Full Marks for Steven Adams from NZ assistant
With the Spurs up 2-0 on Steven Adams' Oklahoma City Thunder, the Sunday Star-Times goes to Gregg Popovich's Kiwi right-hand man for the inside word on the NBA's Western Conference finals.
Things are hectic in the Marks household in San Antonio. Sean has a rare day at home in the midst of another elongated NBA playoffs run, and it's wife Jennifer's birthday, so their four sons are riding a sugar rush after devouring a box of cupcakes.
Of course, New Zealand's trailblazing basketball export Sean Marks still finds time to take a call from home, even if it disrupts an all-too-scarce day of normality amid what is fast becoming one of the all-time special NBA seasons.
That's the type of person he is. One of sport's genuine nice guys, Marks has always been unaffected by fame and fortune, and connected to his homeland. He grew up on Auckland's North Shore, attended Rangitoto College, then took up a University of California college scholarship.
That morphed into an 11-year NBA career as a player - the first Kiwi to make the big league - and now as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, currently leading the Oklahoma City Thunder 2-0 in the Western Conference finals in San Antonio.
Marks was a somewhat reluctant coach, starting out with the Spurs in their front office before agreeing to fill a void this season when two of Gregg Popovich's assistants left to become head coaches elsewhere in the league. That's given the Marks the best seat in the house as the Spurs have embarked on a mission to earn veterans Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili one last NBA championship. Last year they came within minutes of it, but were pipped in an epic seven-game finals by LeBron James and the Heat.
Twelve months on the Spurs, if anything, have gone to a higher level, compiling the league's best regular-season record and dismantling Steven Adams and the Thunder in the first two games of the conference finals.
As Marks enjoys a three-day pause before game three in Oklahoma tomorrow (NZ time), he reflects on a dream start by the Spurs as they thumped the Thunder 122-105 and then 112-77 in outstanding twin displays.
The Spurs have already wiped that decisive advantage from their minds. "It's 0-0, we know they're a totally different team at their place, and it's going be really tough," says Marks. "We've been in this situation before (in 2012) and it didn't work out so well. By no means are we taking anything for granted. They've got the MVP and are extremely tough and talented."
Despite murmurings of a surprise Serge Ibaka return to the Thunder lineup, the Spurs' dominance and style of basketball over the first two games has most predicting a second straight finals spot and a shot at a fifth title.
Marks, who spent three seasons with the Spurs as a player, says the current crop have some pretty special qualities. "This is as close-knit a bunch as I've ever come across. These guys are really inseparable . . . There's certainly some pressure on the coaching side. I know Pop feels that pressure. He wants nothing more than to get Tim and Manu one more championship in the twilight of their careers."
Marks is reluctant to compare years, but pundits rate these Spurs a more complete group than last year's. Tony Parker, Duncan and Ginobili are playing as well as ever, Kawhi Leonard has morphed into a genuine star, Aussie Patty Mills has matured into a frontline performer, Marco Belinelli has proven a great addition and role players like Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and Boris Diaw are all contributing plenty. And they're moving the ball brilliantly.
"It's great to watch," Marks muses. "Our guys realise we don't have those players, we don't have a Kevin Durant or LeBron James who can go get 40 points. We have to do it as a team, and we have to find the open man."
Marks also understands what a privileged position he is in. Popovich might be a growly type, but he's widely acknowledged as the best coach in the NBA.
"It amazes me the sacrifice he puts forward, and just the caring. One of the things about Pop is he's always trying to make sure whenever these guys leave the Spurs they leave a better person and have grown from their experience here. I know I did and was lucky enough to come back and learn some more."
Marks is also able to offer a fairly close-up view on Adams in his rookie season with the Thunder.
"He's been tremendous, absolutely incredible," said the man who blazed the trail. "We all know he's tough as nails. But I don't think he realises perhaps how good he can be.
"I see him eventually starting but for now he's playing within his box. He's not trying to do things that aren't him, he's not forcing plays, he's letting the game come to him. He knows his role and is doing a great job of it."
It's a trait Marks recognises - because it's one that has served him incredibly well.
Sunday Star Times