SAN ANTONIO — It was a season that the Spurs attacked like the world was their piñata, determined to keep hitting and hitting it, smacking and banging it until one day it would burst open.
When the prizes finally fell at their feet on Sunday night, it was relief and release and redemption.
“It makes last year OK,” said Tim Duncan.
He hugged his two kids. He wrapped Manu Ginobili up in a bear hug. He clamped a headlock on Kawhi Leonard. And he practically swallowed Gregg Popovich up in a grin that was as big as Texas.
Twelve months ago, there were the last 28 seconds of Game 6, Duncan’s own missed put-back in Game 7, followed by a year that probably seemed longer than a journey across purgatory on a lawn mower.
It drove them, but not to distraction. It pulled them along, but never pushed them over the edge. It, OK, spurred them with just enough sharp pain in their flanks to know they never wanted to feel that again.
“We wanted to redeem ourselves,” said Tony Parker.
It was a relentless, astonishing campaign of atonement through artistry, reshaping that ugly lump of lost opportunity into the basketball equivalent of Michelangelo’s David.
The Spurs won a league-best 62 games during the regular season and then sculpted a playoff drive that only got better as it went on and culminated with this jaw-dropping masterpiece against the two-time defending champion Heat.
In the process, the Spurs reintroduced the world to what it means to play the game at its purest form, the linear descendants of the 1960s Celtics and the 1970s Knicks, who share the ball and take away the breath of anyone who has ever loved the game.
Quite fitting that the culmination came on the opening weekend of the World Cup. So often called “the beautiful game,” futbol looks like a faded starlet with too much mascara when compared to these Spurs.
There are more passes in an average Spurs offensive possession than a singles bar on a weekend night, more cuts than a butcher counter, more bodies moving than in an earthquake. Their style of play practically comes with a musical score you can hear in your head.
They are the 38-year-old Duncan spinning in the paint to knock down turnaround jumpers, the 36-year-old Ginobili reaching into his past and rising up to throw down a thunderbolt dunk over Chris Bosh and the 32-year-old Parker conducting the symphony.
Now the Big Three have the 22-year-old company of Leonard as Finals MVP for a franchise that has stretched excellence over 15 years with five championships.
“Great coaches, persistence, drive and a love for the game,” said Duncan.
They wanted LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Bosh and the rest of the South Beach spectacle that are the Heat precisely because they were the ones who benefited from the Spurs’ mistakes a year ago and that loud backdrop would make the brushstrokes of the Spurs’ collaborative game practically leap off the canvas.
This wasn’t a mere beating of Miami. They couldn’t have pulverized the Heat more by using a mortar and pestle.
The Spurs were the black velvet jeweler’s cloth that shows off the flaws in a low-grade diamond. They shot the ball better than any team in Finals history against a team that prides itself in playing a disruptive, smothering defense. They won all four Finals games by 15 points or more and it was an NBA-record 12th time in their 16 playoff wins with such a margin.
After dominating the first quarters of the first four games of the series, the Spurs devilishly spotted the Heat a 16-point lead in the clincher and then stepped on their throats.
James battled valiantly with his 31 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots, but he might as well have been a lamb taking on a pack of wolves. By the middle of the third quarter, if his teammates were any deader there would have been guys in white coats standing around waiting to harvest organs.
The plight of the four-time MVP James trying to carry the entire Heat cause on his shoulders was in direct contrast to the Spurs roster that is deeper than a philosophy class at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.
They had Boris Diaw doing sleight-of-hand passing, rebounding and taking his turns playing defense on James. They had Tiago Splitter mixing it up under the basket and doing throwback Larry Bird impersonations with touch passes in the lane. They had Patty Mills from halfway around the world, the first Indigenous Australian to reach The Finals, slinging in killshot 3-pointers. They had the flinty Popovich to keep them looking ahead even while feeling the sting of the past like lashes on their backs.
With the exceptions of Marco Belinelli and Jeff Ayres, they were all there a year ago in Miami when the dagger went in and the blood of remorse first rose up their throats and gave them a hint of what rejuvenation, reinvention, redemption might taste like.
“Last year was a tough one for all of us,” said Ginobili. “We felt like we had the trophy, that we were touching it, and it slipped away. It was a tough summer. We all felt guilty.
“Last year made us stronger.”
Now the game is better for that.