Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on June 9, 2015. Tim Duncan will be inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the 2020 class.
SAN ANTONIO — “Summertime” arrived in the first quarter of Game 3 and nestled in for the duration of the 2014 NBA Finals.
It breezed in on a crisp pass from Tony Parker at the 11:44 mark to Boris Diaw, who deftly shuttled the ball to Tim Duncan for an easy lay-in. It lingered when, with 8:55 remaining, Kawhi Leonard, who had scored 18 points in the first two games combined, slashed to the hole for a driving layup, the paint wide open with the Miami Heat’s defenders stretched to contain the San Antonio Spurs’ perimeter assault, Leonard exploding left past a gimpy Dwyane Wade, sidestepping Chris Bosh and artfully switching to a right-handed scoop as he reached the rim. It settled in 48 seconds later, when Parker took a Duncan screen on the right wing, drawing the attention of the Heat’s defense, and, instead of launching a good look from 18 feet, flicked the ball back to an open Danny Green, who slid through the lane for a layup.
By midway through the first quarter, a quarter in which the Spurs would go on to make 13 of 15 shots, it was clear that what was happening was more than a passing front. It was something akin to climate change: The ball whipping around the perimeter from Parker to Diaw to Green to Leonard, who drilled an open 3-pointer from the corner; Green stripping Wade and glancing up to see Leonard already in motion, gliding up the floor as his teammate slung an exquisite pass right into his hands; the Spurs substituting players, the momentum continuing uninterrupted; a Green finger roll on a feed from Duncan, a Manu Ginobili pass-and-cut drive generated by the court vision of Patty Mills.
It was a symphony of cutting and dribbling and passing and scoring. San Antonio led 41-25 after the opening quarter. By halftime, the Spurs had erupted for 71 points on 75.8 percent shooting, a number their coach conceded afterward would be impossible to repeat. It was the finest shooting half in NBA Finals history, and the Spurs led the defending champion Heat by 21 points.
There have been a number of seminal moments in the NBA Finals, but they are usually framed by indelible individual images: Magic Johnson’s baby hook over the outstretched arms of Boston’s Hall of Fame front line. Michael Jordan’s freeze-frame jumper over Utah nemesis Bryon Russell.
Here, too, something extraordinary was unfolding, yet it was remarkable for the acts not of a player but a team, one that had melded together to create a lyrical, mesmerizing stretch of basketball that was astonishing in both its elegance and its efficiency — the opening burst of a three-game stretch of arguably the greatest basketball ever played.
As the Heat retreated to their locker room, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra urged them, “We don’t need the 10-point play. … Stay the course.”
“I had never seen a team that hot,” says former Heat veteran Shane Battier, “but we had all been around basketball long enough to know it would even out. They were going to regress to their averages — only they never did.”
The Heat might have not realized it at that moment, but payback had arrived: Its name was “Summertime.” And nothing — for the Spurs, the Heat or the NBA — would ever be the same.
IT WAS ONE year earlier, give or take a few days, that the Spurs had been on the cusp of locking up their fifth title in 15 seasons and cementing their legacy as the most enduring franchise in the NBA, the model of consistency and excellence. “I can remember 2013 like it was yesterday,” says Sixers coach Brett Brown, an assistant under Spurs coach Gregg Popovich at the time. “I’m thinking, ‘Can you believe this? We did it. We beat LeBron, Wade and Bosh on their home court for our fifth championship. There’s 28 seconds left and we’re up five and the ropes are coming out and I’m saying to myself, ‘This is the most amazing championship of them all.’
“And then, bam! The rug is pulled.”
With 19.4 seconds left and the Spurs up 95-92, Miami’s Mario Chalmers dribbled up the left sideline, marked by Parker. James set a high screen, forcing Leonard, the Spurs’ best defender, to switch onto Chalmers in the corner. Chalmers slung the ball back to James at the 3-point line, and, with 11.5 seconds left, James released a 26-foot rainbow jumper as Parker and Diaw charged toward him. The shot bounced high off the rim, but because Diaw chose to contest James’ shot, Bosh, who was left unblocked underneath, corralled the rebound and shuffled to his right. It was then that Bosh spotted one of the most potent weapons in NBA history, the very player and shot the Spurs feared:
Ray Allen, alone, in the corner.
It’s easy to forget today that Allen’s game-tying corner 3 — a shot the analytically inclined Spurs had identified years ago as the best in basketball — merely sent Game 6 into overtime. Even after the Heat won in the extra frame, a deciding Game 7 awaited.
Yet Allen’s shot — and the failure of the Spurs to close out the win — inflicted a wound that could not heal in time to salvage the series.
“I’ve thought about that play every day, without exception, four, five, six, 10 times a day,” Popovich said. “I always will.” When the Spurs were in the huddle before the final possession, they had identified that very look — the Ray Allen corner 3 — as the one to guard against at all costs. And as the stupefied San Antonio players shuffled off the AmericanAirlines Arena floor, Popovich gathered himself outside the Spurs’ locker room. He knew he had work to do.
“I’ve never seen our team so broken,” Parker says.
“That game killed me mentally,” Ginobili admits.
The coach instructed his players to dress quickly and meet him on the team bus. The Spurs had booked their favorite Miami haunt, Il Gabbiano Restaurant, in anticipation of celebrating their title-clinching championship win. In the wake of a crushing turn of events, Popovich had insisted on keeping their reservation at the waterfront eatery.
“Pop’s response was, ‘Family!'” Brown says. “‘Everybody to the restaurant. Straight there.’ We needed to regroup because everyone was dazed, wondering what the hell had just happened. Pop’s instinct was to bring us together. Avoid the distractions. Block out the noise. He told us, ‘Grab your wife, your child, your mother. We’re all going to dinner.’ And off to dinner we went.”
During the meal, the coach visited each table like the father of the bride at a wedding. Pop lingered at Ginobili’s side, murmuring encouragement; he spent a private moment with Duncan, who had stood on the sideline, helpless, watching the game unravel, having been pulled by Pop for defensive purposes; he bantered with family members to defuse the awkwardness and sadness of a night gone horribly wrong.
There were no impassioned speeches, no artful rallying cries. And two days later, when the Heat won Game 7, it left the Spurs to endure their most uncertain offseason in franchise history.
“It was so hard,” says Spurs general manager R.C. Buford. “Especially hard to see Pop like that. I don’t like talking about it.”
Popovich waited four days, then held a meeting with his Big Three — the trio that had earned three championships over the past 11 seasons. His questions to Duncan, Ginobili and Parker were direct: What are we doing? Are we moving on? Are we staying? Are we done?
None could say with certainty. So they agreed to meet again later in the summer, when the shock of what transpired had subsided. “I thought about retiring,” Popovich concedes. “Not so much because of the loss but because there are other things to do in life. I just wanted to sit for a while and see if the competitive spirit was still there.”
Pop embarked on his annual offseason trip with his lifelong friends — his elementary school pal, a buddy from junior high and another from his years at the Air Force Academy. Their sojourns varied from year to year; for this one their destination was the backroads of Montenegro. Their personal guide? Zarko Paspalj, the chain-smoking former Spurs forward Popovich had persuaded Larry Brown to sign as a free agent 26 years earlier and who’d lasted all of 28 games in the NBA. (Pop’s players are nothing if not loyal.)
When he returned home to San Antonio, he sipped a glass of his favorite Rock and Hammer pinot noir, relived the horrors of Game 6 and determined he wasn’t done.
“As the summer wore on, I got angrier and angrier,” Popovich says. “I wanted to pull the guys back together and appeal to