As the confetti settles: A Finals dispatch from San Antonio
SAN ANTONIO—When you crawled out of bed on Monday morning, June 9, the storyline had shifted dramatically since the previous Thursday. Just days after going 14-of-16 from the floor over the final 12 minutes of Game 1 and ripping apart the Heat defense in the process, San Antonio’s fourth-quarter offense bogged down into a mud pit of stagnancy in Game 2′s final frame. LeBron James, whose cramps forced him out of the series-opener and onto every front page in the country, was spectacular, and the favored Spurs were suddenly trying to outrun the black cloud that was the 2013 NBA Finals once again.
There were more missed free throws, late-game lapses and moments of visible frustrations, and, seemingly overnight, San Antonio was in trouble.
Just think if the air-conditioning hadn’t malfunctioned and James never had to leave … Miami would be up 2-0 right now, we heard phrased countless times, as if there wasn’t an ounce of mutual exclusivity between the different events. Knee-jerking is commonplace in today’s overcrowded media space, especially when we really never knew what to make of what was just seen.
Both teams had issues through the first two games, with the Spurs’ Game 1 fourth-quarter flurry being the tangible outlier in a series that was close in its early stages. LeBron was playing well, but outside of that, most everything on both sides was inconsistent. The only thing we knew was that the best player on the planet was rolling, despite the cramps, and when you get to the Finals it typically behooves you to side with that guy when dabbling in the game of pick ‘em.
Then came Game 3, and with it, utter destruction.
Those opening 16 minutes of the series’ swing game in Miami feel like a blur by now. San Antonio hit 19 of its first 21 attempts in a blinding exhibition of ruthless efficiency and shot-making as the Miami crowd sat by and watched the carnage. It reminded me of when those scary movies come out in theaters, and the TV trailers show footage of a private-screening audience’s reactions to different scenes throughout the film. The gasps grew louder and more drenched in shock with every jumper, every layup, every backdoor cut, every steal.
The Spurs machine had engaged, and suddenly the series was over. There were a couple of final breaths, a counterpunch or two, but no more. The chokeout of the two-time defending champs was startling, and by the time Game 5 rolled around most just wanted the thing to end, regardless of allegiances. It was almost painful to watch.
Not only was that Game 3 explosion a punch to the Heat gut, it was an indication of things to come. In that onslaught, the Spurs realized their advantage over Miami. Those previously devastating traps and double teams were reduced to speed bumps and often triggered San Antonio’s offense like starting blocks on a track. San Antonio was consistently a step or two ahead of the defensive rotations and open shots weren’t difficult to come by. When the Spurs get open shots, it’s goodnight.
San Antonio shot a Finals-record 52.8 percent from the floor in the series, outscored Miami by 57 points combined over those final three massacres. It was a difficult proposition attempting to build a convincing argument in favor of the Spurs’ attack through the first two games of the series. Less than a week later, all that was left was to search for survivors in the rubble.
From an individual perspective, Kawhi Leonard’s gear-switch was the biggest difference-maker in the Finals. He’s the most impactful player on the Spurs roster, given all the facets of the game he affects, and when he plays like he did in Games 3-5 San Antonio is damn near unbeatable.
The splits in comparison to the first two games were remarkable, too.
Games 1-2: 9 points, 2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2 turnovers, 1 stl, 0 BLK, 42.9 field-goal percentage, 66.7 3-point percentage, 50 free-throw percentage
Games 3-5: 23.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.7 turnovers, 2 steals, 2 blocks, 68.6 field-goal percentage, 53.8 3-point percentage, 84.2 free-throw percentage
His aggressiveness on both ends of the floor transformed with the team’s flight to South Beach, and the 22-year-old forward looked better than he has at any point of his three-year career. Leonard scored 20 or more points in three consecutive games for the first time in his career, on the biggest stage; and how about this: He scored at least 20 points in three games only three times over the course of the entire regular season.
The young man picked a hell of a time to break out. Then again, this was a movie we’d seen before, only the sequel was actually better than the original.
A look back at the 2013 Finals shows a similar trajectory. Leonard averaged just 9.5 points per game through the first two contests of the series, but his impact grew along with the stakes. Kawhi averaged 19 points on 58.9 percent shooting and 11.6 rebounds a night as he kept the Spurs alive time after time over the final three games (Games 5-7). With an injured Tony Parker, a completely ineffective–if not harmful–Manu Ginobili, a blanketed Danny Green and a lost-at-sea version of Tiago Splitter, Leonard bunkered down with Tim Duncan for as long as the two could hold off the Heat waves.
Kawhi’s emergence wasn’t enough last summer. This June, he turned into a monster. Perhaps the idea that the MVP discussion was a veritable toss-up is justifiable, but from what I saw it didn’t seem like much of a question. Leonard’s endless arms constantly invaded the airspace of James and Wade, creating a level of discomfort not normally seen in the two former MVPs (James had a net rating of -18.9 points per 100 possessions when Leonard was on the floor, per NBA.com); his presence on the glass made life miserable for the undersized Heat, who already have enough trouble as it is dealing with the rest of the opposition’s front court; his shooting was insane, pushing nearly 60 percent from the freaking 3-point line for the entire series; and on top of it all, it just seemed effortless the entire time. Everything he did was within the flow of the Spurs’ system, and that system, with an athlete like Leonard, showed its full capability.
Who knows what this kid’s ceiling is going forward. Life will almost certainly change quite a bit as the current regime adapts to new pieces in the future. But on this team, with these teammates, Leonard has become a star. So long as the freedom is there, he’ll continue to develop what is still a burgeoning game, both on and off the court. No doubt he’s had to speak to the media more often in the past week or two than he has his entire life, and that’s all part of job description.
