San Antonio’s Revenge: Scenes From a Championship Run for the Ages

The Spurs’ fifth championship symbolizes everything we’ve been bringing up all year: the triumph of the NBA’s beautiful game; the crowning achievement for three stars who took less money to stay together; a cathartic response from perhaps the most crushing defeat in NBA history; and the end point of the franchise’s evolution from pound-the-post bully ball to a fast-paced, triple-happy style of play that put them ahead of almost every other team in adapting to the NBA’s newer rules.

All well and good. But this was also a straight-up ass-whipping. Don’t forget that. These Spurs don’t quite belong in the “best team ever” conversation with the half-dozen most dominant single-season squads, but in winning 62 games amid one of the toughest conferences of all time and rampaging through the playoffs, they emphatically placed themselves in the next tier of all-time great teams.

The Spurs outscored their playoff opponents by nearly 12 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com’s scale. In the 18 seasons for which the league has such official data, only the 2000-01 Lakers won the title while piling up a bigger point differential. That team, a peak Shaq-Kobe outfit, went a ridiculous 15-1 in the playoffs. The Spurs went “just” 16-7, and their puzzling seven-game struggle against Dallas — a team they had eviscerated for years — pulls them back a bit in the “all time” discussion.

But only a bit. Under the slightly different scale Basketball-Reference.com uses, the Spurs blitzed their four playoff opponents by about 10 points per 100 possessions. That is the sixth-best mark ever for a champion, trailing only five of the greatest teams to ever walk this earth: the 1991 and 1996 Bulls, 1986 Celtics, 1987 Lakers, and those 2001 Lakers, who decided to start trying hard in the playoffs.

The Spurs destroyed Dallas in Game 7, unshackling themselves from a weird stagnancy. All four wins in their obliteration of the Blazers came by double digits. They romped over Oklahoma City in two games without Serge Ibaka, dropped the next two, and then whipped out perhaps the finest two-way performance of these playoffs — a 117-89 destruction of the Thunder in Game 5 in San Antonio.

The Heat? The Spurs humiliated them. San Antonio just beat Miami by 57 points combined over three games. Two of those games were in Miami. The Heat, in case you had forgotten, were the two-time defending champions. And that 57-point margin is misleading. The gap between San Antonio and Miami was even larger than that.

The Spurs turned the Heat from proud champions into helpless victims. It was astonishing. It was, frankly, a little bit uncomfortable. You felt pity for Miami. They had no answers. The Spurs had figured out Miami’s frenzied defense, and the team had no fallback plan. “They used our aggressiveness against us,” Shane Battier said after the game. “And we just weren’t as sharp as we were last year.”

The last two games especially reminded you of the peak that these Spurs could reach when fully engaged. Their offense is basketball as high art. The Spurs move the ball too fast for your eyes to even track it, and fans ask why their own damn team can’t watch the film and adopt the Spurs’ system.

Bad news: It took years for San Antonio to get here. The Spurs were quick to understand the impact of the two major rule changes of the last decade: the crackdown in handchecking after 2004, and the elimination of the old illegal-defense rules. The handcheck ban would free up offensive players to penetrate and kick. On the other end, coaches would use zone-style trickery to squeeze the floor and clog the lane.

Shooting and passing would become paramount. The handcheck ban would enable those things. Sophisticated zone-style defenses would be impossible to beat without them.

And so the Spurs got to work. They saw what Mike D’Antoni did in Phoenix, constructing some of the most potent offenses in history by surrounding a pick-and-roll with three long-range shooters and running like hell. San Antonio, once the league’s ultimate slow poke, amped up its pace, cornered the market on the corner 3, and gradually brewed the league’s most gorgeous offense by combining ingredients from lots of sources — D’Antoni’s Phoenix teams, Gregg Popovich’s own playbook, the best international teams, and more.

