Because they could not do the simplest of things, the San Antonio Spurs must now do the most difficult: overcome themselves. If they succeed tonight, in Game 7, on the road, against the mighty Miami Heat, you will have witnessed one of the greatest displays of mental toughness ever seen in sports.
I doubt it will happen. I could see a close game that edges away in the fourth quarter and sees Miami win with a cushion. Such is the weight of Tuesday night, Game 6, when the Spurs – after a grueling, see-saw series – held a five-point lead with 28 seconds left and couldn’t make it last.
Manu Ginobili missed a free throw that could have iced it. Kawhi Leonard missed a free throw that could have iced it. The Spurs missed two rebound chances that could have iced it. And in overtime, they missed two shots and ran out the 24-second clock on a single possession, then saw Ginobili throw the ball away twice.
Some of these mistakes came when Tim Duncan or Tony Parker were on the bench. And a trophy that was in their hands turned to air and disappeared.
“I have no clue how we’re going be re-energized,” Ginobili told the media after the loss. “I’m devastated.”
All of which makes tonight’s Game 7 the most compelling NBA game in a long time. I don’t know about you, but I love this series. The final scores have sometimes been lopsided, but the games have not been. They’re more like chess matches. The kings are taken at the end, but every board finishes a bloody mess. It’s like “Game of Thrones.” You don’t stop watching just because one night they kill off the stars.
Stick with the stars
Tonight we find out how much permanent stain is on the Spurs. Did Gregg Popovich outclever himself with those fourth-quarter substitutions? In my mind, yes. But the biggest error was sitting Duncan late in the third with the Spurs up 12. In a crucial game like this, on the road, you have to gamble on yourself. If the Spurs rode that momentum to a 16- or 18-point fourth-quarter lead, it’s over. Game 7 is a moot point.
Instead, Duncan rested for the maddening Tiago Splitter (who plays like he’s in another gym) and LeBron James went on the attack. By the time Duncan returned, the 12-point lead was four, and it was game on.
As for the late benching of Duncan and, in the overtime, Parker? That’s how Popovich does things. Personally, I think you win and lose championships with your stars. Yes, a quicker lineup (minus Duncan) might better cover the three-point shooters, but more often than not, what kills you in last seconds of big games are the second shots and funny rebounds. For those moments, I trust superstars more than I trust Boris Diaw.
Meanwhile, what of the Heat? They seemed dead. Now they’re so alive, they’re angry at their fans for leaving early (Chris Bosh, often less-than-gracious, addressed them through the media, saying “Make sure you don’t come to Game 7.”) But let’s be honest: Miami looked out of it in the second half. Even LeBron – error-prone in clutch moments – seemed to be shocked when Ray Allen hit the tying three-pointer.
Now they have every reason to believe. The Heat survived one of the toughest games in NBA Finals history. It’s as if they were lying on the ground, pallid, stiff, nearly a corpse, then got a massive blood transfusion – straight from the veins of the Spurs.
On my scorecard, Miami has more talent to choose from tonight, assuming Dwyane Wade isn’t hurt. If they get 15 points from Allen, Mike Miller, Chris Andersen or Mario Chalmers – and LeBron goes crazy as expected – I can’t see San Antonio keeping up. There are few sure bets, but Tim Duncan NOT scoring 30 points again is one of them. Unless Ginobili totally reverses himself, or Danny Green suddenly gets open, the Spurs seem too offensively challenged.
But I could be wrong. That’s the joy of this series. So many possibilities. No team has lost Game 6 on the road and win the title in Game 7. Which is why, if they pull it off, you have to take more than your hat off to the Spurs. They will have stared into the eyes of sport’s biggest demons – momentum, foreign crowd, superior talent, confident attitude – and out-willed it all.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.