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How the Spurs' road to championship redemption began on a heartbreaking night in Miami

Adrian Wojnarowski
Yahoo Sports

SAN ANTONIO – Everyone else bobbed into the center of the court, confetti tumbling down, and all these years later, all these triumphs and all those tears, the San Antonio Spurs laughed and danced and moved to the championship groove now. Near the bench, basketball's best general manager met eyes with its best coach, and R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich wrapped into the longest, surest hug of the night, squeezing tighter and tighter. They let the tears cleanse them of the Spurs' longest year, the most jagged journey of all.

The tears poured down Buford's face, because it all rushed back to him now – that flight home from Miami, the hollowness of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in the wake of that Game 6 collapse to the Miami Heat a year ago, the way it gutted them all. The tears poured down Buford's face, because of the way that loss had devoured Popovich, the franchise's rock, over the summer, poured down because of the way one of the strongest, surest men Buford has ever known tortured himself over the fundamental lapses that had cost San Antonio a championship.

"It was hard for all of us, but Pop in particular," Buford told Yahoo Sports late Sunday, late in the Spurs dynasty, late in one of the greatest stories basketball has ever witnessed. Five championships now, and Buford confessed he had never been so moved, so overwhelmed, so fulfilled. The Spurs won this championship going away, four games to one over the two-time defending champion Heat, and yet they had never been so driven to exhaustion, so spiritually spent in the pursuit of redemption.

This championship had been the truest test of the Spurs way, and perhaps this is why the GM and coach wouldn't let go in this South Texas night. Truth be told, they climbed on that charter flight out of Miami a year ago so numb and uncertain and the idea they would ever climb back to this championship moment – that they would ever push past those Game 6 demons, past the advancing ages of the team's core and hold that trophy into the air – seemed downright delusional.

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Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan celebrate their fifth NBA title. (NBAE/Getty Images)

Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan celebrate their fifth NBA title. (NBAE/Getty Images)

"We had to get over it," Buford said. "It wasn't going away until we looked it in the eye and recognized what we had to do – Pop and me included. We wanted to help pull Tim and Manu and Tony across the finish line one more time, for everything they had done and sacrificed and committed here. We were 30 seconds away. And we didn't do it.

"I think we all wondered if we could get over it – until we got to training camp. Pop turned on, and challenged the mentality of our group and we faced the reality of last year. We faced the reality of the mistakes that we made; the things that didn't allow us to finish the job. Pop didn't let anybody hide from it. We all recognized that we could've been better, that we would have to be better.

"And then, from there, he proceeded to build this team up. He rebuilt the habits so that this wouldn't happen again."

Between Buford replenishing the talent and Popovich reestablishing the Spurs way, they did something they never could've imagined: Inspired the greatest of the Spurs championship teams with its greatest player, Duncan, pushing 38 years old. Buford's greatest gamble three years ago, the unpopular draft-night deal for Kawhi Leonard, turned out to bring him an NBA Finals MVP. Once the Spurs understood they couldn't match Oklahoma City's and Miami's superstars, they constructed the deepest roster in the league and devoured those teams in the Western Conference finals and NBA Finals.

These Spurs destroyed the Heat in the Finals, exposed them in every way possible. The Big Three were reduced to James' genius trying to beat the Spurs all alone, and that could never, ever happen. This Spurs performance was bold and breathtaking and beyond belief considering the carnage left in the '13 Finals.

"They played the best basketball I've ever seen," Miami's Chris Bosh said. "They dominated us."

For a full year, San Antonio had plotted this kind of a return to the Finals, these kinds of fresh legs and fierce spirits. Something lost on everyone had been Popovich's challenge of starting over with largely a new coaching staff, the losses of Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown to head-coaching jobs stripped Pop of decades of trusted advisement.

"First," Buford said, "Pop had to coach the new coaches. He grinded and grinded this year, and did it all with a new staff."

