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A final look


SAN ANTONIO - Some final thoughts about an NBA Finals that America should have paid more attention to:

Somehow it had all been forgotten by the end of Game 7, but Tim Duncan badly sprained both ankles during the course of the season, and they never had a chance to really heal. It doesn't exactly excuse him for those shaky performances leading up to the finale against the Pistons, but it earns him extra praise for the way he carried the Spurs to the championship, from beginning to end.

For Duncan, that's three rings and three Finals Most Valuable Player awards in eight seasons, one year ahead of Michael Jordan's pace. And Karl Malone has how many rings and Finals MVPs? And which one is the greatest power forward ever?

Maybe we can now put the Manu Ginobili bandwagon in neutral for a while. Or maybe not: One reporter asked Tony Parker after the game whether Ginobili deserved "at least a share" of the series MVP award. He had an outstanding Game 7 and he's unquestionably the ideal complement to a player of Duncan's skills, but the MVP vote was an all-time no-brainer. And Ginobili's disappearing act between games 2 and 7 was as obvious as Duncan's. The moral, once again: Be careful on whom you bestow the title "The Next Michael."

If anyone should have been given consideration for a piece of the trophy, it was Robert Horry. Without him in Game 5, there is no Game 7, and without his coming off the bench and scoring 10 first-half points in Game 7, there is no second half for Duncan to dominate.

Not only are the Spurs 3-for-3 in Finals appearances, but San Antonio fans also have a perfect record for not destroying their city celebrating. Thursday night's festivities were chaotic and overcrowded, with traffic jammed for miles between the arena and downtown, but they were nonviolent. Hear that, Maryland students?

New tradition worth continuing: the championship belt. Have the Spurs pick up Rasheed Wallace's gimmick and get some toady to march into each arena next season, holding the belt aloft during the Spurs' pre-game introduction. At the very least, it's no worse than the laser-light, bellowing-announcer, motorcycle-riding mascot mess that begins most games.

Wallace has became one of the toughest athletes in any sport to totally like and to totally dislike. Conveying all of the sides of his nature is harder with him than with most players.

The other Wallace, Ben, had the inside track for Finals MVP midway through the third quarter Thursday.

The Spurs reached the Finals by outrunning the NBA's best offensive team (Phoenix), and won the Finals by out-defending its best defensive team (Detroit). Scores in the 110s in one series and in the 80s the next - versatility and adaptability at their best.

Besides moving into exclusive territory with his third title, Gregg Popovich also has loosened up considerably since winning the first in 1999. Sour and snippy then, he's shown an increasingly funny and engaging side since. His riff on a questioner's use of the word "giddy" before Game 6 was a classic, right up there with the best of Shaquille O'Neal's Finals monologues.

Speaking of which: All things considered, on and off the court, the Shaq-Kobe-Phil sideshow wasn't missed that much.

Next on the NBA's agenda now that there's labor peace: rounding up enough referees competent enough to prevent fans, players and coaches from believing the games are fixed. Right now, maybe five refs total fit the bill.

Someone needs to truly stink up a Finals Game 7 soon, just to get John Starks off the hook. Poor guy was tortured more 11 years after the fact than he was the night of that 2-for-18 in Houston.

Larry Brown's next move will be interesting to watch, but the Pistons will be in good shape no matter what the coach decides, as long as Joe Dumars isn't going anywhere. He's this era's Jerry West, in every way. He's had such a great run, he's making people rethink their ideas about Darko Milicic.

By the way, does this Spurs title really signal the official international takeover of the NBA? Ask Milicic, Beno Udrih, Rasho Nesterovic and Carlos Arroyo, who had plenty of time to discuss it while warming the bench in the Finals. Globalization, a beautiful, inclusive concept, is being used by some as a means of portraying American-born players as garbage. The Pistons (natives of Philly, Denver, Mississippi and Alabama, among other locales) would beg to differ.

Time to look forward to next season, where Shaq is coming back mad, the Suns are tweaking, Phil is mending fences, Ron Artest is rested and ready, the Wizards are eyeing the next step, and ... aren't you glad there's a next season to look forward to?

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