Forget the hate, embrace the great — Spurs just too good for Heat

It’s easy to look at the Miami Heat and their embarrassment of an NBA Finals and use it as an excuse to throttle the league’s most hateable team. Throwing Miami under the bus is easy, after all, and often it’s justified.

But maybe rather than lambasting the Heat in the wake of their 104-87 loss Sunday night — a defeat that sealed a thorough 4-1 beating at the hands of the Spurs — the better course of action is to give proper credit to a San Antonio team that has been as close to perfect as a team could be for the majority of these playoffs.

To be clear, Miami’s output in these Finals was at times pathetic, and none of the Heat’s four losses, which came by margins of 15, 19, 21 and 17 points, respectively, were even competitive down the stretch. After winning the last two championships, including one over this very Spurs team last season, one would certainly expect better of the Heat — or at least to see their starters not need to be pulled midway through the fourth quarter — and could hardly be blamed for having anticipated a more complete effort.

When all was said and done, though, the Spurs were just a special team this season, which could be their last as one of the NBA’s elite. And on this stage with the overflowing surplus of motivation San Antonio had coming in, there was no amount of correcting the Heat could have done to make this the series they expected it would be.

CHEERS & TEARS — LEBRON'S NBA FINALS FACES THROUGH THE YEARS

For the better part of two decades now, the Spurs, starting with franchise cornerstones Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, have earned universal respect from everyone in and around basketball, but somehow they’ve failed to earn the type of esteem afforded to other past dynasties — from the Bill Russell Celtics to the ’90s Bulls to the Lakers of the ’80s or early 2000s.

Maybe this championship, the fifth of the Duncan / Popovich Era, still doesn’t put the Spurs in that class, and certainly there’s something to be said for San Antonio not having won consecutive championships at any point in that stretch. But after watching San Antonio meticulously dismantle the East’s best team, led by the league’s best player, the argument against these Spurs as one of the greatest teams ever gets significantly more difficult to make.

SUNDAY’S RECAP

SPURS 104, HEAT 87

Series: Spurs win 4-1

Takeaway: Unlike some of the previous meetings in this series, Game 5 wasn’t a Spurs runaway from the outset, as the Heat played with an early fire not seen in losses in Games 1, 3 and 4 — but Miami didn’t stay competitive for long.

Early in the first quarter, LeBron James played like a man possessed, logging 12 points in the first six minutes, leading the Heat to a 16-point lead with five minutes to play in the frame. But within just 2:07 of falling behind by a score of 22-6, San Antonio had whittled the gap down to just four points, and from the time the Spurs took their first lead at 37-35, there was an ominous cloud hanging over the Heat and a real sense that the game, close as it was, was over.

Miami kept the game competitive for a time, but simply didn’t have enough answers for all of the Spurs’ weapons, as Patty Mills of all players dominated the middle two quarters of the game. Heading into the third, the Spurs led by just seven points, but in their final chance to swipe another victory in San Antonio to send the series back to Miami for a crucial Game 6, the Heat fizzled, a 15-2 third-quarter Spurs run effectively ending their season.

And so it felt appropriate, if disappointing to the average fan, that the NBA season ended with a San Antonio lineup of Matt Bonner, Marco Belinelli, Jeff Ayres, Cory Joseph and Aron Baynes on the floor. Certainly it would have been more exciting to see a drama-filled Finals that met the expectations established by last year’s seven-game classic, but ultimately, this was a title-clinching win that Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili deserved to enjoy from the sideline alongside the coach who was so instrumental in guiding them there.

Star Review: Just as they have all season and all playoffs long, the Spurs got help from everyone on Sunday.

Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard led the team with 22 points and a dogged defensive effort on yet another night that justified Popovich’s assertion that Leonard is the future of the Spurs franchise. But his effort was also propped up by Mills, another unsung hero who added 17 points and hit five of his eight shots from 3-point range.

Naturally, the contributions were there from the ever-steady Duncan, who chipped in his customary 14 points and eight rebounds, and Ginobili, who helped key the Spurs’ big run with 13 of his 19 points coming in the second and third quarters. Parker also overcame a horrid 0-for-10 start with a 14-point fourth quarter that helped put the Heat away for good.

On the other side, the problem was the same that it has been all series — that LeBron simply wasn’t getting enough help from the rest of his team for the Heat to ever really have a chance. After James scored 17 points in the first quarter, the entire rest of his team combined for just 19 points in the second and third combined (with James adding another 10 to his total in that span).

Outside of LeBron, the rest of the Heat starting lineup combined to shoot 12 of 36 from the field (James was 10 of 21) and by the time Mario Chalmers became Miami’s first reserve to make a field goal with 4:09 left in the third, the Heat had already seen a 21-point deficit and, at that point, had seemingly resigned themselves to a loss.

What To Look For: Questions are abound for both of these teams now that the 2013-14 season is behind them, an uncommon occurrence, perhaps, for the two best teams in the league.

For San Antonio, the question, as is seemingly always the case, is whether this kind of play could possibly be tenable and who might be a part of it if it is. There is always a thought that the current season could be the last for Duncan, Popovich or both, and while the future plans for both men has yet to be solidified beyond the thought that they’ll both ride off into the sunset together, there’s a thought that this could be their last hurrah — a departure that would dramatically change the landscape of the entire Spurs franchise.

SHOCKING DECISIONS

If they do decide to press on though (and the assumption seems to be that they will), it’s still hardly a guarantee that a championship repeat is in the cards. Despite the fact that the Spurs have been among the league’s elite for nearly 20 years now, it always seems to be a surprise when they’re as good as they are, and next year, regardless of how much of their familiar core is in place, that will undoubtedly be the case once again.

As for Miami, all eyes will again be on James, who has the perfect excuse to bolt South Beach if he sees the Heat as a sinking ship. He, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade all have early termination options that could be exercised, and while they’ve all been noncommittal — and fairly so — with regard to their respective futures, the possibility of any or all of them getting off the ride will loom until those questions are answered.

In any case, however, the Heat will have some shortcomings to address and gaps to fill. The point guard position was a point of contention for Miami all Finals long (Ray Allen even getting the start in Game 5), and the lack of a true big man was exploited regularly, as well. And after watching the Heat stumble their way through the finals like a baby lamb taking its first step, it’s clear that they’re not a given to repeat in the East, even if the Big 3 do all return.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.