They turned Tim Duncan into a pick-and-roll beast. In the mid-2000s, post-ups accounted for nearly half the possessions that Duncan finished with a shot, drawn foul, or turnover, per Synergy Sports. They made up just 31 percent this season, and that understates the drop-off, since the Spurs rarely use Duncan post-ups to initiate passing sequences now. The crowd in San Antonio buzzes whenever Duncan gets the ball with his back to the basket. It is the buzz of nostalgia. It is the crowd saying, “Hey, we remember when you used to do that all the time. Let us remember again.”

The Spurs acquired the right sorts of players and nurtured them along. Selfish players and low-IQ guys could play elsewhere. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are pick-and-roll geniuses in their own ways, and Popovich allowed them to share the controls — to play to their own strengths without stepping on each other’s toes.

They got Boris Diaw for nothing. The team had gotten to know Diaw since before he entered the NBA, R.C. Buford, the team’s GM, told me in a corner of the Spurs’ practice gym on Saturday. Diaw would visit Parker, his longtime friend and teammate on the French national team.

The Spurs thought about drafting Diaw in 2003, and they knew he was unhappy in Charlotte in 2012. He was also fat, and Paul Silas, the Bobcats’ coach during that miserable season, called Diaw out publicly for his poor conditioning.

But the Spurs tried to trade for him anyway. They didn’t have the right pieces to match Diaw’s hefty salary, and so they waited, crossing their fingers Charlotte wouldn’t find a taker ahead of the trade deadline, Buford recalls.

Parker urged them to get Diaw. He didn’t need to sell Buford. “We knew Boris well,” Buford told me. “For years in Phoenix, he kicked our ass. We had an appreciation for his skill set.”

They also had a feeling Diaw would try harder in San Antonio. “Boris needs to respect the people he’s playing with,” Buford said. “We felt the potential for that was in place here.”

Diaw was brilliant in this series, and he says he always felt he would thrive as a Spur. “It was always the team that made the most sense, the way they were playing,” a champagne-soaked Diaw told me after Game 5. “I had Tony there on the inside to tell me about their philosophy.”

They drafted Tiago Splitter in 2007 and waited patiently for him to leave Spain’s top league and come serve as Duncan’s co-anchor on defense, and the bridge to Duncan playing fewer minutes. Splitter is a pick-and-roll big with zero post-up game; he would be perfect for the Spurs’ revamped system.

It took three years for Splitter and Duncan to learn to play together on offense, and even in that third season, the Heat ran Splitter off the floor in the Finals. LeBron stuffed him at the rim in Game 2, and that was basically all anyone could remember of Splitter in that series.

There were “a couple of minutes” last summer when Splitter thought he would sign the contract Portland had offered him, and leave this beautiful Spurs machine, he said. But San Antonio matched the offer, and Splitter stayed. He viewed this series as his redemption, peaking with his own above-the-rim rejection of Dwyane Wade in the third quarter on Sunday. He didn’t mind ceding his starting spot to Diaw.

“If you can play less to play for a championship, you do that,” Splitter said on Saturday. “I think every player in the league would play less to win a ring.”

That selflessness was appealing to Buford in the early days. But those days ended years ago. The team was happy to see Splitter hold his own against Miami this time around, in part because that is what they had paid $9 million per season to get. “Sure, you’re happy,” Buford said. “Especially when you’ve come to agreement on a contract that creates some expectations.”

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five

They traded Popovich’s favorite player, George Hill, to gamble on a wing player who might one day become a defensive stopper with semi-reliable 3-point range and some off-the-bounce friskiness. That guy just won Finals MVP, and he’s up for a massive new contract extension this summer. (Some moron chose him as this season’s X factor back in October.)

They helped transform Patty Mills from Pop’s “little fat-ass” into an elite backup point guard who sank Miami under a hail of wide-open 3s. They helped Danny Green develop from a D-League outcast into a lethal bombing starter. Green still can’t believe it, and the Spurs probably can’t, either. They cut him twice, after all. “No, no, no, I can’t believe it,” Green said when I cornered him in the Spurs’ locker room. “Even last year, I never thought I’d be a starter on a championship team. Never.” Green wants to be a Spur for life. “I’m staying here as long as they’ll keep me around,” he said, before bolting to find his family.

