[Editor's note: This is a work of fiction. -JRW]
My one condition to watch this game was that I wouldn't do it unless the Spurs did too, and our fearless editor-in-chief used his considerable connections to wrangle them all up for me. The time and access the fellas gave, from Pop to Duncan on down, was far more than I could've hoped for, especially considering the painful subject matter. Every last one of them gave thoughtful, at times even controversial, answers to every tough question. Who knows, maybe it was as therapeutic and cathartic for them as it was for me.
The only thing I'm certain of is that this stuff about the Spurs being difficult with the media is way overblown.
Gregg Popovich: When you're going through it, you're always in the moment, trying to stay on an even keel, not get too high or too low, and though obviously we all knew it was such a devastating loss, to lose the game the way we did, when we had a golden opportunity to finish them off and win the title in Game 6, I must say that I never got the sense that the guys were down or deflated. I assume that's how that's how those on the outside must've felt, the "oh, they're cooked, they're down for the count, there's no way they're recovering from that," but right after Game 6, we hustled them out of the arena, went to dinner, and I really thought that whole thing was very constructive, and I was surprised, pleasantly so, at the team's mentality. Coming into Game 7, I had no idea what to expect about how the game would go, who would win of course or who would play well or poorly or things like that, but I had no doubts whatsoever that my guys would compete.
Tim Duncan: Yeah, it would've been easy to pack it in, say "it wasn't meant to be" or whatever, but we'd come too far, played too many games to do that, so we weren't going to back down from anyone. We were going to leave it all out there and make them beat us. We weren't going to just give it to them.
Tony Parker: We wasted our best chance. Timmy... he was unbelievable. He had a monster night in Game 6 and we didn't help him enough. It probably wasn't realistic to expect him to score 30 again at his age. Me and Manu were going to have to play much better to give us a chance.
Manu Ginobili: The toughest time we had, especially me personally, was between Games 6 and 7. That's when your brain works too much against you. Then, you're thinking, "Well, the home team always wins the seventh game of the Finals," and "we should've won it and we blew it," and all those things. Once Game 7 actually started, then you've got your "juice," you're a competitor and you don't think about the negative things so much because you're just playing. But... just being realistic, we knew in the back of our minds it was going to be very hard... much harder than winning Game 6 would have been. They were going to come out pumped, there was no chance they would be flat like the last game, there was no chance D-Wade [Dwyane Wade] would play that badly again, or really that even LeBron [James] would start that badly again, so the chances of us jumping on them were not good. We needed to keep it tight all the way through, keep pounding that rock, and hope for some luck.
It took 1:13 before either team scored. Before that there was considerable sloppiness from both teams.
Popovich: A few of us had been through one Game 7 of an NBA Finals before [in 2005, against Detroit] and I think I lost half my hair in that game and whatever I had left went from gray to white, so I had the sense that both teams would come into the game a bit on edge, a bit nervous and tentative. As it happened, they had a turnover right away and then so did we and both teams settled for some not great shots.
Parker: Timmy found me with an unbelievable pass and I got an easy layup right away, and I was thinking, "Hmm, maybe this will be a better night for me." I was hoping my hamstring would stay loose the whole game.
Popovich: You try to not look at omens or read into things -- I think you do your team a disservice if you are scared of ghosts out there -- but I was not happy with how easy LeBron scored that first layup. All series long I thought we did a very commendable job on him, Kawhi [Leonard] in particular, but he got lost on that cut too easily for so early in the game and you worry that an early basket like that could get LeBron rolling.
Kawhi Leonard: I thought me and Tony had a switch there. Not sure if it was my mistake or his. It doesn't matter now.
Danny Green, who shot lights out for the first five games of the series, was 1-of-7 in Game 6 and started off Game 7 ominously, with two early misses on two-point attempts from the left baseline, the second of which barely grazed rim despite being a wide-open look. Duncan would rebound the carom and lay it in, but it did not look good for Green early on.
Danny Green: Looking back on it, I really wish my first one [shot attempt] would've been either a three or a layup. Those in-between ones don't come for me too often in this offense and when they don't go down, they play with your head a little bit.
Duncan would get a second straight lay-in after stealing James' soft pass intended for Chris Bosh at the high post and dribbling the length of the court - albeit rather clumsily - before slamming it home for an early 6-2 lead for the Spurs.
