I guess y'all are used to this by now, but man, I was so wrong about this. It turns out that the Spurs are a dumb sports movie after all. The way the last couple of seasons have played out, it was just straight out of Disney, some goofy matinee with cheesy lines and worse acting you take your kids to on a weekend so you can tell them afterward, "See, Billy, if just you work hard and never give up, you can do anything!"
Things like this just aren't supposed to happen in sports after major heartbreak. Not to go too HBO on you, but generally the way these things work is very much like The Wire. "You come for the king, you best not miss." The Spurs had their shot last year, a perfect confluence of timing and good fortune, and still, in the end, they missed.
I never saw what happened on June 18, 2013 coming. To be up five points with 25 seconds to go, being carried to the finish line by a 37-year-old Tim Duncan having a game for the ages, a Kawhi Leonard in his second season and both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili soldiering on with bum wheels, they were seconds from pulling off the impossible.
You know what happened next. It's burned into all of our memories forever. We'll never forget it, no matter how many titles the Spurs win. Never. It was beyond heartbreaking or soul-crushing. It was downright cruel.
It was also the set-up for the best redemption story ever. Ray Allen was the best thing that ever happened to us.
(Well, after Dwyane Wade maybe.)
I never, not in my wildest dreams, imagined it playing out like this late at night on June 18 when J.R. Wilco almost literally had to talk me off the ledge. I was seriously in that dark a place, for various reasons. It hurt all the more because Ginobili was the goat. It was a nightmare.
There was something off about those whole playoffs. The first round series against the Lakers felt like preseason with Kobe Bryant absent and the friction between Dwight Howard and his teammates palpable. The second round against the Warriors had some drama, especially in Games 1 and 6, but the Spurs never have had all that contentious a rivalry with the Warriors. Their only history with them prior to 2013 was a first-round series in 1991. There was a measure of revenge in the Western Conference Finals against Memphis, but that sweep was a grind-it-out affair, Game 1 notwithstanding. I remember Duncan scoring in a couple of overtimes and a lot of Parker jump shots and Zach Randolph being completely neutered by Tiago Splitter, but little else.
Let's be real, the knee injury to Russell Westbrook set a pall over everything. I'm not saying a Spurs title would've been asterisk-worthy or anything, but there would've been something missing. The Spurs avoided having to play the best team in the West. There just wasn't much to get you pumped for those Western playoffs. The best player the Spurs had to get by was Stephen Curry, and he's like 5'2".
The 2013 Spurs were good, but never really battle-tested, so we just had no idea how good they really were. With Ginobili and later Parker dealing with minor injuries, we never saw them at their best. Wade was even more beat up for the Heat in those Finals. It looked like the Spurs were gonna win a title, but mostly a lucky one, a confluence of timing in a down year for the league. The Pacers and the Thunder might have been the two best teams and both suffered a couple of bad breaks while the Spurs and Heat took advantage.
I thought the Spurs blew their last, best opportunity. They'd never make it through a campaign without suffering a major injury to their big three again. They'd never get to avoid the Thunder again. They'd never face the Heat so wounded and down again. I tried to be optimistic in my predictions and hope for the best. I suspended all logic and said to myself that Ginobili would somehow be better at 36 than he was at 35, but my cynical brain often trumped by pom-pom waving heart.
Teams just don't make it back after letdowns on that stage. The '87 Boston Red Sox, the '94 Los Angeles Kings, the '99 Minnesota Vikings, the '03 San Francisco Giants, the '12 Texas Rangers... none of them did anything "the year after" and all of those teams had stars significantly younger than the Spurs big three.
The Spurs season was playing out the way you'd expect, injury epidemic and all, with Ginobili, Parker, Leonard, Splitter and Danny Green all affected. A three-game losing streak had them at 33-13, behind the Thunder and even the Blazers in the standings, and behind the Heat and Pacers as well. Home court advantage looked like a pipe dream. Duncan somehow made it through without incident though, and he, free agent signing Marco Belinelli and the rejuvenated frogging tandem of Boris Diaw and Patty Mills carried the team through the Rodeo Road Trip and into the All-Star break with some momentum.
Right after Ginobili and Green returned from the injured list, there was an eye-opening win at the Clippers without Leonard, Parker and Splitter. By the time they returned home for the Pistons on Feb. 26, everyone but Parker was back in the fold.
And then came that rematch at home against the Heat on March 6. Right then, that's the first time I really rediscovered my hope. I went into that game a skeptic and came out of it believing the Spurs were title favorites. It wasn't that they won but how. I've never seen the Spurs play so angry and intense in a regular season game. Honestly, I'm not sure they even recaptured that level even in the Finals.
Not only was it apparent that they were better than Miami, but they knew they were better. And I don't care what the players say about it not being personal. The Spurs played like they hated the Heat. They wanted them to suffer, just like fans do. The Spurs won 111-87, similarly to these last three Finals games, and the themes were similar. Leonard harassed James into a poor shooting performance and five turnovers. Mills hit some big shots. Diaw started and had his fingerprints over everything.
Oh man... if they can just stay healthy. If they can just get past the Thunder...
