All season long the Spurs have faced crossroads and chosen the correct path every time.
They had a chance to feel sorry for themselves last summer after the tragic end to their season -- to stage a "pity party" as Gregg Popovich calls it -- and cash in their chips. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili could've both chosen to retire, rightly reasoning that they just blew their best chance for another title and that chasing another one would be futile, what with their bodies even likelier to betray them in 2014. But they both came back to chase it again, more determined than ever.
Danny Green could've grown weary of being scapegoated by Pop for that loss and for being benched early in the season. He could have demanded a trade, declaring that he deserved more respect than he was getting. Instead he just pressed on and figured out different ways to get his three-point shots.
Ginobili could've noticed the pattern after suffering his second hamstring strain midway through the season at Houston, at the same point of the year he tweaked it the second of three times in 2013. He could have gotten down, playing cautiously and tentatively and always wondering when the next pull was coming. But he stayed positive and put together a campaign worthy of the Sixth Man of the Year award.
The team could've given in when the injury epidemic hit, not just to Ginobili and Green but also Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard, but Duncan just wouldn't let them. He dragged a squad that was pretty much just him, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli to a successful Rodeo Road Trip.
Cory Joseph could've mentally checked out once Pop made the decision to go with Mills as Parker's backup, but instead he stayed engaged and has made the most of every opportunity he was given, regardless of whether or not it was in garbage time.
Down 2-1 in the first round to a spunky Mavericks squad after a buzzer-beating gut-punch three from Vince Carter, the Spurs could've folded. They hadn't won a road game in a series they were trailing since 2010 -- a 1-0 hole, against those same Mavs. This time they played a gritty Game 4 at Dallas and won a back-and-forth fourth quarter, thanks to some heroics from Diaw and Parker, to regain control of the series.
Nursing the wounds to their pride after two straight butt-kickings on the road at Oklahoma City and hearing all the doubters bringing up 2012, they could've gone down meekly, reasoning that they just can't score on Serge Ibaka. Out of nowhere, they blew the Thunder off the floor in Game 5.
In Game 6 -- in a building where they'd lost nine straight -- down seven at half, they could've sat everyone in the second half, especially once they found out that Parker was out for the rest of the night with an ankle injury. They could've told themselves "This is why we fought all year long for home court advantage, so we don't need to win games like this." Instead, they played like it was a must-win, putting together an all-time third quarter on the road.
After blowing a ten point fourth quarter lead and letting the Thunder take the game to overtime, the Spurs could've thought about Game 6 at Miami and last year and dropped their heads. Rather, Duncan outscored the Thunder by himself in the extra period.
So here they are now, right back in almost the same spot they found themselves last year, up 1-0 in the Finals to the defending champion Heat, only this time they're at home so losing a Game 2 would be even more damaging.
As we discovered last season, the toughest thing to do in the modern NBA is to beat Miami in an elimination game. The second toughest, though, is to beat them consecutively, period. They haven't lost two straight playoff games since games 2 and 3 of the second round against the Pacers in 2012, and even that had a bit of an asterisk as Chris Bosh tore an abdominal muscle (which inadvertently gave Erik Spoelstra the idea to use LeBron James as a power forward to unleashed hell on the league).
To win Game 2 the Spurs will have to overcome an angry and incredibly inspired James, and they'll have to prove they can win after a crummy win, which they almost never, ever do.
Remember the very first game of these playoffs? The Spurs were down 81-71 with 7:30 to go against Dallas and closed it out with a 19-4 run. They didn't play at all well, especially offensively, but they let out a sigh of relief at having overcome that bit of adversity and "pounding the rock" over 48 minutes and all that.
And what'd they do after having learned that crucial lesson? How did they handle prosperity after stealing a home win? They spat up all over themselves in a 113-92 loss, turning it over 24 times.
This isn't a perfect comparison, of course, because the Spurs just won a 23 turnover game, leading to 28 Heat points. According to Matthew Tynan of 48 Minutes of Hell, the Heat are 47-5 in their Big Three Era when forcing 19 or more turnovers.
It's hard to imagine that the Spurs will somehow be sloppier with the ball in Game 2, though that may just be because I don't want to. They can most definitely play worse in other fronts though. They can (and almost certainly will) allow way more than 11 free throw attempts. They can (and almost certainly will) shoot worse than 59 percent from the floor and 52 percent from downtown. They can certainly get burned more from Miami's threes, especially if they give Ray Allen as many open looks as he got in Game 1.
In short, the Spurs will have to play much, much better to win Game 2. To me the series is just starting now. I was counting on a Game 1 win all along. As arrogant as it sounds, I was almost taking it for granted. To be down seven with 9:38 to go against them really threw me for a loop. I thought it'd take the Heat at least five or six quarters to catch up to the Spurs' pace and quality after being mired in the Eastern muck. Instead they answered every body blow from the Spurs with one of their own.
I was extremely impressed by the Heat on both ends of the floor. Their ball movement was just as dizzying and dazzling as the Spurs at times and their gambling, all-or-nothing defense is unorthodox, but it sure seems to work for them. They dare you to be perfect and precise and they punish you when you're not. Other teams just want to force contested shots and rebound. Miami tries to prevent shot attempts altogether.
I'm already regretting the hubris in my pre-series prediction column. These guys are going to be tougher to beat than the Thunder were. It's going to be a tremendous challenge. I honestly can't say I'm more encouraged after Game 1, even with a win, but it's better than the alternative I suppose.
Now comes the hard part.