The 2014 San Antonio Spurs came into the season on a mission for redemption. They had come agonizingly close to winning the NBA championship in 2013—in fact as close as any team has come to winning the title without actually doing so. Most of their key players, especially Tim Duncan, were getting older. If this franchise was going to win a fifth title in the Duncan era, ’14 had to be the year. And it was.
Duncan was 37-years-old, but you would never know it from the way he performed. A 15 points/10 rebounds per-game average was just another vintage season for one of the greatest power forwards to ever play the game.
Tony Parker was 30-years-old and the point guard knocked down 17ppg while averaging six assists a night. Parker made 2nd-team All-NBA. Manu Ginobili, another one of the proud veterans of the three championships during the early ‘00s (Duncan’s first title came in 1999), came off the bench to chip in 12 points and four assists per game
The Spurs had gotten a needed injection of youth with Kawhi Leonard and the 24-year-old forward continued to come into his own. The per-game average of 13 points/6 rebounds was good enough. Even better was his play on the defensive end, as he made 2nd-team All-Defense.
Help up front came from Tiago Splitter, with six rebounds a night. Boris Diaw offered creativity in the passing game and scored nearly ten points a game.
What helped separate San Antonio from other teams was their tremendous depth and nowhere was that more evident than in the three-point shooters. Head coach Gregg Popovich rotated in everyone from Danny Green to Marco Belinelli to Patty Mills. They all shot 40 percent or higher from behind the arc and joined with Ginobili to give the Spurs tremendous ability to spread the floor.
San Antonio struggled in the early going against good teams. They lost in Portland, where the Trail Blazers were off to a hot start. On the night before Thanksgiving, the Spurs lost to Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder. San Antonio dropped a road game to the L.A. Clippers, who had Chris Paul in the backcourt and Blake Griffin up front.
The Spurs lost to James Harden and the Houston Rockets, along with the Indiana Pacers, who were the second-best team in the East. A Christmas Day showdown with the Thunder ended up as another loss, 113-100.
But the good news was that San Antonio was at least cleaning up on the teams they were expected to beat. They were 22-7 after the Christmas loss and only a game and a half back of OKC and Portland in the Western Conference standings.
Things started to pick up after Christmas, with nine wins in ten games, a run that included successive wins over eventual playoff teams in the Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks.
But the Spurs lost again to the Blazers and yet again to the Thunder. On January 6, San Antonio went back to the scene of the crime—Miami, where they had dropped crushers in Games 6 & 7 of the previous year’s Finals. LeBron James and the Heat handed the Spurs a 113-101 loss. Two days later, San Antonio lost again to Houston.
Consistency still had its value though—the Spurs took care of business against the lesser teams and there were a lot more of those. They were 33-13 by the end of January, still good for third in the West.
February was when the veterans really started to round into form. The Spurs beat the Clippers and the Blazers. And on February 26, they started a 19-game winning streak that included a 111-87 revenge rout of the Heat. San Antonio beat Portland two more times. The Spurs moved past the Blazers and then the Thunder and eventually led the West by as many as 3 ½ games.
With a final record of 62-20, they ended up with the best record in all of basketball. It was a remarkable tribute to the consistent effort in never letting down against anyone. Now it was time for the playoffs
The Dallas Mavericks had won an NBA title as recently as 2011, and their 49-33 record as the 8-seed demonstrated the vast superiority of the Western Conference over the East. Dallas was led by 35-year-old Dirk Nowitzki up front and explosive guard Monta Ellis in the backcourt.
San Antonio was able to turn Game 1 into a defensive affair. Leonard and Spitter combined for 21 rebounds and helped the Spurs control the glass. Duncan delivered 27 points/7 rebounds and the Spurs grabbed the opener 90-85. But in Game 2, they were sloppy and got blown out. Twenty-two turnovers led to a 113-92 loss. Homecourt advantage was now in the hands of the Mavericks as the series shifted to Dallas.
The tension grew higher in Game 3. A thrilling back-and-forth affair woke up the echoes the epic playoff series these two franchises played back in 2006. Duncan scored 22 points. On the down side, Ginobili struggled to 4-for-14 shooting from the floor. San Antonio dropped a 109-108 heartbreaker.
Now the pressure was on for a road Game 4 that was all but must-win. The Spurs brought their defensive effort and held the Mavericks to 38 percent shooting. A dominant second quarter was enough to give San Antonio a 93-89 lead and reclaim the homecourt edge.
Game 5 saw Splitter step out of his role player mode and become an unlikely hero. He scored 17 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and handed out five assists. With Parker going for 23 and Duncan adding a 16/12 line, the Spurs got a 109-103 win. They were one win from surviving this stiff first-round challenge.
After three quarters in Game 6, San Antonio had a five-point lead and the opportunity to close the series out. Parker scored 22 points. But with Ginobili having another off-night shooting, the lead slipped away. The Spurs suffered another tough road loss, this one 113-111. The entire dream of redemption was now down to one game.
San Antonio’s veterans met the moment. Parker sizzled, scoring 32 points on 11-for-19 from the floor. Ginobili stepped off the bench and knocked down 20, hitting five of his seven shots from the field. As a team the Spurs shot 57 percent. On the defensive end, they forced the Mavs into 40 percent shooting. Finally, a win came easy, by the final of 119-96.
