Remember when the San Antonio Spurs faced off against LeBron James in the NBA Finals back in 2007? And in 2013? And again a year later in 2014?
Seeing LeBron James back in the NBA Finals helps regain some sense of normalcy with the San Antonio Spurs out of the playoff picture for the first time in my lifetime. It takes me back to the good old days when LeBron and the San Antonio Spurs faced off on the greatest stage, meeting each other with a delicate balance of respect and competitive fire. The two parties never underestimated each other and did everything in their power to dominate the other.
Back in 2007, the San Antonio Spurs gave a ripe, young LeBron James a dose of reality. Just a few years and three failed attempts at redemption later, LeBron realized what he had to do to fulfill his basketball destiny: Leave Cleveland. All the while, the San Antonio Spurs struggled to overcome the influx of talent flooding the Western Conference led by three consecutive Finals appearances by the Los Angeles Lakers.
The 2013 NBA Finals was home to one of the most memorable back-and-forth battles the basketball world has ever seen on that level. A year later, the two teams met once more with a completely transformed narrative. The pressure to overcome San Antonio may have been higher than it was in the previous year for one of the greatest basketball talents in history.
Now, LeBron finds himself back in the NBA Finals — This time as a representative of the Western Conference. A truly transcendent player, LeBron was profusely intertwined with the legacy of the San Antonio Spurs. Let’s take a look back at their three NBA Finals battles.
Next: 2007 NBA Finals
San Antonio Spurs sweep LeBron, Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007 NBA Finals.
In his first NBA Finals appearance, LeBron James was met with a San Antonio Spurs rotation that featured some of the game’s best defenders. Their savvy veteran rotation tempted LeBron into shooting from deep, effectively ruining his chances of winning at this stage of his young career. The young All-Star from Akron shot 35.6 percent from the field and 20 percent from deep in the four-game sweep.
The masterful game plan of head coach Gregg Popovich stymied any hope for the Cavaliers, whose roster wasn’t deep or talented enough to keep up. For as impactful as Tim Duncan was on both sides of the floor, this was a crucial series for Finals MVP Tony Parker, who cooked his matchup, Daniel Gibson, for 24.5 points, five rebounds and 3.3 assists per contest.
Likewise, Manu Ginobili torched the perimeter while shooting 43.5 percent from the 3-point line while leading his team in attempts from the range. San Antonio’s approach was balanced and distinguished: Play team-based offense on one side and make the other Cavs beat them. This was a pivotal moment in LeBron’s growth, setting him off on a quest to return to the NBA Finals.
LeBron dominated everything in his path through the regular season in the following year, averaging 30 points 7.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game.
Next: 2013 NBA Finals
San Antonio Spurs fail in seven-game series against LeBron’s ’13 Miami Heat.
We’re not going to talk about that thing that happened in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. It has nothing to do with LeBron, who was pivotal in turning things around for a Miami team facing a deficit late in the series. By this point in their respective careers, LeBron was the best player on the planet with only Kevin Durant questioning his place and a year earlier, LeBron took care of him in the NBA Finals.
However, this was a very different San Antonio Spurs team than the one LeBron had become accustomed to. An up-and-comer named Kawhi Leonard had arrived to bother him with an outstanding defensive repertoire. The fiery Spurs had transitioned to a new look that featured an all-new surrounding cast to complement the same old Big Three.
These San Antonio Spurs threw new issues at the LeBron-led Heat, making 40.7 percent of their 150 3-point attempts. Duncan spent a lot more time at the center position, directly opposing LeBron when he drove to the rack. Unfortunately for San Antonio, James was already a masterful passer by this point who racked up a series-high 49 assists.
San Antonio alternated wins with the Heat, taking a 3-2 lead through five games. When one team punched, the other punched back until that fateful Game 6 elimination match in which the Miami Heat stormed back against the odds. We’re not going to talk about the rest because it is and always will be a sensitive spot for Spurs fans.
If it makes you feel any better, I’m as emotionally scarred by that night as you are.
Next: 2014 NBA Finals
San Antonio Spurs get redemption against Miami and LeBron James in 2014.
In 2007, the Spurs taught LeBron not to let his guard down. In 2013, LeBron taught the San Antonio Spurs the same lesson. That’s why the 2014 San Antonio Spurs championship run is considered by many to be the best of the Spurs’ Dynasty and one of the top runs in basketball history. With a chip on their shoulder, San Antonio dominantly returned to glory.
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Though to be fair to LeBron, the narrative surrounding his defeat was overstated. James led the series in scoring by a wide margin. In the five games against the San Antonio Spurs, James averaged 28.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, four assists and two steals per game on 57.1 percent from the field and 51.9 percent from 3-point range.
Leonard was named the Finals MVP, but there’s a contingency of San Antonio Spurs fans that believe Boris Diaw or Tony Parker should’ve won the award. Leonard certainly got in James’ hair, but James still dominated the series. Unfortunately for him, the rest of his team was unable to make the impact that he needed from them. This marked the decline of his good friend and running mate, Dwyane Wade, who made an impact but no longer met the standards that LeBron needed.
Had the Spurs lost the series, the likelihood is that LeBron would’ve stayed in Miami. Leaving after a 3-peat seems nearly impossible — Especially against the team that kicked off his run of Finals appearances.
It’s not likely that the San Antonio Spurs and LeBron meet again in the NBA Finals, but at least we have the memories of these legendary battles.