The San Antonio Spurs should have been able to see it coming a mile away. The Miami Heat had three days to grit their teeth and prepare to keep their championship dreams alive after a Game 4 loss, with Chris Bosh more or less predicting a win, LeBron James imploring his teammates to follow his lead, and the Heat’s collective backs against the figurative wall. For the first quarter, at least, it looked like the obvious storyline would play out: LeBron managed 17 first-quarter points, and the Heat were up 22-6 at one point and finished the first frame up 29-22, the team’s first advantage at the end of the first quarter in five Finals tries.
Then, the Spurs started passing again. They started taking chances offensively and backing off the Heat’s poor spacing on the other end. The script completely flipped, and before Miami knew it, the defending champs were down 20 points on the road, that impressive 16-point advantage a distant memory. Shot after shot went in, James’ teammates failed to step in to help their two-time Finals MVP, and by the time the confetti settled, the Spurs had taken Game 5 by a 104-87 score and won the 2013-14 NBA championship while utilizing some of the most impressive team play this league has seen since, well, the last time the Spurs won the title.
Or the time before that. Or the two times prior to that. Five times total, since Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan joined forces in San Antonio just prior to the 1997-98 season. One month into that season, after his Houston Rockets took on Duncan’s Spurs, Charles Barkley exclaimed to reporters that he had “seen the future,” and that it wore Duncan’s uniform number. Charles couldn’t have possibly been talking about June 2014 when making such an apt declaration.
Duncan scored 14 points, added eight boards with two blocks, and offered his usual expert help defense in the win, finishing the series with averages of 15.4 points and 10 rebounds, all while looking like the sort of player that could do this all over again in June o2015. San Antonio overcame a miserable shooting night from former Finals MVP Tony Parker, who shot 7-of-18 on his way to 16 points (missing his first 10 from the field) in the win as James continually went underneath the screens set for Parker, daring him to shoot.
Shoot he did, missing quite a few along the way, but Miami’s defensive maneuver allowed the Spurs to start their possessions far closer to the basket than usual, and eventually the poor spacing caught up to Miami. Manu Ginobili keyed a first half surge and finished with 19 points and four assists, while Patty Mills came off the same Spurs bench to toss in a blistering 17 points while making 5-of-8 three-pointers. Miami was unable to counter on the other end, going long stretches without scoring, completely incapable of setting up anything offensively that didn’t heavily rely on James doing all the damage individually.
Of course, it didn’t hurt for San Antonio that James was once again closely watched by Kawhi Leonard.
To spy Leonard’s play and body language early on, it was apparent that he was going to have to be the star-in-waiting to aid San Antonio in its comeback. While his veteran teammates appeared a little shook and unsure at the initial Miami onslaught, Leonard still moved with and without the ball offensively, while making a series of intelligent moves on the other end even as James racked up the points. He was unflappable despite the early deficit, and as the Heat settled down, Leonard’s active play eventually began to offer some tangible results.
The third year swingman finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds, staying strong in the second half as well, giving the Spurs the sort of all-around demon that Miami’s older legs just couldn’t counter. It was obvious, even with the Spurs down double digit points early, that this was going to be Leonard’s night.
He didn’t completely shut James down, no one ever could, as LeBron ended his 2013-14 season with a 31-point, 10-rebound, five-assists and two-block line. Leonard earned that Finals MVP trophy, though, especially on a night where other potential candidates (Tony Parker in particular) struggled so mightily out of the gate.
The questions surrounding Miami’s future – James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade can all become free agents next month if they choose that route – are for another day. Wade is clearly in decline, Bosh still struggles to find a fit in Miami’s offense, and LeBron James looked absolutely fatigued down the stretch of the deciding Game 5. This outfit may not take in the litany of championships that James once half-jokingly predicted for them, but they did reach the Finals in four consecutive seasons, an NBA feat we haven’t seen in three decades, and no amount of 2014-level disappointment or summertime intrigue about their future can take away their two championship rings.
San Antonio? The franchise is back where it belongs, at the top of the NBA’s figurative heap, doing past Spurs legends from David Robinson to Bruce Bowen to Jaren Jackson to Avery Johnson to Speedy Claxton proud as they shared the ball and embraced role players while putting each other in a position to both create and succeed. Tired sportswriter-isms about “playing the right way” or valuing the team above all are usually and rightfully responded to with appropriate eye rolls, but this Spurs team was an absolute pleasure to take in.
In the end, maybe it is OK to be angry at the Miami Heat for the way they finished their attempt at a championship defense. In losing in just five games, they denied us a chance to watch the San Antonio Spurs play basketball for another two games.
Someone should have to pay for that. At least we have five years’ worth of championship performances to rewind and re-watch.
- - - - - - -