Both the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Final have come to an end and luckily for us sports fans, the World Cup has stepped right in to fill the void in a big way. But before we get mired in NBA Draft coverage and free agent talk surrounding the Heat’s Big 3, Carmelo Anthony, and where Kevin Love will be headed, let’s take a look back at the 2014 NBA Finals.
Game One: Spurs 110, Heat 95.
“The A/C Game.” “Crampgate.” This game will be remembered for two inter-related storylines; the air-conditioning system at the AT&T Center failing, causing temperatures in to rise to around 90 degrees. LeBron James was exhausted and succumbed to cramps in the fourth quarter but any extreme narratives aside, LBJ was the difference in the game. The Heat were outscored by 21 in the 10 minutes he was on the bench in the second half. The 14 minutes he did play? They were +11. Miami led by two when LeBron left the game with 7:31 left in the 4th quarter, 86-84. San Antonio would end the game on a 26-9 run while shooting 83.3% (10-12) from the field. I already discussed “cramping” and how it’s not a “wussy” thing. What’s important from Game 1? San Antonio came out and gave us a preview of how this series was going to play out. The Spurs outshot the Heat by 11% – both from the field and from beyond the arc – outrebounded the Heat by 12 boards, out assisted the Heat by 14, committed seven less fouls, and bested Miami by 12 points in the paint. It may have been close when LeBron left the game, but the whole 48 minutes? Spurs. Period. Final stat lines of note for Miami: Lebron the only Heat player with more than 19 (he had 25 on 9-17 shooting and added six boards, three assists, and three steals), Ray Allen had 16 off the bench on 6-12 from the field, adding three boards, three assists and five steals, and Chris Bosh had 18 pts and 9 rebs on 7-11 FG. Final stat lines of note for the Spurs: eight of their nine players scored at least seven points. The only one who didn’t? Boris Diaw, who finished with two points, six assists, and ten rebounds. Tim Duncan: 21 & 10 on 9-10 shooting, Tony Parker added 19 (8-15 FG) and eight assists, and Manu Ginobili had 16 points (5-10 FG) and 11 assists off the bench.
Game Two: Heat 98, Spurs 96
The Air Conditioning system at AT&T Center was fixed in time for the second contest and…insert pun about Miami being the “real Heat” in the building that night, etc. Again the difference in this matchup was LeBron James, who finished with 35 points (14-22 FG, 3-3 3-pt, 4-5 FT) and 10 rebounds in 38 minutes. Miami had a +11 differential with James in the game and -9 with him on the bench. Chris Bosh added 18 on 6-11 from the field to help make up for the fact that the Heat bench managed only 12 points. The Spurs’ own big three contributed as expected, but the Spurs saw only 38 points from the rest of their team as the series was tied 1-1 heading back to South Beach.
Game Three: Spurs 111, Heat 92
Remember how I said in Game One the Spurs gave us a preview of what was to come? They got their one bad performance out of them in Game Two, and it was on. I’m going to do my best to not make this about the Heat because I don’t think it would have mattered who played the Spurs, they were going to dominate. San Antonio got off to more than likely the greatest start to a basketball game you will ever see from one team. 19 of their first 21 shots. They led 41-25 at the end of the 1st quarter and 71-50 at the half. The Spurs set an NBA Finals-record by making 75.8% of their shots in the first half. 75.8%. Incredible stuff. And who would lead the Spurs in scoring but quiet Kawhi Leonard who had a career-high 29 points on 10-13 FG, four rebounds and two each of assists, steals, and blocks. Also stepping up big for San Antonio was Hempstead’s own Danny Green who had 15 points on 7-8 shooting, three assists, and five steals. LeBron did not play poorly – though he did play 40 minutes and finish with five fouls and seven turnovers – and Dwyane Wade even contributed more than most games (22 pts, 8-12 FG, 4 rebs, 2 ast, 2 stl). Mario Chalmers, however? 0-5 FG, three turnovers, four fouls. The Heat bench? 23 points and 6-20 FG, five turnovers and eight fouls. Pathetic.
Game Four: Spurs 107, Heat 86
When you head into a Game Four down 2-1 in the series, every single pundit/expert on the planet will say, “It’s not a must-win, but it’s practically a must-win.” I get it but come on, show some originality. Regardless, the Spurs were by no means going to lose and they were led again by the 22-year old from Los Angeles, Kawhi Leonard (20 pts, 7-12 FG, 14 rebs, 3 ast, 3 stl, 3 blk in 39 minutes). Leonard also continued to play tough physical defense against LeBron, forcing him to miss the only two field goals he attempted with Kawhi defending him. Game Four also saw another stellar performance from Boris Diaw who finished with eight points, nine assists and nine rebounds in 36 minutes of floor time. LeBron James finished with 28 pts, 10-17 FG, 4-8 3-pt, and eight rebounds in 38 minutes, but no one else on his team showed up. Rashard Lewis? 2 points. Dwyane Wade? 3-13 FG, three turnovers, four fouls. Mario Chalmers? Four points, three fouls, 31 minutes. Spoelstra couldn’t even get a spark off the bench from Chris Andersen and Shane Battier, who combined to go 1-5 for five points and seven fouls in 17 minutes of combined floor time. All in all, it was another dominating performance rebounding the ball (SAS – 44, MIA – 27), passing the ball (SAS – 25, MIA – 13), and in the paint (SAS – 46, MIA – 30) that led to the Heat’s demise in Game 4.
