A team that has been written off plenty of times since then showed Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena it still has a championship pedigree.
It doesn’t matter that 30-something San Antonio stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are six years older than when the Spurs beat LeBron James’ Cleveland gang in 2007 for their most recent of four NBA titles. They didn’t look a lot different when they defeated James’ Miami outfit 92-88 in Game 1 of these Finals.
The Spurs took over in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Heat 23-15. They appeared fresh after having nine days off following a West finals sweep of Memphis, while the Heat looked weary after needing a seventh game to finish off Indiana on Monday in the East finals.
Old hands Parker and Duncan led the way to the stunning win. Parker scored 21 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter. Duncan had 20 points and 14 rebounds.
“We’re here to win. It doesn’t matter how we’re categorized,’’ said Duncan, whose Spurs have been buried several times over the previous half-dozen years, including twice when they lost in the first round of the playoffs. “It’s been a lot of years since we’ve been here. … Old, veterans, whatever you want to call us. We’re in the mix right now.’’
Duncan, 37, sure looked old when he began the game shooting 0 of 5 and went to the bench with his second foul late in the first quarter. But he bounced back strong and hit two foul shots with 1:08 left in the game for a 90-86 lead.
Soon, it was Parker’s turn to make the game’s biggest shot. With 5.2 seconds remaining, he stumbled around before banking in a 16-footer from the right side that barely beat the shot-clock buzzer and accounted for the final margin.
Meanwhile, all James could do was look on in frustration. James had a triple-double of 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists but was outscored 10-6 by Parker in the final quarter. True, James only gave up one basket when he guarded Parker for the final 3½ minutes, but it was a biggie.
“It felt like forever,’’ Parker said. “It was a crazy play. I thought I lost the ball three or four times. … At the end, I was just trying to get a shot up.’’
Parker beat the shot-clock buzzer by a picosecond. The officials reviewed the play and the call on the floor stood.
“It was tough,’’ James said. “He stumbled two or three times, he fell over. … He got up and went under my arm. … That was the longest 24 seconds that I’ve ever been a part of.’’
James had talked at length before the series about how he now has a much better team than the 2007 Cavaliers, who were swept 4-0 in the Finals. But his new team ran Thursday into what sure looked like the same old Spurs, a championship-tested unit.
“The Spurs are the Spurs,’’ said James, who shot just 7 of 16 against their tough defense. “They’re going to put you in positions where you feel uncomfortable offensively and defensively. And every time you make a mistake, they’re going to capitalize on it.’’
Fatigue played in a role in the Spurs taking over down the stretch. Trailing 76-73, they outscored weary Miami 15-5 to take an 88-81 lead.
The Heat twice got within two points. But they never had the ball again with even a chance to tie.
“Obviously, I thought we were a little fatigued in the fourth quarter,’’ guard Dwyane Wade said. “We looked like a team that came off a seven-game series.’’
Wade looked especially tired at the end, going scoreless in the fourth quarter to finish with 17. James sat out the first three minutes of the fourth after he told coach Erik Spoelstra he needed a breather.
The Heat became the first team to lose a Game 1 of the Finals at home since the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004. The Lakers, like the Heat are now, were solid favorites. But they ended up losing 4-1 to the Pistons.
Heat players talked after the game about needing to fight back from adversity the way they have done a number of times in winning the championship last year and during this postseason. But the Spurs are much different than any team Miami has seen recently.
The Heat began the playoffs by sweeping Milwaukee, which had a losing record, and beating very injured Chicago 4-1. And even though the Pacers were pesky, they’re still young.
“There’s no room for error,’’ said Miami center Chris Bosh, who continued to make strides after a disastrous first six games against Indiana, getting 13 points, five rebounds and three steals Thursday. “Against Indiana, the room for error was a little bit bigger. They didn’t stretch the floor like these guys do. They don’t move the ball like these guys do.’’
And the Pacers don’t have four Larry O’Brien Trophies on display. Even if those hoistings came way back in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007, the Spurs still have Duncan around from all those teams and Ginobili, 35 and Parker, 31, remain from the past three.
San Antonio has added some quality young pieces in recent years, including second-year man Kawhi Leonard, who did a solid defensive job on James. But the core of the team remains its version of the Big Three.
“We just try to stay focused and keep believing in what we do,’’ Parker said. “And I think it starts with (owner) Peter Holt sticking with the Big Three and Coach (Gregg Popovich) believed in us and just trying to improve the role players and the guys around us.’’
It was enough for San Antonio to go 58-24 during the regular season and get back to the Finals for the first time since 2007. If you bought Spurs stock when it dipped during their recession, it soon really could be soaring.