Portland was up next. The Trail Blazers were a long way from their high point of the regular season’s first half and had slipped to the 5-seed by playoff time. Their decline was on full display in this series.
Parker went off for 33 points and nine assists in the opener. The Spurs led by 26 points at the half, shot 50 percent and held the Blazers to 38 percent. They won 116-92. In Game 2, the offense was more balanced—Kawhi’s 20 points led seven players who scored at least 12—but the final result was much the same. The Spurs were up 19 by intermission, outshot the Blazers 53%-43% and cruised home, 114-97.
The series shifted to the northwest, but the results didn’t change, at least in Game 3. Parker scored 29 and handed out six assists. Kawhi’s line was 16/10. The margin was plus-twenty at the half and with the Spurs making all 25 of their free throw attempts, the 118-103 win came easy.
Poor shooting from behind the arc finally cooled the Spurs off in Game 4, a 103-92 loss. But they went back to San Antonio and picked up where they left off. The backcourt role players stepped up, Green with 22 points and Mills with 18. Kawhi added 22 more and the 104-82 win sealed the series.
The showdown with Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals was up. If you wanted to be skeptical of San Antonio, you could point to three factors—the Spurs lost to the Thunder in this same round in 2012. The 2013 playoff run was made easier by Durant’s season-ending injury in the first round. And with Durant enjoying an MVP season this year, the Thunder had basically owned the Spurs head-to-head.
Durant was joined by Russell Westbrook in the backcourt and Serge Ibaka up front. OKC had won 59 games and, along with San Antonio and Miami, were considered among the league’s legitimate championship contenders.
Ibaka missed the first two games and the Spurs took full advantage. Duncan posted a 27/7 line and Parker passed for twelve assists in Game 1, an easy 122-105 win. Game 2 was even easier. With Green nailing seven treys, Parker scoring 22 and Duncan and Splitter combining for 22 rebounds, the Spurs rolled to a 112-77 win.
But San Antonio fans had seen this movie before—in those ’12 conference finals, the Spurs had also won the first two games and looked unstoppable. Then they never won again. Ibaka got back in the lineup for Game 3. And the series took a different turn. Even though Ginobili scored 23 points, the Spurs as a whole shot 40 percent and lost 106-97. They struggled to another 40 percent shooting performance in Game 4 and lost 105-92.
It was time for this proud team to stand up and stop the bleeding. They did just that back home in Game 5. Six players scored at least 14 points and the proudest vet of them all, Duncan, had a big 22/12 night. The Spurs dominated the boards and rolled to an easy 117-89 win.
San Antonio went back on the road for Game 6 and led by ten points after three quarters. It was the same margin they had led by against Miami in the sixth game of last year’s Finals. And this lead got away too, and ended up in overtime. But this time, the ending would be different. With Diaw stepping up with 26 points, the Spurs controlled the extra session and won 112-107.
They were back in the NBA Finals. LeBron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh were waiting for them. The Redemption Tour was at its decisive moment.
The heat was turned up in Game 1 and quite literally. It was exceptionally hot inside San Antonio’s AT&T center. The ball was slippery and the Spurs struggled with turnovers. But Miami had a bigger problem. LeBron couldn’t stay hydrated and cramped up so badly he had to go to the bench. San Antonio, after trailing by two to begin the fourth quarter, pulled away to a 110-95 win. Duncan, impervious to the conditions, posted a 21/10 line.
After a couple days of media haranguing over his cramps, LeBron stepped back up with a big 35-point night in Game 2. Duncan had another vintage game, an 18/15 line. Parker scored 21. But the rest of the Spurs did not shoot well, Bosh hit a huge shot down the stretch and San Antonio dropped a 98-96 decision.
Miami held homecourt advantage now in their bid for three consecutive titles. The question being asked was whether the Spurs could simply “steal one” on the road and reclaim homecourt. As it turned out, San Antonio did a lot more than that. They were about to define their legacy.
Kawhi had not played well in the first two games. That all changed in Game 3. Leonard hit 10 of 13 shots and scored 29 points. The Spurs positively sizzled from the floor and shot 60 percent. They grabbed the game by the throat early, forced the Heat into twenty turnovers and cruised to a 111-92 win.
With the nation expecting Miami to return volley on their home floor, San Antonio shocked everyone and did it again. This time, Kawhi went for 20 points and 14 boards. Duncan’s eleven rebounds further added to the decisive edge the Spurs enjoyed on the boards. They shot 57 percent for the game, were up 19 by halftime and won 107-86.
Back home for Game 5, the San Antonio crowd came ready to party. For a brief stretch in the early going, Miami looked ready to bounce back, taking a very early 15-point lead. But the lead was cut to seven by the end of the first quarter. The Spurs were up seven at halftime, thanks to a strong second quarter from Ginobili. And in the third quarter, San Antonio blew it wide open.
Mills nailed five treys. Kawhi put the finishing touches on his Finals MVP performance with 22/10. As a team, the Spurs hit 12-for-26 from behind the arc. The second half was the long party the fans had come for, ending as a 104-87 rout.
The long road to redemption had been completed and in utterly spectacular fashion over the last three games. When asked the meaning of the championship, Duncan replied succinctly “It means last year doesn’t have to hurt as much.” The San Antonio Spurs were five-time NBA champions in the Duncan era. Their already-established place in history had its finest hour.