Relentlessly hustling, attacking the paint, finding the open man, and communicating. Each of these objectives are crucial to winning a title in the National Basketball Association. And the San Antonio Spurs accomplished them with what appeared to be relative ease. The reigning back-to-back NBA champion Miami Heat appeared to be no match (outside of game two) for the Spurs’ fantastic team play on both ends of the floor. Ask head coach Gregg Popovich which player gave the most effort in this series. He would give you a plausible reason for why all of his players were effective in the 2014 NBA Finals.
While the Heat immensely underperformed for a majority of this series, the job done by the Spurs cannot be ignored. Without exceptional play, you can never count out a team led by LeBron James. But the Spurs completed exactly what they set out to do this season – get their revenge on Miami and do it in typical San Antonio style.
I think it is safe to say that the Spurs were not going to let this year’s NBA Finals get away from them and go to seven games no matter who they were up against. Over the course of this season, they proved to be conditioned both mentally and physically better than any other team around the league and it showed significantly in this series against Miami. By game three, the Heat looked fatigued and confused. When they lost in-game leads after their game two victory, Miami seemed shell shocked and could not come up with any answers for the Spurs’ stout offensive and defensive play.
Isolation possessions may work for some teams who have a bonafide leader. While the Heat undoubtedly could rely on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, or even Chris Bosh in a play drawn up directly for them, they depended on that style of offense far too often for their own good during this series. Of course the San Antonio Spurs ran an isolation format from time to time when players like Manu Ginobili or Kawhi Leonard got hot. But the constant unpredictability of the San Antonio offense kept LeBron and the Heat on their heels – a position from which they could not escape once the Spurs got going.
The stellar offensive performance of the Spurs was not nearly the end of their quest for the franchise’s fifth NBA championship. Not only did they pour it on offensively, capitalizing momentum on scoring runs ranging from six straight points to sixteen straight points with Miami’s answer missing in action, but the Spurs got back on defense even quicker. Their relentless hustle created numerous turnovers that became crucial scoring opportunities for the Spurs. Players like Patty Mills, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, and the rest of the roster proved that no matter where they entered the game for the Spurs (whether it was via the starting lineup or off of the bench), they were fully invested in the team’s goal to win the title. While the Miami Heat certainly showed that they had the skill to win a third consecutive NBA championship, the inability of the bench to produce or evenly counter the production of the San Antonio bench ultimately froze the Heat.
The Spurs also exploited the biggest weakness of the Heat: LeBron James, while being the best basketball player on the planet, could not win his third consecutive NBA title alone – just ask him about Ray Allen’s game six shot last year that made this potential “three-peat” possible in the first place. San Antonio did the same thing in the Western Conference Finals this year as well, showing the Oklahoma City Thunder that just because they had the league’s scoring champion for four out of the past five years in Kevin Durant, one player was not going to be able to get the Spurs out of this race to the Finals.
Bringing that mindset back for the series against the Heat, San Antonio made it a point that they would expose the idea that while LeBron could do it all on his own, that would not be enough for him to capture his third ring. Posting a stat line of thirty-one points, ten rebounds, and five assists (31-10-5) is certainly not something to frown about, especially given the circumstance that LeBron only logged one turnover for all of game five; however, when the rest of the team does not perform up to their expectations, it is somewhat unfair for James to shoulder his teammates’ blame. But like LeBron James has always said, “I have a target on my back.” It should be a surprise that the world’s best player could not get his teammates into a better groove offensively and defensively.
The story behind the big three in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili is one for the history books. The trio’s fourth NBA title together puts them in a celebrated position in history, placing them in a spot occupied only by legends Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper, and Kurt Rambis as teammate sets of three or more players to have won four or more NBA titles together. After a disappointing 2013 NBA Finals, it was unclear whether Manu Ginobili would return to play. But he did and he gave every ounce of energy he had left.
All of the reviews around these three hall-of-fame-bound players could be summed up in one word – accomplished. Despite this, not enough can be said about the 2014 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Kawhi Leonard. Even with underwhelming performances in games one and two, Kawhi Leonard proved why the Spurs traded for his draft rights in 2011. While being credited as one of the quietest yet most hardworking players within the organization, Kawhi Leonard showed a well-improved ability to score both inside and outside the paint and from the arc. Most importantly, Leonard utilized every inch of his 6’7″ 230 lbs. frame to guard LeBron James to the best of his ability and create more problems in the passing lanes with his exceptional team defense and awareness.
The case could have been made for several other players on the Spurs’ roster to win the Finals MVP award, but Kawhi Leonard shined in the moment and refused to stop, never settling when he knew he could create a better scoring opportunity and making something out of possessions that appeared dead in the water. At just 22 years old (soon to be 23), Kawhi Leonard has already added two awards to his resume that many of the great players currently in the Association do not have – an NBA championship ring and an NBA Finals MVP trophy. The former San Diego State Aztec showed his capabilities on the court and exerted the idea that he could be destined to be the next big time star to take the NBA by storm, continuing to lead the San Antonio Spurs with Tony Parker once father time catches up with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
Congratulations are certainly in order for the San Antonio Spurs’ 2014 NBA Finals victory. The Miami Heat were a worthy opponent although the Spurs’ determination would not allow them to leave this series with another bitter taste of defeat. San Antonio did not just beat the Heat – they destroyed them, leaving nothing but a perplexed Miami squad in their wake. Even if they were up by 20 points, the Spurs never seemed satisfied with their lead until the final buzzer sounded. From top to bottom both on the roster and throughout the organization, extending to general manger R.C. Buford, head coach Gregg Popovich, and majority owner Peter Holt, the Spurs reinstituted their winning ways after a tough loss at the hands of the Miami Heat the prior year.
It will be a sad day when two of the initial big three are gone from the San Antonio locker room. But Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Tiago Splitter seem poised to fill in the voids for Tony Parker’s remaining years with the team. The Spurs taught everyone a valuable lesson in this year’s NBA Finals – that basketball is a game of exerting intelligence and effort. If that game plan is executed properly, it might end up being one of the most beautiful things that a fan or coach could have ever seen. San Antonio also showed that they could beat the Heat in any temperature (cold or hot), but that their revenge would be best served cold.
Written by Alex Floch, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
I am currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Growing up in a sports family, I have formed a distinct love for the industry. I enjoy writing about sports in my free time and hope to one day be able to pursue it as a career.