As I sat there watching LeBron James and the Miami Heat celebrate winning their second consecutive title Thursday, June 20,, there were a lot of thoughts going through my head. First there was, “What a tremendous series and Game 7 that was!” Then there was, “Wow, this is David Stern’s last time presenting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.” That was followed up with, “LeBron is easily a top-15 player of all time now,” which quickly was replaced by, “Man, Shane Battier looks goofy as hell with his hat on backwards!” But the biggest one came last and has been the most powerful thought in the aftermath of trying to process one of the most entertaining Finals series in recent memory. And that prevailing thought was: “I can’t believe the San Antonio Spurs were one or two plays away from winning the NBA Finals.”
No one should question their place in history. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich have easily carved their way into the history books as one of the most consistently great teams of all time. Duncan’s teams have won 70 percent of their games and four championships since he was first drafted in 1999. A few weeks ago I wrote that the Spurs were on the verge of being a dynasty if they were able to beat Miami. And because of how inconsistent LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh played in the Finals, as they did through most of the NBA Playoffs, the Spurs had their fifth title within reach.
Keep something in mind before you label me as a “LeBron hater” or a “Spurs fan” for giving the 2013 NBA Finals MVP a little bit of criticism here. First of all, I’m a Phoenix Suns fan, so it would make more sense for me to hate on the Spurs than anything else. Second, I think LeBron gets a lot of unfair criticism because people have foolishly and prematurely compared him to Michael Jordan for his whole career. It’s indisputable that LeBron James is the best current player in the NBA and if you disagree with that statement, you’re either an irrational Lakers fan or a 12-year-old Thunder fan. LeBron was absolutely dominant and clutch in leading his team to victory in Game 7, dropping 37 points and 12 rebounds. But regardless of your opinion of LeBron, the Heat or the Spurs, there are two facts that are undeniable: 1) Had the Heat lost Game 6, LeBron would’ve been criticized for his performance for the first three quarters and the entire NBA Finals in general and 2) San Antonio absolutely let the 2013 NBA Finals slip through their fingers.
We’re not going to bother with the first five games of these Finals, because the better team won in each of them. And I’m not going to talk about refereeing, because as much as Spurs fans like to think that Chris Bosh fouled Danny Green or that Ray Allen fouled Manu Ginobili (even though he clearly traveled first), the officiating was pretty solid overall and even when it wasn’t, at least it was bad on both sides. But when we get to Game 6, the better team didn’t finish on top on the scoreboard.
Here’s a play-by-play so we can fully understand just how many things had to go wrong for the Heat to have any chance to win this game, and how all of them happened. First, two Manu Ginobili free throws put San Antonio up 93-89 with 37 seconds to go. After bringing his team back from the brink to start the fourth quarter, LeBron turned into 2011 LeBron and committed another crucial turnover that led to a fast break for Manu Ginobili. He was fouled by Ray Allen and went to the line with 28 seconds left. He had the opportunity to put his team up six and make it Miami’s chance of victory improbable at best. But he bricked the first before making the second.
At that point, Pop made the decision to pull Tim Duncan and go with a more mobile lineup to defend the 3, an understandable decision since Chris Bosh was also pulled from the lineup by Erik Spoelstra. But after LeBron clanked a good 3-point look and Kawhi Leonard‘s massive baseball-mitt hands failed to haul in the rebound, Mike Miller came away with the ball and fed LeBron, who knocked down what, at the time, seemed like a too-little-too-late 3. Why did it seem that way? Because the Spurs were four-time champions. They had been here before. They knew how to close out games. Or so we thought.
Up two with 20 seconds to go, they would have the opportunity to sink two free throws and make it a two-possession game again. The Heat fouled Leonard, whose expressionlessness quickly came to rival Tim Duncan’s in the Finals. All series long, Leonard had proven that the moment was not too big more him. He was scoring efficiently, attacking the basket and making perimeter shots … all while guarding the best player on the planet. But when the first free throw came, he just missed it. It rimmed out and even though he made the second one, the damage had been done. It was still a one-possession game.
We all know what happened from there: LeBron bricked a shot when he needed to be clutch, Chris Bosh wrenched a desperate offensive rebound away from Ginobili and found Ray Allen, who had the presence of mind to quickly backpedal to the 3-point line and drill an amazing 3 with five seconds to play. Tie game.
But even after that collapse, San Antonio still had five seconds to work with.
They got it to the lightning-fast Tony Parker and he drove to the basket but it was well defended by Bosh and the game was sent to overtime. At that point, the Spurs still were somewhat in control of their destiny. After missing that critical free throw, Kawhi Leonard made the Spurs’ only two field goals in overtime. But Parker missed one of two free throws that would have put San Antonio up four with less than three minutes to play. Miami surged, took a one-point lead and made a critical mistake of feeding Dwyane Wade the ball instead of LeBron. Wade bricked a fadeaway, the Spurs hauled in the rebound and San Antonio had eight seconds to score a bucket.
But instead of calling a timeout, which would have allowed Parker to come back in, Pop told Manu to attack the basket. Ginobili committed his eighth turnover on his “controversial” drive, Allen was fouled and made two free throws, Bosh blocked Green on his last-second attempt to send it to double-overtime and Game 6 was history. The Spurs’ extremely un-Spurs-like collapse was complete.
The Heat did what they had to in order to stay in the game on the brink of losing another NBA championship. And credit goes to Allen for knocking down the biggest shot of his entire NBA career. But let’s not kid ourselves. The Spurs lost Game 6, and arguably the Finals, more than Miami won it. From a purely logical standpoint, when you’re up five with half a minute to play, you have to make mistakes for the other team to win and that’s exactly what happened. When you’re one rebound and one free throw away from a title (two times!) and the ball rims out or slips just an inch away from your reach, that’s just bad luck. And the Spurs had a lot of bad luck to close out that Game 6. And that’s not even counting Shane Battier’s banked 3 or Mike Miller making a 3 with one shoe on!
On the other hand, it’s not like the Spurs were eliminated then and there. They still had a chance to win Thursday night, but LeBron was just too good, like we’ve been expecting all along. For the Spurs, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green weren’t good enough. Only Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard played well, to be honest, so don’t think I’m trying to take anything away from the Heat because they showed great resilience down the stretch of Game 6, when everyone was starting to tape off the court for the postgame celebrations. You also have to give credit to LeBron James and the rest of the Miami Heat for doing what they had to in Game 7. There’s no doubt they were the better team Thursday night in an extremely close game and that’s what champions do. But just because the Heat played liked champions doesn’t mean we should forget that the Spurs were a championship-caliber team too. Especially since they were so close to sealing the deal three days ago, when people were taking to Twitter, ready to label LeBron as a choke artist once again.
When taking into account Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Pop, it’s almost sad to think that this may have been their last shot. The window is definitely closing and this may have been their last hurrah. They wasted a vintage 30-point Duncan performance and I hope that people’s lasting image of him is not the missed hook shot over Shane Battier in Game 7 (despite Battier tugging on his jersey on the follow up). You’d have to be gutless to watch Duncan, Parker and Ginobili talk about losing the series afterward without feeling a little bit sorry for them, especially considering how hard they fought in Game 7. They knew they missed their chance in Game 6. It was clear on their faces.
“You need a little bit of luck to win an NBA championship,” LeBron told ESPN’s NBA crew after Game 7 last night.
That might be the biggest understatement of the 2012-13 NBA season.