“I was in awe of those guys. I wondered who they were. Who was their coach? Where did they come from? We haven’t played three games in a row like that ever,” Popovich said recently. “Ever!”
The performance wasn’t just unusual for the Spurs because no Finals team in NBA history had been more dominant. San Antonio won the final three games of its five-game series win by a combined 57 points and dismantled the two-time defending champion in such resounding fashion it pushed LeBron James to leave the Miami Heat, go home and assemble a new Eastern Conference threat in Cleveland. And, as the Spurs raise a banner, receive their rings and begin their fifth championship defense on Tuesday against the Dallas Mavericks, Popovich can’t help but wonder what comes next.
“It does beg the question, how can you do that again? Or how can you pick up where you left off? Well, the only answer is you start at the beginning again,” he said. “But I’ve appreciated it more and more as time went on after it. And it’s going to be a great memory for all of us. No matter if we’re 0-82 this year. Still be a great memory.”
The Spurs never hid how the disappointment of their 2013 Finals loss to Miami fueled their run to the title. Each backdoor cut for a layup, each four- or five-pass possession that ended in a demoralizing three-pointer and each floater in the lane was almost like a ritualistic cleansing exercise. Then, finally, in the bonfire celebration otherwise known as Game 5, Manu Ginobili turned the last twig of that devastating loss to ash with an unexpected driving dunk over Chris Bosh that he has admittedly watched “a million times.”
“It was very, very special. For us, it was like a movie,” Ginobili said of his fourth title with the franchise. “We were very hurt [after the 2013 finals]. It kill us. We touched the trophy and a couple of things happen, like crazy basketball game and we lost it. When you’re 35, 36, you think you might not have the opportunity. You’re always optimistic but realistically, it’s very hard to get there. So we were very hard on us. We had terrible meetings and dinners, so to have the opportunity to go against the same opponent, basically the same situation, we didn’t take anything for granted and ended up with a trophy. It was amazing. An amazing redemption.”
With redemption no longer the primary motivator, the Spurs are now driven by another r-word that has eluded Tim Duncan throughout his career: repeat. The season after a title has always been followed by some misfortune. Duncan injured his knee in 2000. Derek Fisher hit his ridiculous fallaway with 0.4 seconds remaining in 2004. Ginobili inexplicably fouled Dirk Nowitzki in 2006. And Kobe Bryant went ballistic in 2008.
“The times we didn’t win is not because we didn’t have it. Things happen,” Ginobili said. “Most of the years, we were in a great situation. It’s just only one team can end up winning. It’s not like we’re the Bulls in ’93. We aren’t the best by far. We’ve got to fight it. We’ve got to work hard. Things have to go our way.”
Duncan contemplated leaving on top, like his predecessor David Robinson, but decided to pick up the final year of a contract worth $10.3 million. Popovich fretted whether Duncan would leave but Ginobili said he always thought the foundation of the most consistently good franchise in sports would come back because “the guy loves to play, he competes, he loves doing what he does.”
The Spurs also brought back free agents Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Matt Bonner and Aron Baynes and will have 14 of the 15 players from their title team, swapping Damion James for first-round draft pick Kyle Anderson. In an era in which players change teams with regularity, the Spurs have been the model of consistency and continuity – especially with Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker spending their entire careers together – but bringing back the same team wasn’t necessarily the plan.
“There’s no secret that in the free agent market, we went after some other players,” Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford said without mentioning one of their big-name targets in Pau Gasol. “If we had gotten those, maybe that would’ve been different. In relation to that, the group being back together is a new team and what happened last year, won’t make them play any better if they don’t approach it with a professionalism that they did in years past.”
But the fate of the team rests largely on the progression of Kawhi Leonard, the player Popovich has already declared, “the future.” Leonard became the youngest Finals most valuable player since Magic Johnson in 1982 after spearheading that three-game romp by averaging 23.7 points on 68.6 percent shooting with 9.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. He will miss the start of the season recovering from an eye infection but declined an invitation to USA Basketball and the other spoils of his newfound fame to improve his game.
Spurs assistant Chip Engelland helped modify Leonard’s jump shot after the team acquired him from Indiana at the 2011 NBA draft and he has become a respectable threat from three-point range, connecting on 41.9 percent of his long distance shots last postseason. But now that Leonard has developed into the athletic perimeter defender with range – a 3-and-D wing – San Antonio had long desired, the Spurs wanted the 23-year-old swingman to develop a low post game. They gave him film of Michael Jordan to study his footwork and fundamentals. When he showed up for training camp, Leonard was already mimicking Jordan’s foot pivots and pump fakes and hitting fallaway jumpers.
“He just absorbs things. You show him. He goes and does it,” Popovich said of Leonard. “People say, what are you going to do with him this year? Are you guys going to call his number more? Are you going to do this, do that? It’s not about that. We’ve already talked to him. It’s about doing what you did in the Finals on a consistent basis. Because then, in time, you’re a Magic, you’re a Larry, you a Michael, you’re a Timmy, you’re a Manu, those guys. Kevin Durant, Nowitzki, whoever it is. They do it night after night after night. That’s a helluva responsibility. And most guys can’t handle that. Kawhi, that’s what we’re going to see, if you can handle it. You don’t do it once every three, four games. That’s the deal. And I think he wants to be great. So we’ll see how it goes.”
Popovich said the Spurs will again “be in the mix” to win another title but still considers Oklahoma City the “best team in the West.” In addition to that Finals series, Popovich has also watched the six-game win over the Thunder in the Western Conference finals and still doesn’t know how his team prevailed in overtime with Parker injured for the entire second half of Game 6. That win merely set the stage for a moment that stands as the highlight of his time in the NBA.
“It was the most enjoyable experience of my coaching career, to watch them have that kind of success after such a debilitating loss in the Finals the year before. And the fact that they did what they did, is just an amazing tribute to their fortitude,” Popovich said. “We’re going to talk to them about the measure of who they are is how they can sustain that. And what we’ll do is, every time we lose two or three in a row; opening night, when we lose by 30 to Dallas when we get our rings, I’ll be right on top of them. You’ve got to start all over, nobody cares.”