It took years for it all to come together this way. You can see glimpses of it if you go back and watch the Spurs nudge past Detroit in 2005 behind a floppy-haired Ginobili slicing into the lane, or their epic seven-gamer against the Mavs the following season. The Spurs were going small then more than they do now, and their pick-and-roll game was starting to blossom.

And all those minutes restrictions weren’t just about keeping Duncan and Ginobili healthy, though that was certainly a key goal. The Spurs knew playing with so much motion, running more miles and tossing more passes than anyone, would be exhausting even for young players. “We felt this was the most productive way for us to play,” Buford said. “And that came with Pop managing minutes, and with our depth.”

The Spurs’ regular-season point differential was merely above average for a champion. It would probably have been higher had they ridden their stars harder, but they got the reward they really wanted in the end.

They just kept refining their game and adding the right pieces. Playing the Heat so often over the past two years got the Spurs comfortable against Miami’s unusual trapping defense. They dotted the playbook with a couple of Miami-specific tweaks — a subtle change in the placement of one shooter, or using the pick-and-roll more to attack a specific weakness in the Heat’s scheme.

But by this point in 2014, after all these years, the Spurs were really just playing like themselves. “For us, this series was not about them,” Diaw said of Miami after the clincher. “We did a bit of scouting, but at the end of the day, we’re playing the same defense we played all year. We’re playing the same offense we played all year — just move the ball, be unselfish, and play for your teammates.”

They never forgot defense, and it’s fitting that they finished this season with two games reminding us of what had always been the basis of their dominance. San Antonio’s defense defanged the Heat in these last two games with a synchronization and purpose that was almost startling to watch. They just did not make mistakes.

They helped off Miami’s least dangerous shooters, using the defenders guarding those players to shade toward LeBron James and muck up the rim area. When the Heat offered up lineups with both Chris Andersen and Dwyane Wade, or Wade and Udonis Haslem, you felt like Miami might never score again.

All five Spurs moved together. No one was out of step. There were no blips of miscommunication. No one fell for pump fakes. It was telepathic.

And at the center of it all, for now and forever, was Timothy Theodore Duncan. Give Duncan a guy who doesn’t merit his full attention, and he’s drifting away to seal off the rim. Tom Thibodeau never coached in San Antonio, but the Spurs ingested some of his defensive principles just like every other team — only they execute them like experts.

Duncan can barely jump anymore, and there were times even in this series when he’d be just a beat late rotating from the weak side, unable to offer even a token challenge at some Heat layup. He’d just take the ball out of the net and move on, as if to say, “Oh well. I used to be able to get to that.”

But he was mostly where he needed to be, staying down, avoiding fouls, altering shots, and directing the ones he did block to his teammates. The Heat felt Duncan every time down the floor.

This was Duncan’s fifth championship, same as Kobe and one more than Shaq. Scrap the “best power forward ever” designation. Duncan has been a center for the majority of his career, and the obsession over position moves the talk about his legacy away from where it should go. It’s time to talk about whether Duncan is one of the five greatest players ever — a well-rounded offensive force and one of the half-dozen greatest defenders in history.

That’s the discussion. Parker and Ginobili are Hall of Famers, and whether the Spurs are a “dynasty” is just a silly argument over semantics. Five championships over 15 seasons, spanning several different eras of the sport — the Spurs of Timmy, Tony, and Manu are a team for all ages.

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five

And they could have nearly $10 million in cap space this summer, though cap holds attached to Diaw, Mills, Matt Bonner, and whatever gem they inevitably unearth with the no. 30 pick will soak up much of that.

We keep waiting for the Spurs to die. But if Duncan comes back, they should probably be considered the favorites to win the championship again next season, depending on what team-building machinations transpire in Miami. Hell, the Spurs came about as close as a team can get to winning the title last season. Why should we expect anything less next time around?