Game Five: Spurs 104, Heat 87
Chris Bosh said flat out, “We’re going to win this game tonight,” prior to Game 5. LeBron had acknowledged the odds were stacked against them, but he came ready to play. The problem? No one else on his team did. The guys on the other side in the home jerseys? Yeah, they were ready. Kawhi Leonard refused to stop playing great basketball, finishing with 22 points on 7-10 from the field, 3-4 beyond the arc and 5-6 from the line, 10 rebounds and two assists while continuing to play phenomenal defense against LeBron James. As always, Manu Ginobili was great off the bench with 19/4/4 on 6-11 FG and 3-6 3-pt in 28 minutes, but what makes the Spurs so great is the random assortment of guys who can step up at any time and kill you. Patty Mills, a second round pick from Australia, came off the bench firing, putting up 17 points in 18 minutes and shooting 6-10 FG including 5-8 3-pt and adding two assists. Probably the most surprising aspect of it all was the utter lack of adjustment by the Heat, who seemed blind to how great Mills was shooting. LeBron didn’t go out quietly, finishing with 31 points (10-21 FG, 8-9 FT), 10 rebounds and five assists, but would hit the bench the Heat trailing by 18 and 6:30 left on the clock. LeBron would not return and the Spurs cruised to victory.
Which is a good segue for my series recap notes. Think about that nice relaxing drive or bike ride you take sometimes, or for those of you who are runners think of your greatest jogs or runs. It was that easy for the Spurs. You could tell they had fun and I hope you as well had as much fun as I did watching them play. No, not because it meant LeBron lost. If you’re vehemently rooting against LeBron James – or against the Heat because of LeBron James – you’re probably a lost cause. You may also not be a basketball fan; you may just be a sports fan who saw “The Decision” and decided that LeBron was your new enemy, never to be given a chance at redemption. It’s important in all aspects of life to keep a mind that is at least somewhat open and those who are true basketball fans can appreciate how talented LeBron James is and that simply joining together LeBron with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would not lead to eight titles. You should also be able to appreciate how great of a run it is to reach four straight NBA finals. Bill Russell’s Celtics teams did it on 10 straight occasions from 1957-66. Magic Johnson’s Lakers teams reached the NBA Finals each season from 1982-85, and Larry Bird’s Celtics reached the Finals 1984-87. That’s it. Four different runs. The Heat won the NBA title twice in the “Big 3” era so far and it’s an impressive feat worthy of praise.
If it mattered to order paragraphs based on the importance of their content, I would shift things dramatically to better reflect the order in which I think the narrative should take hold. We’ll all talk about LeBron and the Miami Heat until the end of time, but the story should be the San Antonio Spurs. Five NBA titles in 16 seasons. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich went 15 years between titles. 15 years. Many players and coaches don’t last 15 years in the league, let alone 10, let alone dominate their entire career. Duncan’s 15-year gap between titles is second only to Kareem’s 17-year gap, and any time you’re second to Kareem, you should feel pretty great.
This isn’t just about Tim Duncan, and it’s not even just about the Spurs’ own so-called “Big 3.” Kawhi Leonard was named the NBA Finals MVP and rightfully so. Gregg Popovich cracked a big grin as Leonard was announced in a moment that could’ve brought tears to your eyes. Kawhi finished with 17.8 ppp, 61.2% from the field, 57.9% from 3-point range, and 6.4 rpg in 33.4 minutes per game, all while playing stellar defense. To see a young man perform so well on such a big stage and win the title on Father’s Day, six years to the week of the still-unsolved murder of his own father, was something I won’t soon forget. Kawhi Leonard is hopefully now a household name, not only for his talents on the court, but the way he carries himself when he’s not playing.
For my money, if the NBA Finals MVP was not given to Kawhi Leonard, there was a certain Frenchman worthy of the honor and it wasn’t Tony Parker. Boris Diaw, the 6’8″ 215 lbs. 32-year old who had been cut by the Bobcats at the end of the 2012 season, was amazing. Diaw finished with 6.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 5.8 apg while putting on some beautiful displays on the offensive end with great passing and acting as a threat from beyond the arc with the ability to put the ball on the floor and take it to the rack.
Diaw’s beautiful play was emblematic of the entire San Antonio Spurs team in this series. The Spurs finished the series with a ppg differential of +14, the largest in NBA Finals history. Since the introduction of the shot clock, no team has shot a better field goal percentage than San Antonio’s 52.8% in an NBA Finals. It wasn’t just the shooting, however. It was the skill, beauty, and effortlessness with which the Spurs moved the ball and executed on offense. Many times in the “Wired” segments during timeouts, you would hear Coach Popovich say something like, “Ball don’t stick,” meaning they should continue to pass and no player should be holding on to the rock for an extended period of time. Not only did they pull this off, but their movement without the ball was exquisite and it meant the Spurs were able to do what they wanted, when they wanted, with surgeon-like precision against a Miami Heat team that features three Hall of Famers — one of whom is one of the best players of all-time. All of this is a testament to just how great of a coach Gregg Popovich is. He truly belongs among the ranks of the all-time great basketball coaches.
I’ll save the discussion of what could, will, or should become of the Miami Heat for another time. In this era of (again, so-called) “Big 3’s,” superstars, and max contracts, the San Antonio Spurs have done things differently and it’s left many of us to wonder why other franchises seem so reluctant to replicate what the Spurs have done. They play with humility, they play for each other, they sacrifice for each other, and they execute their objectives with an effectiveness that we may never see again. To the 2014 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs, I tip my cap, stand, and applaud. You deserve it.