Up four points, 28 seconds remaining, with Manu Ginobili heading to the line -- San Antonio clearly had Game Six of the 2013 NBA finals, and yet another NBA title, in the bag. The task was simple: Just make free throws and don’t foul.
For a team so rooted in fundamentals and discipline, it wasn’t a tall order. It was a done deal. The crowd at American Airlines arena was somberly heading out of the arena in droves, as the Larry O' Brien trophy was being prepared.
There wouldn’t have been a more fitting and well-deserved ending to Tim Duncan’s legendary career than a fifth and final NBA title with coach Gregg Popovich after 14 years together. An incredible player-coach tandem that we may never see exist again on such a grand scale.
But Manu missed one of two. Then the Spurs failed to grab a rebound, and LeBron James hit a three. Then Kawhi Leonard missed one of two. Then the Heat got multiple offensive rebounds yet again and Ray Allen hit one of the greatest shots in NBA Finals history: a game-tying three pointer that has been painfully burned into the mind of every Spurs player, coach, employee, and fan for eternity.
There’s no way that shot will be ever be completely forgotten. But San Antonio has given themselves and their fans a way to possibly ease that pain: Redemption.
The Spurs will get a second crack at Miami in a Finals that will have to provide a lot of thrills to live up to last year’s seven-game classic.
The Spurs appear to be even deeper than they were last year, adding Marco Belinelli in the offseason and inserting sub Patty Mills into this season's regular rotation. Their bench appears to be stronger than ever, and proved to make a difference against Oklahoma City in Game Six of their Western Conference Finals series. The Spurs' bench outscored OKC’s reserves 51-5 in that game.
San Antonio has more depth and a better overall squad from a pure team basketball standpoint, but Miami has the ultimate trump card: LeBron.
Perhaps the most daunting physical specimen in all of sports, LeBron has the ability to take over a game at any moment's notice and impose his will. We don’t see it regularly because Lebron often sees the value in making the right basketball play as opposed to the right play for himself, and also doesn’t possess the unrelenting scorer's mentality of a Kobe or Jordan. That being said, when he deems it necessary, he has shown just how capable he is of taking matters into his own hands and bulldozing his way to the basket again and again without much resistance, save for fouls.
We’ve seen him hit that switch already in the playoffs this year. Up 2-1 against Brooklyn in Game Four, with a chance to go up 3-1 and go home to wrap it up, he scored 49 and won.
Gregg Popovich’s strategy last year was for the Spurs' defense to simply play off of LeBron and give him jump shots whenever he wanted. The thinking there was if LeBron was going to beat them shooting jump shots, so be it. Just nothing easy. LeBron was thrown off by the strategy for much of the series, as the Spurs had all but won the title in Game Six. But by Game Seven the plan had run its course. Lebron started making threes and beat the Spurs with what their defense conceded to him.
The big question mark for San Antonio will be Tony Parker. A bad ankle that kept him out of twenty-two regular season games was reaggravated in Game Five against Oklahoma City, and subsequently took him out of the second half and overtime of Game Six in that series.
Even though the Spurs offense is predicated on a team system rather than isolations and great individual play, make no mistake: Tony Parker is the engine that powers their offense. His knack for penetration is a necessity for them to generate points.
From a historical standpoint, a lot is at stake in this series. The matchup pits two of the greatest franchises in the post-Jordan era against each other.
The Spurs have been title contenders for 15 straight years, winning four times along the way. The Heat are the first team since the Celtics and Lakers in the 1980's to go to the NBA Finals four years in a row. A three-peat would solidify a dynasty, and move LeBron closer in comparison to his contemporary rival, Kobe Bryant, who also completed a three-peat from 2000-2002.
Duncan is also put in the same conversation as Kobe when discussing the best player of the post-Jordan era, and another title would give Duncan five total.
Legacies aside, what makes this rematch additionally fascinating is how the two teams compare structurally, and how different their paths to success have been.
The Heat were the brainchild of Pat Riley, the mastermind who was able to manufacture a dynasty by getting a collection of superstars to assemble under one roof over the course of a summer. Purists hated it and thought it was a disgrace to the competitive nature of the game for such superstars to flippantly team up and take a perceived easier road to success.
Phil Jackson even went on record airing his dislike for Miami’s unconventional offense. That is, one that often went without a center and was predicated on two superstar perimeter players generating most of the team's offense.
The Spurs are a purist's dream. They’re the consummate team, employing a philosophy that epitomizes the very nature of teamwork. They relentlessly move the ball in search of the best possible shot every possession. Mistakes are rare, bad shots are few. It’s almost as though they are of some kind of singular mind being controlled by Popovich from the bench. They’re puppets and Popovich is pulling the strings. Their dedication to his offensive philosophy is incredible, especially in a sports culture so increasingly rife with divas. Similar to the New England Patriots, the Spurs' roster may change, but their system and the team's success does not. They’re militaristic in their discipline and demeanor, and seemingly completely disinterested in any personal accolades.
With the rematch comes the second chapter of this epic clash. This will be the first Finals rematch since the Bulls and Jazz went at it two years in a row back in 1997 and 1998. Fittingly, this series shares some similarities with that one. It’s the pure basketball team rooted in fundamentals against the best player in the game. Back then it was the Jazz against Jordan. Now it’s the Spurs against Lebron.
It promises to be the best kind of reality television for the next couple weeks. The Spurs were agonizingly close to beating Miami, and the Heat pulled off one of the most miraculous wins in NBA history. The Spurs don't want to go out with that memory looming in their heads for the rest of their lives. Ever since training camp, they have focused on one thing: Revenge.
Now they finally get their shot. Meanwhile, Miami has heard critics call their Game 6 comeback lucky and perhaps even undeserved. They have something to prove as well. The score is theirs to settle as much as it is San Antonio’s.
They both get their first chance, tonight.
By Max Rucker
Contributing Writer for TheDailySportsHerald.com