At the start of every season, the San Antonio Spurs are overlooked. Yet at the end of every season, there they are – defying Old Father Time and everyone who didn’t seriously think they were contenders.
But even the most devoted of San Antonio fans surely couldn’t have foreseen the ease with which their battle-hardened heroes would topple the Miami Heat – embarrassing the reigning champions with a 4-1 ass-kicking, ending their hunt for a three-peat and seriously damaging LeBron James’ quest to one day de-throne Michael Jordan as the G.O.A.T.
With most of the planet’s population focused on the World Cup in Brazil, the Spurs showed us that basketball is the REAL beautiful game – treating us to what must be the closest thing to ‘flawless offence’ the NBA has ever seen.
Their spacing was impeccable. Their passing, immaculate. Their chemistry, incredible. Their humility, inspiring.
Not a single member of the team let their ego get in the way. Multi-millionaire, multi-championship winning NBA All-Star veterans were willing to do whatever it took to win – even if that meant deferring to a quiet 22-year-old kid, playing in just his third season in the league.
Game 5 exemplified the Spurs’ ‘team first’ ethos, as bench players Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills made huge contributions. The 36-year-old Argentinian rolled the back the years as he brushed off Ray Allen on a strong drive through the paint, before finishing with a vicious left-handed jam over Chris Bosh. The Spurs bench contributed 47 points on 76% shooting.
In stark contrast to San Antonio’s balanced scoring, Miami leant heavily on LeBron James. Too heavily. Perhaps his 17-point first-quarter explosion led his team mates to believe that ‘King James’ could carry them the whole way. But with little help from elsewhere – in particular Dwyane Wade, who shot just 33% from the field and looked defeated almost from the moment he stepped onto the floor – not even James’ superhuman efforts were enough.
With six and a half minutes left in the game, the man who’d promised us “not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, not 6, not 7″ championships checked out of the game – watching from the bench as the team he (or, rather, Ray Allen) had snatched victory from just a year earlier squeezed the last bit of life from his three-peat dream.
‘We’ had triumphed over ‘me’. Humble beat hype.
A team of international players, slowly grown and nurtured over many years, had overcome the All-Stars who’d chosen to team up in the pursuit of glory…and exorcised the ghost of last June.
“Last year’s loss was devastating,” said coach Gregg Popovich. “I’ve said many times, a day didn’t go by where I didn’t think about game six. So I think just in general, for the group to have the fortitude that they showed to get back to this spot, I think speaks volumes about how they’re constituted and what kind of fibre they have.”
“What happened last year definitely helped our drive and to stay focused for an extended period of time,” said five-time NBA champion Tim Duncan. “It very easily could have hit us in different ways and we could have reacted in different ways. But we reacted the right way. We got great leadership from the top in Pop who came back absolutely fired up and ready to go, and to push us this far and this hard and to come out with the championship is amazing.”
“It just feels like a dream to me,” said Kawhi Leonard, who became the youngest Finals MVP since Tim Duncan scooped it in 1999. “This is my second finals appearance in my third year. I’ve been just progressing each year and the team has also. Losing in the semi-finals my first year, and losing the championship my second year, and now winning in my third year, it just makes you believe in your craft and your hard work.”
Even in the despair of defeat, James had to give credit where it was due. “They were the much better team,” he said. “That’s how team basketball should be played. You know, it’s selfless. Guys move, cut, pass, you’ve got a shot, you take it, but it’s all for the team and it’s never about the individual. That’s the brand of basketball and that’s how team basketball should be played.”
James’ future is now uncertain. He and the other members of the Big Three have opt out clauses this summer. Will he explore fresh opportunities now the Miami machine has stalled?
And what of the Spurs? Will Tim Duncan call it a day after 17 seasons and go out on a high? Or does he believe that the old boys still have something left in the tank?
“I don’t know if I will have a chance to do this again,” he said. “It’s a real emotional time.”
If this Finals series was anything to go by, there is no reason to believe that this Spurs unit couldn’t make a run for their own three-peat.
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