The Spurs entered the 2013-14 season licking their wounds after perhaps the biggest collapse in NBA history, in which they squandered a last-minute lead to the Heat in Game 6 of The Finals before dropping Game 7 in another heartbreaker.
Rather than coddle his players, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich challenged them on the first day of training camp with a painful, in-depth video review of that Game 6 catastrophe. It was less about Xs and Os than throwing down the gauntlet for the marathon ahead.
“As the summer wore on,” Popovich explained to ESPN, “I got angrier and angrier. I wanted to pull the guys back together ... and challenge them. I wanted to ask them, ‘When you are kicked in the gut, how will you respond?’ ”
In epic fashion.
The Spurs didn’t just bounce back, they enjoyed arguably their most satisfying season. They rode one of the most balanced rosters in NBA history -- nine players averaged at least eight points and 19 minutes per game -- to a league-high 62 wins, tied for second-most in team annals at that point. They looked great doing it, too, playing a gorgeous, free-flowing style that couldn’t have been much different from the stodgy defensive juggernauts that won their first four championships.
The first round of the playoffs brought an unexpected challenge from the Dallas Mavericks, who pushed the Spurs to seven games. They topped the Portland Trail Blazers in five games in the Western Conference semifinals. In the West finals, Oklahoma City Thunder knotted the series 2-2 before the Spurs advanced with consecutive victories to earn a rematch with LeBron James and the Heat. It was no contest.
Led by an MVP performance from budding young superstar Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs demolished their opponent 4-1 with 19-, 21- and 17-point victories over the last three games.
It wasn’t enough to completely erase the agony of 2013. But that only made the ensuing triumph that much sweeter.
“It was a tough summer. We all felt guilty,” said veteran star Manu Ginobili, who missed a clutch free throw to help facilitate Miami’s Game 6 miracle in 2013. “But we work hard. We fought every game in the regular season trying to get better to have the same opportunity again. We got to this spot, and we didn’t let it go.”