Apparently, nearly nine months after the start of the 2012-13 NBA season, there is something to be said for young legs. Or younger legs, to be more specific.
The Miami Heat had just enough to down the San Antonio Spurs by a 95-88 score in Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals on Thursday. The Heat won the 2012 NBA championship by nailing long jumper after jumper over a Spurs team that seemed just as tired as Miami was, but with no available way to overcome that weary tone. As was the case for the entire series, San Antonio forced Miami to make their hay from the outside, and the Heat responded with a litany of dagger jumpers from the outside, downing a game Spurs team in what was the 208th combined regular and postseason game between the two teams in the 2012-13 NBA season.
It was an ironic and fitting end to a season that in many ways seemed to start with San Antonio’s infamous November trip to Miami, a game that saw the Spurs rest their starters in anticipation of a long season that they hoped would last until late June. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was gearing up for a run that few thought the Spurs had in them, and yet a confluence of events led this rested yet battle-weary crew down the same path they’d been several times before. The San Antonio Spurs, the game’s walking and screening epitome of class, toughness and dignity, actually made it back to the stage they’d planned on resting for all the way back in November. And yet that fine-worthy break, planned nearly seven months in advance, just wasn’t enough.
Just barely. Because these Spurs had their chances.
Tim Duncan, as it should forever be, led the way with 24 points and 12 rebounds, playing 43 minutes along the way. Second-year swingman Kawhi Leonard contributed 19 points and 16 rebounds, keeping several possessions alive while giving his team a needed boost in athleticism and derring-do. And Manu Ginobili, two nights after turning the ball over eight times in a crushing Game 6 defeat, managed to ring up a Ginobili-esque 18 points on 12 shots – one more shot to the bow for a player whose contributions have always gone behind the box score.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade dug deep, though. Literally, while crouching to a Jerry Stackhouse-level knee bend on their way to nailing a series of championship-clinching perimeter shots, finally following through in the face of a Spurs defense that had run out of dares.
James was absolutely brilliant, hitting for 37 points on 12-23 shooting in 45 minutes of play, making half of his 10 three-point attempts while pulling in 12 needed rebounds. He turned it over just twice during that term despite his extended play record, and nearly as important as those sunken jumpers was his spot-on defense – James disabused the Spurs out of the notion of either feeding Duncan the ball in the interior, or Duncan from taking a comfortable shot from the low post time and time again. James and Chris Bosh only combined for one block in nearly 73 minutes of combined action, and yet their length was crucial in the final game of the NBA’s season.
Wade gathered himself long enough to act nearly as potent, which is all Miami has asked of the man since the team’s playoff run started exactly two months ago. The three-time champion hit for 23 points on 21 shots while gathering 12 rebounds in the win, diving down for those jumpers in the same fashion as James while a step-slow San Antonio defense gambled with the few chips that it had left in reserve. It’s true that orthodox basketball ideology asks you to crowd a tired scorer that doesn’t want to drive with tired legs, but you try telling that to a crew of basketball brains that has seen either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade make mincemeat of hundreds of perimeter defenders over the last decade.
And in a year that saw Miami rattle off an astounding 27 wins in a row, the game and the series really just came down to the Heat being this much better, a step removed from the Western champs by a margin that barely even deserved the click of a space bar.
There were glaring failures on San Antonio’s end. Tony Parker and Danny Green combined to miss 20 of 24 shots, Ginobili suffered through crucial late-game turnover issues, and Duncan will forever be replaying the missed jump hook and subsequent tip-in that he should have hit with a minute to go in his team’s last game of the season.
The Miami Heat were the destructive influence, though. Forcing Parker and Green into looks they could not embrace. Baiting Ginobili into making passes he had no choice but throw away. Pushing a good forearm or two into Duncan while he attempted to do what he’s done so well for so long, to much acclaim.
And as a result, San Antonio is now behind in the Finals – at a 4-3 mark – for the first time since Tim Duncan became a Spur. It’s a pity this thing can’t go best of nine. Or 11.
Miami earned this. As it was last year – and even in defeat during 2011 – the team adapted and grew in front of our eyes, and that’s a remarkable feat for a team that seemed to have every answer while winning those 27 in a row during the midpoint of the 2012-13 regular season. For a team to have its wits about them while working up against a franchise as respected and daunting as these San Antonio Spurs? After returning home with a 3-2 deficit in its face? That’s impressive. This three-day stay in Miami, spread out over Games 6 and 7, was just as impressive as the 53-day stretch that saw the Heat fail to register a loss during the regular season.
The right team won. The Miami Heat were the best basketball team the NBA produced in 2012-13, and they played up to that status in the third week of June. The Heat played it out on paper, and they left it all out on the court.
It’s hard to ask for anything more. From a team, or a season.