and his Heat squad haven’t lost two games in a row since January, and the two teams have taken turns looking dominant (and the opposite) through the previous five games. But if James and company are making the Spurs’ road to another title a rocky one, they’re also doing their opponents a bit of a service – LeBron’s star power, the Heat’s huge Miami media market, and the stellar quality of play are making this the most-watched of the Spurs’ Finals appearance since 1999 and lending even casual fans a new appreciation of just how good they are.
It’s difficult, in professional sports, to do as much winning as the Spurs have done and be so roundly overlooked. Along with franchise staples Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, the Spurs have been so consistent for so long it’s easy to take for granted: Duncan hasn’t missed the playoffs once since he was drafted in 1997, and the Spurs have won least 50 games 14 years in a row.
Netting a fifth title Tuesday night would tie the Duncan and Popovich-era Spurs with the Kobe Bryant-era Los Angeles Lakers, yet the latter team gets loads more attention, even when they’re losing. This season, the Lakers dominated “SportsCenter” while struggling to win half their games and barely making the playoffs, where they were promptly swept by the Spurs in Round 1. The Spurs, meanwhile, barely got a national mention this year until they were in the Finals.
There are a few reasons for this. With a population of about 1.36 million (and 2.3 million for the metro at large), San Antonio is a far smaller market than Los Angeles or Miami, and competes with larger sports markets in nearby Dallas and Houston. San Antonio is the fourth-smallest media market for an NBA team in the country, and the Spurs are only the tenth-most valuable franchise in the league, despite being among the most decorated.
Second, Duncan and Popovich both actively shun the spotlight. Duncan rarely gives interviews and has reportedly turned down millions in endorsement deals; Even his nickname, “The Big Fundamental,” makes you want to take a nap. Pop, meanwhile, is so disdainful of the press he makes Bill Belichick seem downright welcoming. His clipped, sometimes openly hostile answers are hilarious for viewers and torturous for reporters. Take this Game 4 sideline interview with Doris Burke:
Burke: LeBron James scored nine straight to end the quarter. What are you asking for from your defense on him?
Popovich: I can’t tell you that.
Or this one, earlier in the season, with David Aldridge:
Aldridge: How happy were you with the shot selection, even though they came back?
Popovich: Happy? Happy's not a word that we think about in a game. You gotta think of something different. Happy. I don't know how to judge happy. We're in the middle of a contest. Nobody's happy.
The third reason for the Spurs’ relative anonymity: The Finals they’ve been in haven’t been particularly scintillating, through no fault of their own. Their first title, in 1999, came the year after Michael Jordan’s Bulls retirement, and the league’s audience waned in subsequent years for lack of a comparable star. The Bulls’ 1998 title run gave the NBA Finals its largest Nielsen rating ever, an 18.7. The Spurs’ finals the year after netted an 11.7. The 2007 Finals, which saw the Spurs sweep a young LeBron James and the overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers, netted only a 6.2.
This year, thanks largely to LeBron and the Heat as a national draw, things are looking back up. Sunday’s Game 5 garnered an 11.4 Nielsen rating out of a possible 18; and the potentially series-deciding Game 6 (and possibly Game 7) will likely draw even more eyeballs. It has a decent chance to beat out 1999, when the Finals were still running on post-Jordan fumes. What’s more, the games themselves have been fantastic – high-scoring thrillers with highlight worthy plays on both sides of the ball. If you haven’t been watching, tonight’s not too late to start. And whatever the outcome, the boring old Spurs aren't so boring anymore.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that San Antonio was the third-smallest NBA media market. It is the fourth-smallest, according to Nielsen.