And then they did, with a playoffs that could've hardly been scripted any better. The Dallas Mavericks aren't the blood rivals they once were, but it was sweet to hand them a Game 7 beat down after the way they made Spurs fans hurt for a summer in 2006.
Then there was the Blazers, the team that delivered the 12-year-old me, my first bad loss as a Spurs fan. David Robinson and Sean Elliott, rookies back then, were up 97-90 with less than two minutes to go in a Game 7 at Portland and couldn't get it done. The Spurs avenged that loss eventually, but Portland has had San Antonio's number the past few regular seasons, beating Duncan and co. more often than any other team. It was pretty sweet to dispatch them emphatically in a Gentlemen's Sweep. It would've been better to play the Rockets with Howard and James Harden, that's really the only detail I'd change, but those guys couldn't hold up their end of the bargain and make it out of the first round.
The real NBA Finals were against the Thunder. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are all freaks and Reggie Jackson mysteriously morphs into an All-Star against the Spurs. They'd won 10 of the past 12 meetings, including all four in the regular season. We make excuses for all of those, whether it was the schedule or injuries, but admit it, you were petrified of those guys. A couple blowout wins at home without Ibaka eased fears, but once he returned and the Thunder rolled to two easy wins at home, all the bad old memories of 2012 came flooding back. The Spurs had their chance last year with Westbrook sidelined. They just can't beat these guys at full strength.
Except they somehow did, with another emphatic win at home in Game 5 and then the overtime classic in Game 6 at Oklahoma City.
The Finals offered a few hairy moments, to be sure. The Spurs were down seven early in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and lost Game 2 at home. Right then, going to Miami, they were technically the underdog, since they lost home court advantage. Some pundits predicted they'd lose the Finals in 5 or 6 games, now that James had gotten over his cramps and reasserted his dominance. And then the Spurs dominated the last three games and set a record for scoring differential and field goal percentage in a Finals.
The Spurs made it through a playoff gauntlet, the toughest stretch of opponents they've ever had, and like Beatrix Kiddo, they got their bloody satisfaction, winning not only each series but vanquishing demons along the way. Ginobili had his darkest moment when he was revisited by the specter of a terrible Game 6 in the first round against the Mavs, but he was fantastic in a Game 7 two days later.
Against OKC, they trudged back home for Game 5 with everyone bringing up 2012 and assuming the Thunder had restored order. The Spurs shook off an early nine-point deficit and dominated the game.
They still hadn't won on the Thunder's home floor though, and again it was that dreaded Game 6 on the road. Again the Spurs blew a late lead -- thanks in part to another missed Ginobili free throw -- but they prevailed in an overtime when I assumed they were dead men walking.
Finally, against Miami, they shook off another game they blew thanks to missed free throws and exorcised the demons of the American Airlines Arena. They nearly surrendered a massive lead, but a three from Belinelli (of all people) helped stave off the Heat rally. The Spurs blew 'em out again in Game 4 for good measure, really giving the Heat fans a reason to head for the exits early, and by this point both teams knew what was up.
This wasn't redemption or revenge. It was something altogether beyond that. The Spurs CRUSHED these guys. This time around not only was Ginobili fantastic in the closeout game, but so were Mills, Duncan, Diaw, Parker in the fourth quarter and, of course, Leonard.
Kawhi Leonard, man. Kawhi Leonard.
In retrospect, we should've seen this coming. The seeds of this season were planed in Game 7 of the last Finals. Almost everyone expected the Spurs to get crushed that night coming off that demoralizing loss, but I just had a weird feeling they'd keep it tight.I wrote this after Game 6...
History tells us that the Spurs have no chance on Thursday. Nobody has won a road Game 7 in the Finals since 1978 and no one has won one, period, in this 2-3-2 format. Like I predicted in my last post, the Spurs gave everything they had in Game 6, not saving an ounce of energy for the swim back. Duncan certainly looked tapped by the end, as did Parker, and it seemed that Ginobili didn't even have any energy for Game 6 let alone Game 7. How can we expect anything of them after the Shakespearean way this one ended?
They're better than us, that's why.
And I don't mean in the obvious sense that they're better athletes and basketball players. No. They're better men, period. Whereas we would hang our heads, give up and admit defeat after a game like this, they won't. They'll just shake it off, turn the page and keep pounding that rock. Call it hubris, stubbornness or arrogance if you want. I call it will. They have more will than us commonfolk. As much as we think we want it, they want it a thousand times more. The overtime period was a microcosm of how Game 7 will play out, I think. No matter how bleak it looks, no matter how many reasons the basketball gods will give them to just throw up their hands and say "it's not in the cards for us," no matter how many pundits read them their last rites, the Spurs will keep fighting to the bitter end.
Will they win? I have no idea. But they will bring whatever they have left and more, they will make the Heat beat them instead of just handing them the trophy, and they will make us proud of their effort. They'll take all the haymakers history throws at them, like Rocky vs. Drago, and just smile back, replying, "Thank you sir, may I have another?"
They got another shot this year. They got all the shots they wanted against The King.
And hot damn, the Spurs just wouldn't miss.
Your Three Stars:
3) Patty Mills (3)
2) Kawhi Leonard (31)
1) Manu Ginobili (35)