The San Antonio Spurs’ 2014 NBA title run began the moment the Miami Heat finished stealing the 2013 championship from them.
That journey ended successfully on Sunday night at the AT&T Center in San Antonio with the Spurs becoming the fourth NBA team to win a fifth title, after yet another blowout win over Miami denied the Heat its third straight championship.
This time, it was a series-clinching 104-87 victory in Game 5 for the Spurs, who while setting an NBA Finals record for point differential in a series (plus-70), won each of their four games in the series by at least 15 points.
Yet in a fitting way, the clincher started very differently than the previous two games.
Unlike in Games 3 and 4, when they started fast and ran away from the Heat, the Spurs had to first absorb an early punch in the gut before showing the same championship-caliber resolve that drove San Antonio to avenge its loss to Miami in the 2013 Finals.
Back then, the Spurs were a mere defensive rebound away from winning a title in six games, before eventually ing in heartbreaking fashion to the Heat in seven games.
“We were so close last year,” point guard Tony Parker said. “We just wanted to redeem ourselves.”
That, they certainly did. But not before having to shake off a rough first seven minutes.
Trying to back up his pregame belief that the Heat could be the first team in Finals history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit, star forward LeBron James did all he could to make that happen.
James scored 12 of Miami’s first 19 points while helping the Heat race to a 22-6 lead. He ended the quarter with 17 points and finished the contest with game highs of 31 points and 10 rebounds, while handing out a team-best five assists and committing a lone turnover in 41 minutes.
But James had little help, as the player that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich afterwards called “the best on the planet” couldn’t beat the best team, especially one that was so motivated by last year’s agonizing Finals loss.
After the Heat took its largest lead of the game, the Spurs scored the next dozen points to get within 22-18, and there was already a feeling that Miami had missed its chance.
An 11-point second quarter for the Heat had Miami down, 47-40, by halftime, even with San Antonio’s starting backcourt of Parker and Danny Green ending the first half scoreless on a combined 0-for-11 shooting.
That 0-for-11 was exactly what Parker was in the second half until he made his final seven shots and finished with 16 points. Ginobili (19 points) and Patrick Mills (17) sparked the Spurs off the bench and complemented Duncan’s 14 points and 22 from Kawhi Leonard, whose point total matched his age.
Leonard, who will turn 23 on June 29, became the youngest NBA Finals Most Valuable Player since Duncan accomplished the same during San Antonio’s first title season in 1999. He scored at least 20 points in each of the final three games of the series (which posting two double-doubles) after scoring just nine points in each of the first two games of the Finals.
Commenting on Leonard’s growth as a player, head coach Gregg Popovich, who became the fifth NBA coach to win at least five titles, admitted, “I haven’t called a play for him the whole playoff … he has a drive to be the best that’s really uncommon in our league. He walks the talk.”
Down 29-22 after the opening quarter, the Spurs blitzed the Heat, 55-29, over the middle two periods, to cap a larger 71-36 run over 31 minutes.
Fueled throughout last summer and the 2013-14 NBA season by the feeling that they let a title they should have won last year, there was no way San Antonio would let Miami snatch another title from the Spurs’ grasp again.
Not only did San Antonio’s defense lock Miami down often, but the Spurs also set an NBA Finals record with 52.8-percent field goal shooting over the series.
Disappointed, James admitted of the Spurs, “They were a much better team. That’s how team basketball should be played.”
Head coach Erik Spoelstra agreed, saying, “They played exquisite basketball and they were the better team. They played great basketball and we couldn’t respond to it.”
San Antonio’s five championships have all come within the past 16 years, in the Duncan- Popovich era, with Parker and Ginobili joining Duncan and Popovich for the last four.
However, Popovich and the 37-year-old Duncan each divulged that this year’s championship meant the most to each of them.
“I’ve never been more proud of a team, nor have I ever gotten as much satisfaction from a season, in all the years I’ve been coaching,” Popovich told his team in the locker room.
He continued, “To see the fortitude you guys displayed in coming back from that horrific loss last year and getting yourself back in this position, and doing what you did in the Finals, you’re really to be honored for that. I just can’t tell you how much it means. Thank you very much for everything.”
Duncan, the only player to start on championship teams in three different decades, said right after the win, “I know it’s coming to an end. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a chance to do this again… just a real emotional time… it is sweeter than any other [championship we've won], because I’m coming to the end of my career.”
Like Popovich and each of his teammates, Duncan also pointed to last year, more than anything.
“We remember last year and what we felt in that locker room,” he said. “It makes last year okay… it’s an unbelievable feeling. It actually makes last year palatable at least.”
Forgetting the bitter memories of the way last season ended wasn’t an option.
“We talked about addressing it and putting it away,” Duncan said. “I never put it away… but you can’t address that until now. You had to get to the playoffs to start alleviating that… what happened last year definitely helped our drive and [to] stay focused for an extended period of time.”
Popovich said, “Last year’s loss was devastating. A day didn’t go by where I didn’t think about Game 6.”
Adding to those sentiments, Leonard said, “It feels good to strive back after losing to Miami like that last year.”
Perhaps no one felt better than Ginobili, whose failure at the foul line and with protecting the ball late in Game 6 against Miami last year helped the Heat rally.
“You all saw what happened last year,” Ginobili said. “We had it… once we had it [again this time], weren’t going to let it go.”
Ginobili admitted, “I felt really bad after that Game 6. “I felt guilty. It was painful.”
But the Argentinian Ginobili, one of the Spurs’ NBA-record eight foreign-born players to be on a roster for championship-winning team, also came back even better to help the Spurs this year.
“I felt better mentally, physically … for sure, I learned and for sure it made me better and me stronger,” he said. “And it feels really good that I helped the team win [this year].”
Exemplifying the way the way the Spurs play for each other more than for themselves, individually, Duncan said of his team’s ability to a pay the Heat back for last year, “Amazing team, amazing response, and just a lot of fun to play with these guys.”
Keeping Miami from completing its bid for a three-peat as easily as San Antonio did, was surprising even to the Spurs.
“I think that’s the best basketball we played in the past five or six years,” Parker said. “Especially the two games in Miami, to go in there and beat the two-time defending champs by [about] 20 points twice.”
Parker added, “Everybody knows, sometimes in sports, it’s very cruel, and sometimes it’s beautiful.”
Now that they’ve paid the Heat back, the Spurs can finally put the former to rest and focus once again on the latter.