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Spurs GM R.C. Buford, Popovich and owner Peter Holt delivered another championship to San Antonio. (AP)

Spurs GM R.C. Buford, Popovich and owner Peter Holt delivered another championship to San Antonio. (AP)

In so many ways, these Spurs coached themselves, too. In so many ways, Popovich let them go, trusted them to move the ball and move closer and closer to passing perfection. Ginobili sometimes had hard a time finding context for what he was witnessing in this series, for the way these Spurs had come together and come so devastatingly determined for the Heat.

"We felt like we had that trophy, that we were touching it and it slipped away," Ginobili said. "We all felt guilty. …Now, there were possessions where I felt so proud. It was really fun to play like this. It was really fun to watch when I was on the bench. We shared the ball maybe as never before."

Three different decades, three championships centered on Duncan. He changed his body, changed his game and melded himself into a transformed cornerstone of the franchise. People asked about retirement, about leaving on top and the Spurs' response remains: We want to do it again. And again.

This wasn't the end on Sunday night, the fairytale's goodbye. They're all coming back again. They'll exhaust this run together. Four years ago, the Spurs looked done, and the Miami Heat promised to rule the NBA for years and years. As free agency looms, something extraordinary could be happening: The Heat's Big Three could have come and gone, and still the Spurs could return as a favorite to defend their championship.

"This thing was over after 2010," Buford told Yahoo Sports. "It was over, right?" He was talking about the Phoenix Suns' sweep of the Spurs, the public's and press' belief the San Antonio run was over, that Duncan had faded fast and maybe the Spurs should concede their championship era and engage a full-born rebuild.

"Fortunately, none of our guys listened to what other people were saying," Buford said.

Buford and Popovich had a plan to keep retooling the roster around Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. When Pat Riley delivered James and Bosh to join Dwyane Wade that summer, the first NBA executive to call and congratulate Riley had been Popovich. He loved the idea of chasing the Heat, the way he always did the Los Angeles Lakers of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

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Kawhi Leonard became the Finals MVP in just his third NBA season. (AP)

Kawhi Leonard became the Finals MVP in just his third NBA season. (AP)

"All along, our goal has been this: Let's not crash and burn and rebuild, but rebuild as we we're going along," Spurs owner Peter Holt told Yahoo Sports on Sunday night. "If you're asking me, 'Did I think we could've gone to the Finals twice in a row as we're rebuilding?' No, I probably didn't. But I've become a real believer that when you've got the quality of people we do, anything is possible. And just look: It is."

Again and again. As one more championship celebration unfolded here – seven years since the fourth title, and some 15 years since the first – Buford and Popovich retreated to the back of the podium at center court. To them, this is forever about the players, about the owner who has made it all possible for them.

"Come on," Popovich told Buford, "let's get out of here."

Buford laughed and told Popovich that they had an obligation to hang there. Pop wanted no photo ops, no holding of the trophy into the air. "He just wants to go back, and share it in the locker room with his guys," Buford said. "That's all Pop has ever wanted to do."

And so, Sunday night, the Spurs coaches and players gathered inside a room for an impromptu team picture, carrying flags of home countries and double fists of import beer. It was packed and loud, and officials were trying to gather everyone for a photo. And suddenly now, a familiar face slipped out the back door, tie undone and hanging around his neck.

"Too much for me," Gregg Popovich said late Sunday night, late in the Spurs dynasty. He smiled and started his way down the corridor to his office. The demons were dead, the grind gone and maybe the greatest coach in the NBA's history had been freed of that lost night, that lost championship, on the shores of Biscayne Bay.

"A day didn't go by when I didn't think about Game 6," Popovich said. Now, he could let go. All of them, they could let go. The Spurs chased down that fifth championship, chased down redemption and they can let it all go now. Basketball's best executive had hugged its best coach on Sunday night, held him tight and let those tears cleanse the most monumental test of all for the Spurs way, the most magnificent testament to San Antonio's forever dynasty.

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