AT&T CENTER – After losing Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals to the Miami Heat last year, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich had these simple words for his team that night in Miami.
“I just told them I loved them,” said Popovich that evening.
In what was a historic NBA Finals last year, where the Spurs were 28.5 seconds from dethroning the Heat, and winning their fifth NBA Championship, a corner 3-pointer from Ray Allen would change the series, and fate for San Antonio.
Fast forward to Sunday, in 2014, there were the Spurs, with a 3-1 series lead in their hand, and 6:30 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, leading the Heat by 18 points. On this night, against this Spurs team, there wasn’t anything an Allen 3-pointer, a Chris Bosh rebound, or LeBron James 3-pointer was going to do to stop the inevitable – a 5th franchise championship for San Antonio.
The Heat gave their best effort in the first 12 minutes of game five, building their lead to 16 points at one time, and James finishing with 17 points in the first quarter. But as he has done from Game 3 on, Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard would match the output of James, with an aggressive focused play on both sides of the ball.
By the time that 6:30 minute mark in the fourth quarter came, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra had pulled James from the game. He would pull James’ “Big 3” teammates Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade shortly after, with three minutes left in the game.
As they had done all series, and frankly all year, the Spurs once again earned the win from not just one member, but with a whole team effort. Where Tony Parker (16 points) couldn’t get going until the fourth quarter, Patty Mills came off the bench with 17 points. Having two days of rest seemed to have benefited Manu Ginobili, as he finished with 19 points off the bench. Tim Duncan also provided a stable 14 points and eight rebounds.
“Sometimes I felt like saying, wow, this is sweet” said Ginobili of winning as a team. “It was really fun to play like this. It was really fun to watch when I was on the bench. I think we played a really high level. We shared the ball maybe as never before. Seeing how involved and how important everybody that was part of that team felt made it even more special.”
As James would finish with 31 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists in 41 minutes, Leonard would be the one to go toe-to-toe with James, as Leonard finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds, one steal, and one block in 34 minutes.
Heading into Game 5, there was not a clear cut Finals MVP had the Spurs won, but Leonard made himself the leading candidate with his Game 5 performance.
“He listens and he’s a great learner and super competitive, has a drive to be the best that’s really uncommon in our league,” said Popovich of Leonard after the game. “He walks the walk. I mean, he is there early; he’s there late. He wants more. He wants me and the coaches to push him.”
“It just feels like a dream to me,” said Leonard after the game, of knowing that he’s never finished any worse than the conference Finals in his first three NBA seasons, and also winning the 2014 Finals MVP.
“He’s been unbelievable,” said Duncan of Leonard after the game. “I’m honored to be on this team right now because he’s going to be great for years to come, and I’m going to hold on as long as I can.”
“Last year was a tough one for all of us,” finished Ginobili. “We felt like we had the trophy, that we were touching it, and it slipped away.”
Tonight rest assured, the Spurs now own the trophy, and even though it took nearly over a year later, they finally dethroned the Heat.