SAN ANTONIO — The rest of the NBA has been waiting for the San Antonio Spurs to go away for several years, counting down the days until Tim Duncan walks away and takes Coach Gregg Popovich with him, anticipating when age and attrition will make this team fade as all dynasties must do.
But somewhere inside Duncan is the competitiveness he had when he first chose shooting at a rickety hoop over hitting the beach in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Duncan is 15 years removed from his first NBA championship and has been around long enough for the Spurs to transition from a boring to beloved brand of basketball that is built around the talents of many instead of the charms of one or three.
The Spurs used their precision execution and selfless style to complete a redemptive run to their fifth NBA championship with a 104-87 victory over the Miami Heat on Sunday.
“For whatever reason, it is sweeter than any other,” Duncan said of his fifth title. “Whether it be because of the time frame, because I’m coming toward the end of my career . . . It’s amazing to think about having done this five times, the kind of company I’m in, the people who have had such amazing careers. To still be in a situation where we can win or I can win another championship is just an amazing blessing, and it’s not taken lightly.”
Learning to evolve and adapt, Duncan has adjusted his game to make room for an exciting but at times erratic shooting guard from Argentina (Manu Ginobili), a slithery point guard from France (Tony Parker) and now a stoic, lithe 22-year-old with cornrows from Riverside, Calif. (Kawhi Leonard). Leonard was named NBA Finals MVP after holding his own against LeBron James and fulfilling the prophecy of Popovich, who before last season proclaimed him the future of the franchise.
Before the game was even complete, James walked down from his bench to congratulate the Spurs, first embracing Leonard. Leonard scored 22 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and continued his inspired play over the past three games, when the Spurs turned what was expected to be a competitive series into a rout. He became the youngest Finals MVP since Magic Johnson in 1980.
“It just feels like a dream to me,” Leonard said while crediting Duncan’s presence for inspiring him. “Just coming here and seeing him prepare every day and having that drive and will to win at the age he is and after winning all the championships he’s won before I got here just motivated me to go even harder because I’m young.”
The better team defeated the game’s best player, and it set a playoff record with 12 games decided by at least 15 points, including all four wins in this series. If not for four missed free throws in a critical stretch in a Game 2 loss, San Antonio very well could have swept the Heat. The 70-point differential and 52.8 percent shooting from the field in the five-game series both were Finals records.
Duncan joined John Salley as the only players in NBA history to win championships in three different decades, but Duncan’s run is much more remarkable because he continues to make significant contributions. With the arena shaking from exuberant fans bouncing in the bleachers, Popovich embraced Duncan, whispering into his ear while the Prince song “1999” blared from the rafters.
In the seven years since San Antonio last won a championship with a four-game sweep of James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, James has won the league’s MVP award four times and led the Heat to two championships. Miami’s last title came last year at the expense of the Spurs, who squandered two opportunities to claim another title.
James came out ready to beat the Spurs by himself as he scored 17 of his game-high 31 points in the first quarter and recorded blocks on Duncan and Mills. But in many ways, James often looked all alone, as he did with the Cavaliers in 2007. His all-star teammates — Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade — combined to score just 24 points. “Tried to inspire my teammates to try to get a win,” James said. “Obviously, I didn’t do enough.
“We’re not discrediting what we were able to accomplish in these four years,” he said. “We lost one, we won two and we lost another one. Take 50 percent in four years in championships any day. Obviously, you want to win all of them, but that’s just the nature of the game.”
The victory comes at a tenuous period for the Heat franchise. James, Wade and Bosh can opt out of their contracts and become free agents this summer.