For the past two years, we’d grown accustomed to the idea that the Miami Heat could take its opponent’s best punch. The Heat had made a habit of falling behind in playoff series, only then to unleash a vicious counterattack from its star trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Not this time. Not even close.
The San Antonio Spurs clinched the NBA title Sunday night, knocking off the two-time defending champions in dominant fashion, 104-87, to win the best-of-seven series in a brisk five games and perhaps even put the future of the world’s best player in doubt.
For coach Gregg Popovich and his San Antonio club—now owners of the five of the league’s past 16 Larry O’Brien trophies—the victory represented a form of redemption. The Spurs lost the Finals in seven games to Miami last year, but had been mere seconds away from earning the title in Game 6. (So close, in fact, that NBA security officials began roping off the court to prepare for what figured to be a Spurs’ trophy presentation.) Then Miami’s Ray Allen, altering the course of history, hit a triple in the closing seconds to tie that unforgettable game, which helped the Heat force a Game 7 that it would go on to win.
The odds were stacked heavily against the Heat heading into Sunday night, since no team has ever come back to win an NBA Finals series after falling behind 3-1. But Miami threw its best punch of the series to start the game, jumping out to a huge 22-6 lead midway through the first quarter.
That advantage evaporated quickly though, as the Spurs embarked on an incredible stretch from the end of the first quarter until the middle of the third—an insurmountable 59-22 run that gave San Antonio its third straight blowout win of the series. (The best illustration of how dominant the Spurs were this postseason: Of their eight wins over the last two rounds of the playoffs, seven were by 15 points or more.)
San Antonio—which, with 22-year-old NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, is much more than just its aging trio of Tim Duncan (38 years old), Manu Ginóbili (36) and Tony Parker (32)—looks like it has plenty left in the tank to shoot for another championship next year.
On the other hand, Miami—with a pencil-thin roster around its star trio—looks like it will need reinforcements to mount more title runs. The challenge, of course, is that the talent behind the team’s four straight Finals trips—James, Bosh and Wade—can all opt to become free agents this summer, leaving both the players and the organization with big choices to make this off-season.
“They were the better team; there’s no other way to put it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. He characterized the Spurs’ effort over the course of the series as “exquisite basketball.” Spoelstra added that he wasn’t discouraged, citing the accomplishment of four consecutive Finals visits and the back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.
James, who said he hadn’t even begun to think yet about what he might do in the next two weeks concerning his potential opt-out, agreed with Spoelstra, saying that the Spurs played like more of a team than Miami did. Doing so tired out the Heat, which was in constant rotations on defense as a result.
San Antonio was bolstered by a pair of turn-back-the-clock performances. Ginobili had 19 points, including an enormous dunk over Bosh. And Duncan, who averaged 15.4 points and 10 rebounds in these Finals, shone throughout the series—particularly on Sunday, when he punished the Heat, who tried guarding him with Udonis Haslem. It was yet another impressive showing for perhaps the best power forward ever to play the sport, considering that he won his first title with San Antonio 15 years ago.
Leonard, asked whether he could recall Duncan’s first title—which came when Leonard was 7 years old—said he couldn’t. “I didn’t watch the Finals—I was out playing kid games,” said Leonard, the third-youngest Finals MVP.
Miami, which could be on the cusp of major change this off-season, highlights why the Spurs are seen as a special club. While San Antonio has bucked the leaguewide trend of roster overhauls, the Heat—facing questions about the health of Dwyane Wade’s knees and the amount of salary-cap space they’ll have—could send ripples throughout the rest of the NBA landscape depending on how they go about reloading for next season.
James, who would undoubtedly be the biggest free agent in a summer when Knicks star Carmelo Anthony is expected to opt out of his contract, declined to answer questions on his future.
But even if James sends shock waves through the league this summer by joining another team, or by luring another star to Miami, the Spurs—and their consistent brand of basketball—have shown yet again that they’re a quiet force to be reckoned with year in and year out.