June 15, 2016
SAN ANTONIO - The San Antonio Spurs are NBA champions yet again. A little more than a year after suffering a heartbreaking defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 7 of the first round of the NBA Playoffs, a reloaded and rejuvenated Spurs team won its sixth title. San Antonio's win comes after completing a convincing 4-1 series victory over a Boston Celtics team that saw the clock strike midnight on its Cinderella Story.
Spurs forward Tim Duncan became the oldest player to win a Finals MVP award. Duncan, who turned 40 in April, averaged 17.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.4 blocks per game. He also shot 59% from the field and had a double-double in each of the five games.
"It was great to get past that loss to LA last year," said Duncan, whose two free throws with under 10 seconds left iced the game 5 victory and got the confetti falling from the rafters of the AT&T Center. "We were able to retool in the off-season and really come back with a fresh focus."
The retooling consisted of adding free agent forward LaMarcus Aldridge from Portland. Aldridge signed a four-year deal worth over $80 million. Joining him at the top of the Spurs' payroll was forward Kawhi Leonard, who signed a max value five-year contract worth over $100 million. San Antonio also brought back veteran guard Danny Green and backup point guard Cory Joseph, both of whom played key roles in the Spurs' playoff run.
Much like they did in 2014, when the Spurs avenged a horrific loss to the Miami Heat in the 2013 Finals, the Spurs used the narrow defeat to Chris Paul and the Clippers as motivation all season long. The Spurs won 63 games, claimed another Southwest Division crown, and ultimately defeated the Clippers on their way back to the Finals.
Duncan teamed with Aldridge and Leonard to form this season's most fearsome front court, a versatile inside-outside unit that combined for over 30 rebounds per game and better than a +10 per game net rating during the regular season. Leonard, last year's Defensive Player of the Year, also led the league in steals for the second straight season. Despite guarding the opposing team's best player nearly every night, Leonard averaged over 20 points a game for the first time in his career and staked his claim as the team's best player going forward.
"It's incredible how well they play as a unit," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who is a few months younger than Duncan. "When you play against them, there's no apparent hierarchy, no egos. Whoever has the best shot gets the ball. Coach Pop is really a master at getting twelve guys to buy into the concept that the system takes the spotlight, not the individual. I'm absolutely not surprised they're back at the top again this year, just like they were the year I graduated from DePauw back in '99."
The 2015 offseason began with more questions that answers for the Spurs. Would Duncan and Argentine guard Manu Ginobili retire? (The answer for Duncan: no. For Ginobili: yes.) Would the team lock up its budding star Leonard? The forward, whose nickname "The Claw" inspired a unique salute from his teammates following his trademark strip-and-slam dunk defensive plays, had already won DPOY in 2015 and Finals MVP in 2014, but had struggled to assert himself in the latter half of the Clippers series last year. Could star guard Tony Parker play an entire season without the lingering injuries that hampered his 2014-15 campaign? Finally, could the team replenish its aging roster with the addition of a top free agent like Aldridge or Memphis' Marc Gasol?
Parker bounced back nicely, leading the team in assists and field goal percentage while averaging a career-low in turnovers. Leonard erased any lingering doubts by appearing in his first All-Star Game and making his first appearance on the All-NBA Second Team. He also left an indelible mark on each of the Spurs' Western Conference playoff opponents, putting the clamps on Houston's James Harden, the Clippers' Chris Paul, and Golden State's Steph Curry, last year's Finals MVP. In all, the Spurs went 16-5 en route to Title #6, scorching the Western Conference with beautiful ball movement, prodigious three point shooting, a lethal bench, and that suffocating defense.
But in the end, it was Duncan who stole the show, diving into the first row in TD Garden to save a loose ball in game 4, and dunking on Celtics center Kelly Olynyk on three straight possessions in game 5 while appearing to barely lift his feet off the floor.
"To do the things he does, for as long as he does is unthinkable," said Celtics forward Kevin Love, who was held by Leonard and the Spurs defense to just 18 points per game and 31% shooting from three point territory. "I hope I'm still able to play in pick up games when I'm 40, and (Duncan) is winning MVPs in the Finals? Unbelievable."
Duncan, who set a record for most playoff minutes during the 2015 postseason, finished his 19th campaign just a couple hundred shy of 10,000. He's also spent the past few years creeping up the lists of all-time statistical leaders. This past season, he passed Mark Eaton and former teammate David Robinson to move into 4th place all-time in career blocks. The future Hall-of-Famer responded to the news with a shrug.
It's obvious that what Duncan is most proud of are the six championships the Spurs organization has now won, a march spanning three different decades, two centuries, and soon-to-be four Presidential administrations, and a total number that ties Duncan with Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and leaves him behind only Bill Russell and certain other Celtics greats who dominated the 1960s, when the league was much smaller.
"It's humbling, honestly, to be mentioned in the same sentence as Bill Russell, Jordan, and those other guys," Duncan said with a smile. "But I need my teammates just like they did. David at first, then Tony and Manu all those years, and now Kawhi. And I guess I should put Pop somewhere in there, too. It's been a special ride."
"He'll probably outlast me at this point," said coach Gregg Popovich. "I'll be ninety years old and they'll be rolling me up in a wheelchair to see him play."
Despite all the success the franchise has brought to South Texas, last year's loss to the Clippers highlighted the Spurs' odd inability to repeat as champions, perhaps the one thing that the two-time regular season MVP and now four-time Finals MVP has yet to accomplish.
Said Duncan, smiling: "There's always next year."
With the Spurs, that's something you can always rely on.
(We now return you to your present location in spacetime.)