Ginobili: It's very, very hard to laugh about anything having to do with those last two games, but that... that was a good one. Hey, all that matters is the result right? He stole it... dribbled, I guess you could call that dribbling (smiles) and he scored.
Spurs commentator Sean Elliott: "Tragic Johnson" at his finest right there. Give him credit though - Bosh couldn't catch him.
Matt Bonner: Not everyone is blessed with my grace and coordination, but it was a good play from Tim.
Popovich: He looked like an giraffe shot with a tranquilizer.
Duncan: I would be much happier right now if I had the most embarrassing turnover in the history of the NBA or whatever on that play and we went on to win the game.
Following a missed jumper from Bosh, the Spurs worked the ball around to Parker for one of his trademark floaters in the lane. It was way short, and wide left.
Popovich: Sure, that was concerning, but all you could do was hope it [Parker's leg] would loosen up as the game went on.
Parker: Right then, I got a bad feeling. Between Games 6 and 7 I was hoping for the best, but on that shot, when I had no lift at all on my leg, I knew it was going to be tough for me and tough for the team. I had to play through it and do my best.
On the other end, after a Ginobili foul on James, Mario Chalmers swishes a long, off-balance two to make it 6-4, Spurs.
Popovich: Chalmers is a streaky shooter, he's their version of Danny for us, in a sense, and when he's feeling it, when he can be that third or fourth scorer for them, then they're very tough to beat. It's a double-edged sword because his first shot wasn't what we would call a good look, so you want him to take shots like that instead of giving it to LeBron for a dunk for example, but at the same time, he's a confident young man with talent and when he's on his game he can make those shots.
Ginobili drove past James and just had a layup rim out on him, while Chalmers threw up a wild baseline floater off the side of the backboard and out of bounds on the other end. Ginobili then hit a three, from the left wing, off a feed from Parker.
Ginobili: Tony wasn't saying anything, but I could see right away he wasn't feeling good. I knew I had to be more aggressive. I knew I was going to have the ball a lot as the game went on.
Parker: I tried once and then again to drive past Chalmers and I just had nothing there in my leg. Bad time for an injury, but that is sport. Unbelievable.
Leonard grabbed the rebound off a miss from Mike Miller that just rimmed out, dribbled coast-to-coast, got past Miller easily and finished with a lay-up high off the glass just past the reach of Bosh. The Spurs led 11-4.
Leonard: My mindset was to be aggressive and coach did a good job of telling me all series long when I had certain matchups to look for my shot.
The Spurs waste several chances to extend the lead further after another Miller miss. Ginobili misses a floater after driving past Wade, Leonard misses two follow-up attempts, and then, following a brick from James, Leonard looks for his own shot again, missing an elbow jumper. Was this really the same guy who struggled to get more than a handful of shot attempts on most regular season nights for the Spurs?
Popovich: Miami was being very mindful of where Danny was on the floor and with Tony limited and them swarming Timmy, somebody had to shoot the ball for us, it had to be Manu or Kawhi.
Ginobili, who had been so mistake-prone in Game 6, makes his first truly foolish decision of Game 7, committing a needless reach-in foul against Wade, who had up to then been completely invisible in the game. He's forced to go to the bench with his second foul with 6:34 to go.
Ginobili: I got bumped by Bosh and kind of bounced off him and into Wade, but it was a bad play by me. I had to be smarter there with Tony playing on one leg. Plus, we were doing good until then.
The Heat finally score on two consecutive trips down the floor for the first time all night, first with a pair of James free throws following a drive and dish from Wade, and then, after yet another Leonard miss, this time on a corner three attempt, with Wade backing down and easily converting a jump hook over Gary Neal, Ginobili's shorter, defensively-challenged replacement.
Gary Neal: What can you do? He's a future Hall-of-Famer. All I can do is try to stay in front of him, make him work and put a hand in his face.
Popovich: They beat us in Game 6 without Wade doing much, so you can imagine how I felt about him getting going. We were in a tough spot there having to play Gary and give Erik [Heat coach Spoelstra] credit he saw that right away and switch to a lineup without a point guard, so now Gary had nobody his size to guard.
