“The moment Leonard, Duncan, and Pop smile at the same time, the world will end,” a colleague joked with me before the Spurs’ NBA Finals-clinching Game 5 last night.
Well, rest easy, earth people. For the first time since their devastating Finals loss a year ago after leading the series 3-2, the Spurs (including the aforementioned stoic three) were able to kiss goodbye the demons of yesteryear and smile together — to be on top once more.
The Spurs did not just beat the Heat; they ran circles around them. The Spurs’ 104-87 win capped off a string of impressive victories in which their average margin of victory was 18 points.
No talk of cramps could have besmirched this accomplishment. There are no asterisks and this was no mistake. Just as the Spurs exorcised their demons last round by winning in Oklahoma City – where they had gone 0-9 in the last nine contests, putting to rest the narrative that the Spurs could not beat the Thunder at full strength – so did the Spurs exorcise last year’s brutal Game 6 demons by thoroughly out-playing the Heat.
Spurs fans were confident before the game. They came early, excited by the opportunity to knock out the defending champs. Sam Dubberly told me with a laugh, “Game 2 (the lone Spurs loss in the Finals) seems like weeks ago.” No one expressed doubts about the Spurs' ability to finish off the Heat after the Spurs let the opportunity slip away last year. Andy Perez told me last year has no bearing on this year because “It’s a different team.”
Allan Sarrat, who came from Mexico with his girlfriend to watch his Spurs win, explained that things were different this year. The Spurs advantage over the Heat felt more “clean” this year.
Despite the decisive final score, the Spurs play in the first quarter was anything but clean. The Spurs came out sloppy and nervous. Conversely, the Heat looked sharp and active defensively in the first quarter.
Ray Allen’s three pointer with 5:03 left in the first quarter pulled the Heat to their largest lead of the night: 16 points. Spurs fans were dismayed. Where was the team that dismantled the Heat with precise execution in Games 3 and 4? Suddenly, the memory of Game 2 did n0t seem so distant.
Even down 16, though, the Spurs kept hanging around, receiving sparks off the bench from Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills who helped chip the deficit down to seven points by the end of the first quarter.
The steady comeback continued into the second quarter. By the time Kawhi Leonard hit a three-pointer to pull the Spurs ahead by one point with 4:47 left in the second quarter, the momentum had palpably shifted back to the Spurs.
The Heat had fired their best shot, and it was not enough. Their moment had passed. It was all Spurs the rest of the way.
At halftime, Spurs fan Johnny Worm expressed the feeling of many a Spurs fan after the early turnaround: “Whew. Up by seven at the half? I’ll take it.”
By the third quarter an intriguing battle in the hearts and minds of Spurs fans ensued. Chants of “M-V-P” rained down on Duncan and Leonard alike. Who deserved it more?
The former has been the consummate Spur — if you need evidence, just ask yourself how many rings the Spurs have won without Duncan. The latter, Leonard, represents the future that has come to bloom before our eyes the last three games. He has gone toe-to-toe with LeBron James and made sensational offensive plays, all without having plays called for him, according to head coach Gregg Popovich’s postgame interview.
Finally, Tim Duncan stepped up to the free throw line again in the fourth quarter and the MVP chants ceased. It was decided — at least in the hearts and minds of Spurs fans present — that the trophy belonged to the young Leonard.
Leonard did end up winning the honor, on Father’s Day — a sensitive day for him, as his father was murdered seven years ago. In traditional Spurs fashion, and in his own understated custom, Leonard downplayed the storyline, but he admitted it was special for him to win on that day.
For his part, Duncan expressed gratitude at being fortunate enough to play with someone as talented as Leonard — the old star gracefully yielding the spotlight to the new kid, someone who feels just as great an aversion to it.
There had to be an MVP, but this series -- and season -- were not about one player for the Spurs. In a year when no Spur was an All-NBA first-team player, when no player on the roster averaged over 30 minutes a game in the regular season, Manu Ginobili explained the significance of the Spurs Finals victory best in his postgame interview, “It wasn’t about Tim Duncan or Tony Parker. It was about everybody. This is a team, and that’s what makes it so, so nice.”
After the game, the tears and embraces commenced. As the Spurs foreign legion donned their various national flags, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the Spurs showed the world how beautiful the game can be. While the attention of the globe is fixed on the FIFA World Cup, this was a resounding statement to the sports community about the international appeal of Dr. Naismith’s game.
Peter Holt hoisted the trophy and soaked up the moment, but when he spoke he deferred the glory to R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich and dedicated the trophy to his wife, who could not be present.
After the ceremony, Spurs family, coaches, players and media crammed into the sweaty locker room to enjoy their victory with a bath of champagne. The Spurs family extends beyond wives and children. David Robinson, Avery Johnson, Sean Elliot, Fabricio Oberto, former assistant coach and current Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer, all were present, showing the close ties among the organization and its former players.
As the last second came off the clock last night, the arena began to play Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time.” The truth is, it feels better. As Pop and Parker agreed, this one was the sweetest. Rebounding from the emotional nadir of Spurs history validated our fandom and the effort of every player. It proved the Spurs are more than just a consistently great regular season team. It validated Duncan’s status among the greats. It validated the jobs Buford and Popovich, both of whom earned the highest honors given to their respective positions, have done.
Duncan dodged questions about whether he would be returning next year. But why should he stop now? Duncan lives and breathes basketball, and the Spurs have the best bench and coaching staff in the league, which provides Duncan and his fellow aging stars with the ability to rest big minutes all year. And with players like Leonard and Mills coming up, this team is built to contend for another title for at least a couple more years.
My usual game-watching companion, Sam Vandever, sent me a text as the Spurs began running away with the lead: “We are (going to win the championship). I love you so much. I’m filled to the brim with surrealistic mirth.”
I could not have expressed the feeling better myself.
As I left the locker room and the press conferences, I said to my partner and fellow longtime Spurs fan, photographer Scott Ball, that there would never be a better sports moment in my life than what we had just witnessed. This was the pinnacle. The idea that it is downhill from here does not bother me. As a Spurs fan this championship, with these players, was everything and more than I could have hoped for, and to win at home a year after brutal heartbreak against Miami made it that much sweeter.
It was a great day to be a Spurs fan.
Scratch that; It was the best day to be a Spurs fan.
*Featured/top image: Manu Ginóbili talks with media after Spurs' win of the 2014 NBA Finals. Photo by Scott Ball.