It hurt. A lot. I try not to even think about it, let alone consider the possibility of rewatching, and therefore reliving it. The end of Game 6 is something that will haunt me for the rest of my life, easily my most crushing sports moment.
But on the precipice of redemption (though it won’t take away what happened) and observing how the Spurs have handled getting back to the Finals for a rematch, I thought it might be time to remember. Time to fully color my perspective before Game 1 begins.
What do I remember, what stands out, what has the collective sports world boiled down one of the greatest NBA Playoff series into—how does the world synthesize this "Tale of Two Cities" masterpiece into 140-character statements and 6-second vines?
"LeBron lost his headband and then took over. Spurs collapsed. Ray Allen hit the 3. Bosh got the block on Green in OT." (116 Characters)
Many have said that LeBron James losing the headband was a good thing. Seeing his hairline for the first time since he was a prodigy at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s (did he really need both Saints?), they will point out that LeBron only had 20 points in the game at that point, and after: 12 points, 2 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 steal. But that is in 14 minutes (9 in regulation and 5 in overtime), and his usage must’ve been 60% during that time, with 4 or 5 of his 6 turnovers.
I would argue that at least 3 players were better than him in that time frame; Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Ray Allen. You could even make a strong case that Chris Bosh, with his defense and ability to foul "just enough to make a huge impact and not enough to draw the attention of the officials" made him more valuable during this stretch. A case could also be made for Kawhi Leonard, save some crucial free throws in the final 30 seconds. (More on that later).
This is no damnation of LeBron, who I believe is either the 3rd or 4th best player of all time and climbing. In fact, it is a little bit of pause to the cautious optimism around the storyline heading into tonight’s game that the "Spurs are a little better, the Heat are a little worse. The Spurs gave it away, and they are too determined to lose." (117 Characters)
Here is a not-all-that-brief recap of those final 9 (+5 overtime) minutes:
9 minutes: On a putback dunk (on poor boxing out by the Spurs), LeBron loses his headband. Twitter explodes with Biblical allusions to Samson, and presumably at least one allusion to Van Halen without David Lee Roth (can’t believe I missed that opportunity). 80-75
8 minutes: LeBron backs down Leonard and Duncan is slightly late on the help rotation; LeBron layup from the charge circle.
7:40: Duncan makes an incredible play to capture a poor Manu pass (off of a pick and roll) and finish in the lane with 4 Heat players guarding. 82-79
(It should be noted that Manu was utterly terrible during this same 14-minute stretch.)
7:10: Birdman layup is blocked by Duncan, questionable foul is called, Birdman hits one free throw. 82-80
6:48: LeBron makes an incredible block from behind on what would’ve been an easy layup for Tim Duncan. It took incredible athleticism to even attempt it.
6:39: LeBron gets away with a slight travel on a step after a jump stop (never would or really should be called) to finish an up-and-under on Duncan. 82-82
(This series marked the best passage of play for LeBron during the entire 14 minutes, a block and a 3-foot layup.)
6:18: A returned-to-human-status Danny Green misses an open corner three after a good closeout from Ray Allen. Exciting scramble for the rebound ends up in Chalmers hands.
6:04: Ray Allen chased off of 3 point line, beats soft rim protection from Green and Leonard for a reverse layup and the Heat’s first lead, 84-82.
(I know it is ingrained in Danny Green to not leave the corner shooter, but that is Birdman, not a basketball player who can score outside of 6 inches.)
5:13: Leonard hits a tough runner in the paint after beating Mike Miller off the dribble. 85-84
4:49: LeBron gets by Boris Diaw for a tough finish going across the paint, again Duncan is a second slow, but this has to be chalked up to LeBron’s passing ability and the degree of difficulty versus an open layup for Bosh. 87-84
1:47: Heat now lead 89-86. The Heat guard the Spurs pick and roll incredibly well. Bosh is managing his hedges like a trust fund kid from Kennebunkport.
1:30: Tony Parker makes an insane step back 3-pointer with 4 seconds on the shot clock. 89-89
(It is in this final 2 minutes that I think you saw Parker at his best and LeBron possibly at his worst. This potentially has dangerous implications for 2014.)
1:12: Parker makes the defensive play of his life, anticipating and stealing a pass intended for Wade near the low block. He came from nearly 7 feet away with what looked like one step.
59 seconds: Parker makes one of his most sumptuous offensive moves of the series, with a penetration into the lane and a lightning-quick and unstoppable turnaround jumper. 91-89
45 seconds: LeBron has Parker on him in a switch at the elbow, a mismatch the Heat were forcing time and again. LeBron tries a strong post move, but loses the ball to Duncan. This was great team-defense as much as an uncharacteristic mistake.
37 seconds: Ginobili gets the outlet on the ensuing fast break and is fouled by Ray Allen. Manu makes both free throws. 93-89
37 seconds, redux: LeBron picks up the rolled inbounds pass at half court, saving possibly 5 seconds. In hindsight, I bet the Spurs would’ve liked to have caused him to pick that up, when seconds ultimately were the difference.
32 seconds: LeBron makes a second ill-advised turnover in 20 seconds, going into the lane where he was met by perfect defense from Tim Duncan. Ginobili picks up the completely errant pass, intended for either an 11-foot Bosh or Ray Allen who was lying on the ground.
28.2 seconds: Manu on the fast break is fouled by Allen. This time Manu makes only 1 of 2. 94-89
I don’t understand why the "What if?"s seemingly always include "What if Kawhi Leonard makes both free throws?" but exclude Manu.
