A former Arizona State basketball standout is celebrating his first NBA championship after the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Miami Heat in five games, including a comfortable 104-87 victory Sunday.
Jeff Ayres got to play in each of the last three NBA Finals contests for the Spurs, and he made good on his lone shot attempt in Game 5, a 20-foot jumper from the left side that will go down as San Antonio’s final bucket of the 2013-14 season.
The 6-foot-9 power forward/center joined the Burns & Gambo show Monday on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM to talk about what it was like to win the big one, including getting to hold the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.
“Once we got down off the stage and went back to the locker room, I don’t know how somehow it ended back up in my hands again,” Ayres said, “and I had that thing wrapped up so tight, Tony (Parker) was like, ‘Jeff, don’t lose that thing. Jeff, don’t let anybody take it from you, man. Don’t drop it.’
“I was like, ‘Man, you’re going to have to kill me for this thing. Ain’t nobody getting it.'”
When asked at what point in the game he started to feel like the Spurs had the win — and the championship — in the bag, the former Sun Devil said it wasn’t until coach Gregg Popovich told him to enter the game, which was with 2:12 left and San Antonio leading by 18.
Ayres, 27, explained why he thought the Heat still had a chance up until that point.
“Because you never know. We didn’t want to jinx anything,” he said. “Things can change like that. As long as they have the best player in the world on their team, it ain’t over till it’s over. Once (Popovich) sent me in, then I felt pretty good.”
Ayres (fka Pendergraph) was a member of the Indiana Pacers last year, which were knocked out by the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals on the way to the team’s second championship in a row.
The Spurs easily proved to be the superior squad this year, although Miami, led by four-time MVP LeBron James, was the winner of last year’s NBA Finals — between the same two clubs — in seven games.
San Antonio’s four wins in this year’s matchup all came by 15 points or more.
“Whenever you come into the Finals, you wouldn’t expect any game to be like that; you would’ve expected every game to be a nail-bitter — to be like a 12-round heavyweight fight,” Ayres said. “To have it go the way it did was definitely a surprise. But we had a game plan, and Coach wanted us to execute it to the T, and we did. As good as they are, eventually you could just see it was just so hard for them to keep up.”
The first-year Spur also gave some insight into what it’s like to play for Popovich, who is notoriously hard to read if you watch him interact with reporters.
“He’s a great guy. You can always talk to him,” Ayres said. “He’s always got something to say about what’s going on in the world. It’s not just basketball with him. He’ll pop quiz us about what’s going on like current events and stuff like you’re back in high school — makes you see if you know what’s going on in the world.
“What comes off like he’s just a mean and grumpy old man, it’s just because he’s pushing everybody for perfection and he knows what everybody’s potential is, and that’s what he wants us to reach.”
Ayres, who racked up 1,588 points and 942 rebounds in his four-year ASU career, also added that this Spurs squad is the most “ego-less” group he’s ever played with. Tim Duncan, often considered one of the best power forwards to ever play the game, epitomizes the team’s selfless, humble attitude, Ayres said.
“Everybody checks their egos at the door. Everybody trusts each other,” he said. “Tim is like one of our biggest cheerleaders … Timeouts come, and it could be the end of the game and I’m in and the guys at the end of the bench are in the game, and he’s like the first guy off the bench giving everybody high-fives and stuff. It’s so cool to see that.
“He’s so humble, and it’s like that all the way down the line. Everybody’s like that.”
The four-year pro added that he’s under contract with San Antonio for one more year and he’s looking forward to the chance to come back and defend his team’s title in 2014-15.