SAN ANTONIO – By the end of Sunday night, LeBron James could only sit and watch as the Miami Heat's reign as back-to-back champions came to end. This year, there would be no collapse from the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs again dismantled the Heat, overwhelming them in a 104-87 victory in Game 5 of the NBA Finals to secure the franchise's fifth – and maybe least likely – championship.
From Tim Duncan to Manu Ginobili to Tony Parker, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich subbed out his stars one by one so they could each get their own applause. The Spurs won their fourth title in 2007, and in nearly every year since they were told their championship window was supposedly closing, including last year when they were seconds from closing out the Heat in Game 6 of the Finals only to have the crown slip from their fingers.
"What happened last year made us stronger," Ginobili said. "We knew we weren't going to let this opportunity get away."
Playing crisp, beautiful team basketball that has defined the franchise, the Spurs clinched the title with contributions from all corners of their roster. Kawhi Leonard, whom Popovich has described as the future of the franchise, continued his strong play over the final three games of the series by totaling 22 points and 10 points. Ginobili scored 19 points. Parker had 16, all in the fourth quarter. Backup point guard Patty Mills scored 17.
At 22, Leonard became the third-youngest Finals MVP in history, behind only Magic Johnson, who twice won it when he was 20 and 22. After scoring nine points in each of the series' first two games, Popovich chided Leonard to become assertive. He heeded his coach's instructions, scoring 29, 20 and 22 points over the final three games, each of them blowouts by the Spurs.
The series began with James on the bench in the closing minutes of Game 1, overcome with cramps after the AT&T Center's air conditioning failed and sent courtside temperatures near 90 degrees as the Spurs broke open the game in the final quarter. The Heat recovered with a two-point victory in Game 2 and seemed poised to take their third straight title as the series shifted to Miami. Instead, the Spurs routed them in both games and returned home to do the same a third time.
"They were the better team," James said. "That's why they're the champions of 2014."
"I haven't really even thought about that yet," James said. "Just wished we could have come through."
No team had ever rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, and James had a simple question when asked about the task facing the Heat entering Game 5:
"Why not us?"
Well, the Spurs had something to say about that.
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Miami coach Erik Spoelstra made some changes to his lineup by starting veteran shooting guard Ray Allen over struggling point guard Mario Chalmers and activating forward Michael Beasley. The moves appeared to immediately pay off: With James running the point guard position, the Heat scored the game's first eight points. The Spurs didn't score until Duncan made two free throws with 8:21 remaining in the first quarter and the Heat surged to a 16-point lead.
James scored 17 points in the first quarter, but even then it was a sign he wasn't getting enough help. The Spurs cut the lead to seven by the end of the quarter surged in front in the second quarter, mainly thanks to Leonard and Ginobili. Ginobili brought the crowd to its feet with a vicious dunk over Chris Bosh then followed with a step-back 3-pointer.
The Spurs then left it to backup point guard Patty Mills to take over the game in the third quarter. Mills made four 3-pointers in the quarter. During one stretch, he and Ginobili combined for three consecutive 3-pointers to hike the lead to 21 and put the Spurs in position for their fifth title.
"For whatever reason, it is sweeter than any other, whether it be because of the time frame, because I'm coming towards the end of my career, because I can have [his daughter and son] here and really remember it and enjoy the experience," Duncan said. "All of those things make it that much more special."