Monday, June 16, 2014
The arena rumbled. It was only the first half on Sunday night, but there was already a growing sense of inevitability with each passing possession. Having withstood the best that LeBron James could offer, the San Antonio Spurs were closing in on another championship.
Tim Duncan was backing down an opponent before throwing in a baby hook. Manu Ginobili was racing end to end for an emphatic dunk that nearly blew the top off AT&T Center. And James, the Miami Heat's resident superstar and the best player on the planet, was rendered powerless by the Spurs' slow march to history.
With their 104-87 win in Game 5 of the NBA finals, the Spurs celebrated their fifth championship in 16 seasons. San Antonio turned the series into a coronation by winning four of five games, including the last three, with the bonus of snuffing Miami's well-publicized quest for a third straight title in the process.
Kawhi Leonard, who was named the most valuable player of the finals, finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds. Ginobili added 19 points, and Duncan, in his 17th season with the team, added 14 points and 8 rebounds.
“They played exquisite basketball this series,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, adding, “They are the better team. There's no other way to say it. They played great basketball, and we couldn't respond to it.”
The victory was even sweeter for the Spurs given their not-so-distant history with the Heat. In last year's finals, the Spurs had a 3-2 series lead before it all slipped away: They blew a late lead in Game 6, then lost in Game 7. It was a devastating result, with many openly questioning whether the Spurs — who were not getting any younger — could muster another run.
The Spurs responded by posting the league's best record in the regular season before storming through the playoffs. Their rematch with the Heat was fine art with a basketball — the passing, the footwork, the skill, the teamwork. If the Heat were a high-wire act without a net (James was the unfortunate performer on the trapeze), the Spurs were ballet dancers.
James had a game-high 31 points. Dwyane Wade, hampered by bad knees and an injured hamstring in the regular season, struggled for the second straight game, finishing with 11 points.
“I know he's feeling what we felt last year,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of James, “and I wouldn't wish that on anybody.”
Said James, “Obviously, I didn't do enough.”
The loss was a dose of reality for James, who faces an uncertain off-season. James, Wade and Chris Bosh — Miami's Big Three — can all opt out of their contracts and become free agents. They have won two titles together and were hoping for a third, but the Spurs exposed some weaknesses.
They were on display in the third quarter, as the Heat went the opening 4 minutes, 8 seconds without scoring a point. They missed their first seven shots. They looked sluggish on defense, too. The Spurs' Patty Mills blew past Miami's baseline defenders for a reverse layup, then made two 3-pointers. Ginobili followed with a 3-pointer of his own for a 21-point lead, and the party was on.
That the Heat had seized a 16-point lead in the first quarter made the Spurs' victory more impressive. San Antonio outscored Miami by 98-65 the rest of the way.
And while the championship was certainly about Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker — their fourth title together in 13 seasons as teammates — it also underscored the coaching acumen of Popovich, the importance of the Spurs' scouting department and how seamlessly the team incorporates new parts.
Consider Leonard, a swingman who was acquired in a draft-day trade from the Indiana Pacers in 2011. Popovich has already anointed him the future face of the franchise, and in the last three games of the finals — all convincing wins for the Spurs — the future seemed to be now.
“We have conversations throughout the year; they're mostly one way because Kawhi is really a quiet young man,” Popovich said. “But he listens and he's a great learner and super competitive, and he has a drive to be the best that's really uncommon in our league.”
Consider also Boris Diaw, a formidable post presence whose old-school game should require him to wear sweatpants. He joined the Spurs last season as a reliable reserve and did his role without complaint before emerging as a dynamic starter in these finals.
“We've given him more of a prominent role, and he's responded well at both ends of the floor,” Popovich said before the game.
It was pure Popovich: pragmatic to the point of near detachment. The Spurs have a system in a place. The system means making sacrifices. The system means winning games. The system means collecting championships.
It was a trying series for James. In Game 1, he cramped up when the air-conditioning system went out at AT&T Center. In Game 2, he turned one of his ankles. Back in Miami, the Heat lost Games 3 and 4 by a combined 40 points. Still, James had done what he could to keep the Heat involved, averaging 27.5 points while shooting 60 percent from the field.
On Saturday, with his team staring at a 3-1 deficit, James sounded content with his lot in life. He had already won two championships, he said, which helped provide perspective.
“It's basketball,” he said, adding, “It's done so many great things for me, but it's just basketball.”
About an hour before the start of Sunday's game, James sat on a table in the trainer's room with his back against the wall (no metaphor intended), headphones on, eyes closed, singing to himself. It was a moment of reflection, and it was, by all appearances, effective. At least for a few minutes.
James said he wanted to be more aggressive, and it was an understatement. He was everywhere in the first quarter. He dunked in transition. He blocked layup attempts. He rebounded and defended and captivated the crowd. Nothing was going to come easily for San Antonio, James wanted to make sure of that.
When Wade missed on a runner early in the first quarter, James was there for a putback dunk that gave the Heat an 8-0 lead. The Spurs, so solid with their shooting throughout their series, missed their first five-goal attempts. Later, after Ginobili barely grazed the front of the rim on a long jumper, James capitalized with a 3-pointer.
Spoelstra had made some changes of his own. Ray Allen started in place of the struggling Mario Chalmers, and Allen made a 3-pointer that extended Miami's lead to 22-6.
The Heat finished the first quarter with a 29-22 lead, and it was due almost solely to James, who went 5 of 7 from the field, sank all five of his free throws, scored 17 points and grabbed six rebounds. His teammates scored 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting.
The game turned in the second quarter, though. James cooled, and the Spurs took advantage. Leonard drilled a 3-pointer to give the Spurs their first lead, 37-35.
Ginobili, too, found his form. After Ginobili followed Leonard's 3-pointer with an up-and-under layup, James slammed the ball against the court. The Spurs led at halftime, 47-40.
It was too much, even then, for the Heat to overcome. The Spurs were not letting this one slip away, not again.