Neal missed a wild running banker on the subsequent possession, but Wade's pass to a cutting LeBron was off the mark and intercepted by Duncan, whose fast break outlet to Parker was anything but, as the Frenchman's layup attempt was swallowed by Bosh, who knocked the ball out of bounds. In came Parker's countryman Boris Diaw, for Green, to give the team a second playmaker with Ginobili confined to the bench, and he paid immediate dividends, finding Leonard on the backdoor cut off the inbounds for a layup to squash his mini-slump and give the Spurs a 13-8 lead.
Boris Diaw: Ray Allen is an incredible shooter and he beat us in Game 6. He is not the best defender though.
Duncan gets away with potentially his second foul of the first quarter on a would-be-dunk by Bosh who had beaten Leonard to the hoop with a spin move, but the break is wasted when Neal bricks an off-balance three early in the shot clock. Wade then proceeds to bury a short jumper in Neal's mug.
Popovich: Gary was so huge for us in Game 3, but it's not very smart to expect someone like him to have two great games in a Finals, especially in a Game 7. He competed, he played without fear, but he was overmatched.
Neal, a free agent, signed with Milwaukee in the off-season.
Neal: He can say what he wants. That's his opinion. I thank the Spurs organization for everything they've done for me and my family.
Duncan looked to be dominating Bosh on both ends of the floor every bit as badly as he did in the first half of Game 6. He backed down the former Raptor and found Diaw for an easy layup on the backdoor cut to make it 15-10, Spurs. After that comes the most ragged stretch of a game that had hardly been a masterpiece up to that point.
Allen misses a floater over Leonard on the other end before Leonard gave it right back with a turnover following a sloppy pass from Diaw. James misses a turnaround baseline jumper over Diaw and Chris Andersen swats Duncan on the other end. Chalmers has another crazy pass stolen by Duncan, who in turn misses a layup and then, following an offensive board by Diaw, the Spurs throw that chance away, literally, with Ginobili committing a backcourt violation, his pass to where he thought Diaw would be on right elbow, while Diaw was boxing out in the vicinity of the free-throw line. At this point the referees called time, to remind both teams that this is supposed to be Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Duncan: It was really ugly for both teams there for a while. Everyone is just so keyed up and it's like some guys are trying to do too much and other guys just don't want to make a mistake and it just looks really, really bad out there. I don't know how to explain it.
Popovich: There haven't been too many Game Sevens of an NBA Finals that were pretty, from what I can remember. I know our first one wasn't, and that Lakers-Celtics one a couple years ago sure wasn't. You can't have pretty basketball when guys are competing their tails off.
The first real test of adversity arrives for the Spurs, with Duncan and Parker both going to the bench at the 2:15 mark of the period. Neal checks back in, and Tiago Splitter, who struggled mightily on defense in Game 6, makes his first appearance as well. Immediately, Ginobili gambles on a steal attempt and is burned, as his man, Shane Battier, buries a wide-open three.
Ginobili: Really, really stupid play from me. He's a good shooter, especially in clutch situations. I have to stay with him.
Ginobili misses a three attempt at the end of the shot clock and the Heat tie the game after Andersen tips home Chalmers' missed jumper. By now it should be fairly obvious that it's impossible for the Spurs to corral a rebound without Duncan on the floor. Another wild miss early in the shot clock from Neal, and Diaw gets called for a loose ball foul in a vain attempt to hold off Battier from rebounding James' missed jumper from the top of the key. Battier drills another three, this time with Green getting sucked in off the Allen penetration, to give the Heat their first lead, 18-15.
Popovich: Before the game as a coaching staff you're wondering, "Who's it gonna be? Who's gonna be that role player who gives them a third scorer. Is it gonna be Bosh? Is it gonna be Miller? Is it gonna be Allen?" Well, it turned out it was Battier. That son-of-a-gun couldn't miss, and we got him going when we left him all alone on that first one.
Leonard, who missed one of two free throws near the end of regulation in Game 6, opening the door for Allen's game-tying three, again misses the first of two here, following a drive and a foul from James. He makes the second and the Heat lead 18-16 after one, with Chalmers missing a tough baseline jumper at the buzzer.
As the first quarter comes to a close, the game's just heating up. Stay tuned for the next installment, including a high-scoring second quarter and more thoughts from Pop and the gang.