Leonard just became the second-youngest player to ever win an NBA Finals MVP trophy (Magic Johnson being the other, and he did it twice before he was Kawhi’s age), and with Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Gregg Popovich still running the show, he’s still got plenty of time to grow.
Offensively, we saw the silver and black reach peak Spurs at the right time. But in the glow of the scorched nets, what the defense accomplished over the course of the entire series can be easily buried under the avalanche of 3-pointers.
Miami coasted along during the regular season with the second best offensive-efficiency rating in the league at 109 points per 100 possessions, a number just fractions of a point worse than the Los Angeles Clippers. And that number exploded in the Eastern Conference Finals, where the Heat roasted the NBA’s top defensive team, the Indiana Pacers.
The defending champs scored 114.3 points per 100 possessions against Roy Hibbert, Paul George, Lance Stephenson and Friends, a shocking number considering the defensive numbers posted by the Pacers all season long. But that Miami pick-and-roll attack started thriving, with shooters spreading the floor and Wade and James slashing to the bucket.
Then the Spurs came along, and the Heat wouldn’t surpass 100 points for the final five games of their season. San Antonio held Miami to 101.3 points per 100 possessions (91.6 points per game) and forced nearly 16 turnovers per game, forcing LeBron to shoulder a major workload when his teammates struggled to pick up after him.
Leonard took the main assignment—they alternated and switched on screens when they involved Green and Boris Diaw—but the rest of the team reacted accordingly to the situation as things developed. As Heat role players continued to miss shots and struggled to provide enough support, San Antonio dropped back to shrink the space available to James in the paint.
LeBron shot better than 57 percent from the floor and averaged nearly 29 points, but he had nearly as many turnovers (19) as assists (20) in the series. He’s a physical force of nature who, when he got to the rim or found room to shoot, consistently put the ball in the basket. But Leonard and the rest of the Spurs didn’t give him much of a chance to get there easily. By the end of the series, James looked exhausted while San Antonio seemed anything but tired.
The offense took care of its business, but the defense was the reason that not one of the final three games was actually close.
I’ll never forget the look on Ginobili’s face as he walked behind the curtain to the podium at AmericanAirlines Arena last summer after Game 7. There was a look of devastation, sadness, and even a hint of fear, as if his basketball life wasn’t just flashing before his eyes, but completely occupying his vision. That wasn’t Manu. The long-burning fire that fueled the Spurs engine to roar at a different, championship-caliber level for a decade looked broken, and if you didn’t know him, you might have sworn it was the end of the road for the Argentine.
But the awfulness of that moment eventually subsided, at least a little bit. San Antonio made it clear the organization was putting more stock in what it knew he was still capable of doing rather than what he had just done in a handful of games. Popovich and R.C. Buford knew how important he still was to their team, and they told him they needed him back without any semblance of hesitation.
Manu took a pay cut of nearly 50 percent, took a break from international play and hit the weight room harder than he ever has. The different sort of work did wonders for the 36-year-old, as his body maintained better health for an entire season than it has in quite some time. His efficiency levels spiked, he rediscovered his shooting stroke and cut back on the high-risk stuff without losing his identity.
Ginobili fell right back into his role as sixth man, but this time he had better weapons. He spearheaded the group of reserves that became known as the ‘Foreign Legion,’ a bench that would lead the NBA in scoring and cause nightmares for the opposition, reserves and starters alike. He once again became a sort of barometer for his team’s success, as his contributions were often what took the Spurs to new heights, just as it’s always been.
Ginobili was plus-83 during the Finals, by far the highest of any of the players involved; his performance, along with his eight international-born and five American-born teammates (Duncan included, I guess), exemplified how a title can be won without clear-cut star-power, but there was no doubting the significance of his individual impact.
And then there was that deciding moment, where Manu blew through the arms of Ray Allen like a tailback on his drive through the paint, something he had failed to do at the end of Game 6 the previous June, elevated and hammered the ball down through the cylinder on top of Bosh’s head. The AT&T Center exploded in a way only Ginobili can make it, and perhaps the franchise’s most popular player turned back down the floor, teeth clenched. Duncan grabbed the back of his teammate’s head, grinned, yelled and pushed it away down the court. He knew what that moment meant.
The look on Manu’s face, the reaction from the bench and the delirium of the crowd said it all. El Contusion was back from one of the longest years of his life, and the Spurs were champions again for the fourth time since his stateside arrival more than a decade ago. And this time, as we head into this offseason, there are zero doubts as to whether or not he’ll return to run it back once more.
Five odds and ends
- The Spurs outscored the Heat by a combined 70 points in the series, which is an NBA Finals record for point differential; they won their four games by an average of 18 points.
- Another thing: the Spurs became the first team in league history to win three straight Finals games by 15 points or more, and their series-clinching win gave them their 12th postseason win of 15 points or more this year, also an NBA record.
- Miami opened up an early 22-6 lead in Game 5 behind a torrid start from LeBron, but San Antonio went on a 69-31 run over the next 28 minutes to push the lead out to 22 points, the largest of the night.
- Duncan is the second player in league history to win a title in three different decades. So basically, he’s really old, and still really good.
- Kawhi became just the sixth player in league history to win a Finals MVP without having been named to the All-Star team in the same season.
As you know by now, the NBA stops for no man. The draft is next week, free agency begins soon thereafter and the Las Vegas Summer League kicks off in roughly three weeks. But first, we look at what’s next for the Spurs. Will Duncan opt into his player option? Will the Spurs find a way to re-sign Diaw and Patty Mills and bring the band back for an encore? Will Popovich go through an offseason without losing an important piece or two from his stable of coaches?
We’ll address these things next week in an extensive offseason primer. For now, continue to enjoy the moment, because soon enough we’ll be on to the next one.
Statistics courtesy of NBA.com