The San Antonio Spurs were on a mission last season.
"We're happy to be back here this year," Spurs big man Tim Duncan told reporters after clinching an appearance in the 2014 NBA Finals. "We're happy to have another opportunity at it. We're happy that it's the Heat again. We'll be ready for them. We've got some experience, obviously, from last year against them. And we'll go back and look at some film. ... We've got that bad taste in our mouths still."
Duncan further stated, via Michael Lee of The Washington Post:
We just had a weird year this year. We were pressing hard early on and grinding on each other, just because of what happened last year. We were able to settle ourselves down. I’m proud of the team for just being ready, just not letting that weigh on us and using it as an excuse for anything. We’re back here now, and we want to get it done this time.
The comments were a rare glimpse into Duncan's raw emotion.
As Lee observed, "Duncan has been notoriously bland to media for most of his 17-year career, choosing to bury his personality with thoughtful but intentionally boring quotes that help him avoid unwanted attention."
In a game that's as psychological as it is tactical, San Antonio's battle-tested troops faced a difficult return to form.
There was a very real risk that the club would emerge from the ashes as a demoralized shell of its former self. Instead, a diligent march through the Western Conference—after a season in which San Antonio claimed the league's best record—proved the Spurs either had short memories or they simply understood how to make the most of their trauma.
At the time, head coach Gregg Popovich explained:
I think our guys, they actually grew from the loss last year. I call it fortitude. I think they showed an unbelievable amount of fortitude. If I can compliment my own team humbly, to have that tough loss, especially the Game 6, and not have a pity party, and come back this year and get back to the same position, I think that's fortitude…I'm really proud of them, and even happier for them.
While it took fortitude to overcome a historically disappointing collapse in the 2013 Finals, that collapse wasn't without a silver lining. There's little doubt it went on to fuel San Antonio's championship pursuit a season later, offering no shortage of determined motivation along the way.
The Spurs had a five-point lead with 28 seconds remaining in Game 6 of the Finals in 2013.
Thanks to some shoddy rebounding and Ray Allen's three-point heroics, that lead evaporated. In turn, the Spurs went on to lose Game 6 in overtime—and then Game 7 as well. That reversal of fortune wasn't easily forgotten.
"At some point during the day, it goes through my head," Popovich explained to Sam Amick of USA Today in January. "I've said it a lot of times. My hope is that over time I'll think about it every two days, and then every week and then every month and then that kind of thing."
By now, 2013's catastrophic implosion should be a distant memory for Popovich and his now-vindicated roster.
On the brink of the 2014 rematch, NBCSports.com's Brett Pollakoff noted, "The Finals loss was as painful as they come for the Spurs, and they’ve overcome that disappointment admirably by methodically marching back to this point to have a rare shot at redemption."
And now the franchise has an equally rare shot at winning back-to-back titles, something it's never done despite five championships during the Duncan era.
Though the opportunity will almost certainly preserve some measure of fire and fortitude, the reality remains that the 2014-15 Spurs will have a radically different mindset than the one that kept them going a season ago.
Now they're victors, world champions. Duncan has five rings to his name, and the organization is almost certainly beginning to at least think about its next chapter, the one in which younger pieces like Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard take the torch.
Indeed, there's a temptation to view the entirety of next season as something of a victory parade, perhaps one last go-round in Duncan's iconic career.
In times as happy as these, it's a bit hard to imagine the Spurs playing like men possessed once again. The bitterness is gone, and the otherworldly focus may go with it.
On paper, of course, this team is virtually identical to the one that swiftly schooled the Heat in a lopsided five-game series last season.
Free agents Boris Diaw and Patty Mills will both return (though the latter will miss several months with a shoulder injury). Duncan put off retirement for at least another season. Point guard Tony Parker even inked an extension, though he would have been under contract this season anyway. Popovich also agreed to a multiyear extension, likely ensuring he coaches even beyond Duncan's eventual retirement.
Were trips to the Finals merely about talent and coaching, the Spurs would seem like locks to repeat.
But the reality of title success is more complicated. Beyond the luck, rhythm and chemistry that have to converge at the right time, winning ventures require inspiration. It can be the difference between the killer instinct San Antonio displayed in 2014 and the apparent lack of focus that doomed its effort a year prior.
What will inspire these Spurs? Could they suffer the same kind of complacency that seemingly infected Miami as it enjoyed its fourth straight trip to the Finals?
San Antonio's roster has long been admired for its even-keeled, business-like approach. With Duncan leading the way, the Spurs never get too high, and they never get too low.
But that seemed to change ever so slightly last season. After a tightly contested first-round series against the frisky Dallas Mavericks served as a wake-up call, the Spurs demonstrated renewed intensity for the remainder of the postseason.
And it's that intensity that could be missing going forward.
The good news is that Popovich is a master of the game's mental component. He has his finger on the team's pulse and knows what buttons to push. That may not be a substitute for the last season's quest for sweet revenge, but it should keep this team in the title mix.
From there, the Spurs may have to start thinking about things like legacy, about the detractors who argue no dynasty is complete without back-to-back titles. They may have to manufacture the kind of narrative that came so naturally a season ago.
The Heat may no longer stir this team at a primal emotive level, but LeBron James still lurks in the Eastern Conference, looking to establish a new dynasty of his own.
Perhaps an opportunity to again thwart the familiar foe's ambitions will be all the motivation San Antonio needs.
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