27 seconds: The Spurs unintentionally double Ray Allen, switching late on a wide open Wade (after Manu gets caught in a collision and forgets to switch after the screen). THIS is what gives LeBron the wide open 3, which is great because he has been playing HORRENDOUSLY. Besides Wade, he is currently the Spurs’ most desirable option to take this shot. He misses the 3 so incredibly badly that the awkward bounce negates the Spurs perfect rebounding positioning. It didn’t hurt that Wade pushed Leonard TWICE while he was trying to secure the rebound, and then Boris Diaw (in for Duncan, which I do not think was a coaching mistake) knocks it away. A mad scramble of Shakespearian proportion ensues.
22 seconds: LeBron now makes this 3-point attempt after chaos, because the Heat are SOOO much better when not in an offensive set. Notably, LeBron was 1 of 5 from behind the arc in the game, this being his one made attempt. Also notable, Chalmers and Wade were WIDE open on this play, but LeBron was determined to take this himself. 94-92
I think this play could be used in a later case study about these Heat teams. LeBron on a set play gets a good look, misses. LeBron after utter chaos and with chaos ensuing all around him: buckets. The same way that their offense is predicated on fast breaks and they are a below-average half court offensive team. The reason his skill set is ultimately discredited in the G.O.A.T conversation (and I think unfairly) is because most of the great things that he does rely on a supreme athleticism: Chasedown blocks, incredible dunks, being able to back down any player in the league.
19 seconds: Leonard is fouled and put on the line for the absolute highest of pressure free throws. Let’s not mistake his maturity and seemingly old-beyond-his-years game for actual experience. Just look at his face. He is, at this point, in his second season. Eleven days shy of his 22nd birthday; he has been able to order a legal drink for less than a calendar year at this point. He misses the first one by inches. He makes the second. (Admittedly, Leonard was a good choice to foul as he was 29 of 45 in the playoffs up to this point, 64%, after being 83% during the regular season). 95-92
14 seconds: Knowing that the Heat need a 3, and so the Spurs can better switch on screens (and with Bosh playing effectively a stretch 5), Duncan is out of the game. I also do not think this was a coaching mistake, because of what I explain below.
Let’s take a second and talk about the most egregious play of this game. Chris Bosh commits the worst moving screen I have ever seen in my 20+ years of watching basketball. LeBron screens Chalmers to get Parker on him. Bosh is moving and fouls on the initial screen, but this is not something that will ever be called at this stage of the game, and I’m fine with that. Bosh then GRABS Parker, as if trying some kind of waltz, turns him around, shuffling his feet to shield LeBron. This screen, this inflammatory and outrageous disregard for a fundamental rule of basketball, is what causes Boris to have to fight over the mass of Parker/Bosh in an unrequited and unethical embrace to challenge LeBron. Leonard is slow to leave the dead-eye Chalmers, Green is boxing out Allen, and Manu is too far out on Wade to put a body on Bosh. Diaw and Parker are out of the play after guarding LeBron, and Bosh has leaked out of the screen toward the rim.
Not only was the screen incredibly illegal, but it left Bosh in perfect position for the rebound.
Why isn’t THIS what we talk about when we talk about Game 6, the Spurs collapse, and "What if?" scenarios?
8.5 seconds: A great effort by Ginobili to contest the rebound ultimately screens Danny Green to allow Ray Allen to make his all-time great play (and what a play it was, with a degree of difficulty that cannot even be comprehended by the human brain).
Tony Parker almost makes the steal, and the hesitation to try to strip it as Bosh is dropping the ball off to Allen in the corner is what causes Parker to arrive a step late. Not that it would’ve mattered. Sean Elliot once hit an improbable 3-pointer with a 7-foot Rasheed Wallace causing him to arc it out of the building. That shot was simply always going in.
5.6 seconds: I still cannot believe that went in. Wow. 95-95
The overtime is just as bad, but it never should’ve even gotten there. Both teams played sloppy and scored a combined 13 points, but there were so many chances:
Parker’s 1 of 2 free throws, the 35 foot 3-point attempt by Parker after one of their worst offensive sets in memory, Spurs shot clock violation with a minute left, Manu’s wild caught-in-mid-air turnover (which was actually a missed screen to free Leonard for the open corner three and great help positioning by that pesky Ray Allen), Danny Green’s perfect defensive fast break steal (people remember Kawhi’s against the Thunder, aside from the fact that it was last week, because the Spurs converted it into a win), the no-call-foul-because-Ginobili-also-travelled, Bosh’s fantastic defense and block on Green to negate one of the greatest inbound passes of all time by Duncan.
(I’m perfectly content with a no-call on Bosh. At that point the Spurs didn’t deserve to win.)
So what is the takeaway from those final 14 minutes? Are all demons exorcised? The Spurs did in fact collapse, LeBron was--for brief glimpses--the greatest player of his generation, Ray Allen thinks Robert Horry can’t stand pressure, and Chris Bosh is a sly, foul (pun-intended), dirty snake of a genius.
But it is also that LeBron, and by extension the Heat, played pretty poorly for a majority of that time. And he very well may do the opposite this time.
The Spurs are the better team in 2014, just as they were in 2013, and just as they were in Game 6. Vegas has them as the favorites, the national media is glowing about them, the nation’s fans are rooting for them, and LeBron James feels slighted by them. We are not underdogs and there is no excuse for losing.
LeBron James will come out tonight sporting a headband and Texas-sized chip on his shoulder. It is the Spurs’ job to knock one or the other off and bring the trophy back home.