Yes, we have to think about the Heat, and LeBron’s free agency, and wherever Melo might go if he leaves the team that gutted itself to get him. But put that off a bit. The Spurs are champions — dominant champions. It was a long time coming.

More Observations From a Championship Night

• If you somehow didn’t know the Spurs were the league’s most international team, the number of flags in the locker room after the game would have tipped you off. Tiago Splitter draped a Brazilian flag around his neck and scoffed at the idea that Brazil got lucky in their first World Cup game against Croatia. (Whatever, Tiago. Nice to be the host nation, I guess. Now I know what Sacramento fans felt like during the conference finals in 2002.)

Marco Belinelli wore an Italian flag around his neck, and Aron Baynes posed for photos holding the Australian flag. Baynes also popped out of the locker room cradling three bottles of beer in his giant hands. “I have a lot of beer!” he yelled, to no one in particular.

• Diaw was quick to point out the origin of champagne. “I’m French, and champagne is French,” he said. “All champagne is from France. If it’s not from France, it’s not champagne. It’s sparkling wine.”

• The Spurs’ analytics crew stood in one corner of the locker room, atop the stools in front of locker stalls, spraying beer on each other. The nerds can have fun, too!

• Bonner demanded a 30 for 30 documentary about the Spurs rally from last season’s crushing defeat.

• The ride back to our downtown hotel was an adventure. The city started partying immediately. Every car seemed to have at least one Spurs flag attached to it. Everyone was honking. I saw multiple people hanging out of their front passenger window, ass atop the door, beating the roof of the car like a drum and reaching across traffic to high-five passengers going the other way.

The traffic was slow enough for a teenage boy to climb out of a sun roof, jump on top of a car, and surf on the roof for a bit.

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five

• I don’t know that I’ve ever seen fewer people in a Miami locker room after a playoff game. They are rock stars — constantly swarmed. It’s normally a waste of time to even go in there. There was something incongruous about James Jones changing into a “Heatles” T-shirt in a locker room that felt so somber.

Battier talked about what the sport has meant to him, and immediately praised Chip Engelland, the Spurs’ famous shooting coach, for tutoring him early in his career. Toney Douglas strolled back to the locker room behind Pat Riley, tapped Riley on the shoulder, and slung his left arm around Riley’s shoulder in a postgame embrace. Alonzo Mourning was shell-shocked.

• My suit smells like champagne.

• The Coyote went pantsless for most of the night. He was ready to party. He also filmed a delightful sequel skit showing him running around Miami, carrying a giant Texas state flag with the Spurs logo in place of the lone star, and planting the flag in various places. He also took it on a boat ride around Biscayne Bay. I love the Coyote.

• I enjoyed the “Awkward Dad” dance cam the Spurs broke out for Father’s Day. My dad would kill that thing. He’s all elbows out there.

• It will never stop being funny when opposing crowds taunt the Heat with the “Seven Nation Army” chant that Miami’s fans have made their staple.

• Several wives and family members of Spurs higher-ups were in attendance tonight in hopes of seeing the clincher. Some couldn’t make it, only because they never thought the Spurs would be ready to clinch so early; they had planned to come to Miami for Game 6 and San Antonio for Game 7.

It was fun talking to some of those family members in the Miami airport on Friday, and tonight before the game. They were universally confident the series was over, and when they would express their confidence, the coaches and front-offices guys would almost recoil in horror. If you’re directly involved, you’ll always be last to know it’s done.

• The Spurs locker room was packed so deep you could barely even turn around. At one point, Duncan was in an adjacent room with some coaches and the other stars who were headed to the podium. He peeked around the corner, took one look inside the locker room, smiled, shook his head, and walked back into his sanctuary.

That’s Duncan. We’ll never know him as well as we’d like. But he and the Spurs are champions, again.

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, tiago splitter, Boris Diaw, LeBron James, Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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