In the final minutes of Game 5, the game that clinched the 2014 NBA championship for the San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan finally let his emotions flow—he wasn’t quite Kevin Garnett in 2008, but the look on Duncan’s face, the tears in his eyes, spoke to the fact that this was a championship run paved with pain and suffering.
The Spurs had been as crushed emotionally as a basketball team could be after last year’s Game 6 collapse, but they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and started off on the long climb back up the mountain.
After last night, that journey is now over. The San Antonio Spurs have their sweet redemption.
In the championship-clinching game, the Spurs became dominant after a rough start. The 104-87 victory was their fourth by 15 points or more in the series—they didn’t just beat the Miami Heat, they annihilated them. Once again Kawhi Leonard was a star at both ends of the floor—his third straight game of over 20 points paced the Spurs and earned him Finals MVP honours.
In last season’s Finals, Mills was a towel-waving afterthought—this season he was a key cog in the Spurs machine. Manu Ginobili couldn’t stop turning the ball over last year—in all honestly, he looked washed-up. But this season he was back to his thrilling, game-changing best. Those improvements were vital to the Spurs’ run.
For a quarter, the Miami Heat made things tough on the Spurs. After the crushing defeats on their home floor, Erik Spoelstra pulled the inept Mario Chalmers from the starting lineup and inserted Ray Allen. LeBron James, who finished the game with 31 points, 10 rebounds and five assists (he had 17 points in the opening quarter), began the game as the de facto point guard. For over 12 minutes, the adjustment worked. The Spurs appeared rushed, unable to get into any offensive rhythm, and Tony Parker struggled with guarding James and having to face off against a bigger body on offence.
The Heat opened the game on an 8-0 and the Spurs didn’t score a field goal until five minutes had elapsed—they began the game 1-for-11 from the field. But after a Ray Allen three-pointer had put the Heat up 22-6, the momentum shifted. Ginobili began the run with a big three of his own and the Spurs finished the quarter on a 16-7 surge.
The Spurs had weathered the storm—the final haymakers thrown by a tired heavyweight boxer—and they came roaring back in the second quarter. A Leonard three gave the Spurs their first lead of the game, and a 14-0 run towards the end of the second saw Popovich’s men up by seven at the half.
In the third quarter, the Heat’s resistance melted away and the Spurs blew the game wide open. The key stretch in the quarter came after Tiago Splitter, a player remembered last year for being blocked by LeBron, made a huge block of his own on Dwyane Wade. The Spurs broke down the other end and Mills swished through the transition three. A second Mills trifecta was followed by a Ginobili three putting the Spurs up by 21, playing basketball in a separate stratosphere. The game was essentially over at that point.
The Heat tried to make one final run—one last attempt to hold onto their title—to no avail. Even Parker got in on the action, scoring seven straight baskets to make up for his slow start. With two minutes left, Gregg Popovich pulled his starters to rapturous applause from the hometown faithful and the players began celebrating wildly on the bench—I believe that I even saw Tiago Splitter smile, which must be a first.
The Miami Heat players, to a man, respectfully congratulated the Spurs and made their way back to their locker room a comprehensively beaten team. There will be plenty of uncertainty in the off-season—there are talks of Carmelo Anthony coming to South Beach, but each of the Big Three has the option of opting out of their final year and becoming a free agent this summer. For LeBron James, a man who averaged 28 points per game and commands a true-shooting percentage of 68 per cent in these Finals despite being given little support on the court, opting out could prove an enticing option.
After James’ 31 points, the next-highest scorer for the Heat in Game 5 was Chris Bosh with 13. The key to this series was always going to be whether Wade or Bosh could give LeBron sufficient support at the offensive end. They could not. Wade looks like a spent force—a man whose body is finally punishing him for years of on-court abuse—and Bosh was largely insignificant. The Heat’s supporting cast, who could so often be relied upon to score timely baskets, was nowhere to be found. You can’t win basketball games with one man, no matter how great that man is.
It’s important to recognize, however, that the Heat were beaten by a team who played some of the finest basketball we’ve ever seen—Spoelstra used the adjective “exquisite” in his post-game press conference. Their ball movement was in equal measures beautiful and deadly, completely neutralizing the Heat’s athleticism on defence (you can’t move faster than the ball). As Zach Lowe stated of their defensive movement, it was as though they were on a string. They helped without over-committing, they defended the rim, and Leonard was able to effectively guard LeBron one-on-one for long stretches of the series.
The Heat didn’t lose this series—they didn’t collapse or fall victim to mental weakness, the Spurs were simply the better team. Winning back-to-back titles and reaching four straight NBA Finals is a monumental achievement. No one has to disparage the Heat and all that they’ve achieved in order to praise the Spurs.
But the Spurs are certainly praiseworthy. Tim Duncan, at age 38, is still going strong and now claims championships in three separate decades. With Kawhi Leonard set to be a superstar for years to come, it would be foolish to bet against the Spurs reaching the top once again. After last season many believed that the Spurs’ championship window had finally closed. That window now remains wide open.