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French Heroes, Golden Gods and the Most Important Game in Spurs History

The legacies of eight, perhaps nine Hall-of-Famers, including a couple of the all-time greats, hang in the balance tonight. Besides that, in the words of Gregg Popovich, "It's just a basketball game."


Lost in the Manu's comeback story and Green's continued pyrotechnics (which I won't even elaborate on anymore because it terrifies me to even think about it), Parker was actually the best player on the floor for the majority of the game, finishing with a game-high 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting, and he was a ludicrous 10-of-10 in the paint, repeatedly finishing over and around Miami's bigs, their kinda bigs and their smalls. He abused Cole so bad that it might be another 20 years before another kid dreams of sporting a high-top fade and was similarly cruel against the hopelessly mismatched Miller whenever he caught him in a switch.

Really, both Parker, and to a lesser extent Ginobili, took a page out of the 2010 Heat playbook like I've been imploring them to do all series and eschewed the pick-and-roll for more favorable one-on-one match-ups against the Heat's terrible point guards. This tactic worked even better once those guys fired blanks on the other end of the floor, forcing coach Erik Spoelstra to play without either of them.

It was a terrific showing from Parker and I liked the way he stepped back into the shadows when he sensed a hot streak from Ginobili and pressed the issue more when the Argentine was on the bench or a bit winded. The two of them had superb chemistry in the way they alternated their forays into the Heat's defense. The best news was that our wee Frenchman didn't look at all encumbered by his balky hamstring, though he did have a slight limp during his postgame presser.

Even though the Bosh-James-Wade-Allen-Miller lineup stretches the Spurs defense past its limit, I can't imagine Spoelstra will dare use it as long as Parker is on the floor unless they're truly down big and desperate. There's just no way that lineup can keep Parker from the paint, and Tony's shown that even with James on him he can force a simple switch with the right actions.

I have a hunch that Game 6 will see Chris "Birdman" Andersen return to the Heat's rotation at the expense of Miller or perhaps Shane Battier and that it will indeed be, in Pop's words, more of a "big boy game." My guess is that Spoelstra will preach to the team that they can't win a title without returning to their defensive roots and that he will realize that they won't be able to force stops consistently playing small. I think they'll still play small for half the game, maybe a bit more, but not the full 48 that they have been.


How the hell did they win that game?

You know, outside of one stat, the Spurs had no business at all winning Game 5. The Heat, despite you-know-who doing you-know-what for the Spurs, actually made two more three-pointers in the game, and shot a higher percentage from downtown. They shot a higher percentage from the charity stripe as well. They grabbed five more offensive boards than San Antonio, dished four more assists and had four fewer turnovers.

Yet none of it mattered because the Spurs shot an unfathomable 60 percent while the Heat shot an ordinary 43 percent. The Heat missed a boatload of shots at the rim while the Spurs scored 50 points in the paint.

Usually in playoff series of immense importance the scores get lower as the games go on as defenses start figuring each other out over time and tighten the screws more and more. However, the opposite seems to be happening here. Both offenses are so immensely talented, with such deadly rim attackers, perfectly coordinated drive-and-kick games and dead-eye shooters, that the defenses really don't have a fighting chance. Miami gains its advantages with lightning-quick transition baskets and with offensive rebounds. The Spurs counter by having the best post scorer, by pushing the pace relentlessly, and they take advantage of every lazy Heat closeout and the frequent wails of protest by their resident divas to the refs, begging for calls during live play.

I don't want to say the Spurs offense is unsustainable, because I think they can have quite a bit of success doing what they've been doing, especially if the Heat continue to stay small --they can also find match-ups in their favor if the Heat go big-- but there's just no way they can be this sloppy with the ball and win the title. 19 giveaways is just way too many, and while a great number of them weren't "live ball" turnovers, the kind where the Heat punish you with dunks, and were instead turnovers of the travel/offensive foul variety, it's still too sloppy to win. Obviously, imploring the guys to give it away just four times is unrealistic, but I think a reasonable expectation, if they do indeed do want to end this thing, would be to commit fewer turnovers than Miami does, and fewer than 15 regardless.

I think more than any other stat, that's the magic number. 15 turnovers.


The Blob

I'm always happy to point out when I'm happily wrong about the Spurs, and it seems that may be the case with Boris Diaw, who played a quality 27 minutes in Game 5 despite scoring but one point and allowed the Spurs to play big vs. small for the majority of the game. By now you've no doubt heard that he held James to 1-of-8 shooting when matched up against him, and while I don't think the whistles will be in his favor at all in Game 6, it's better he picks up those calls than Leonard or Green. And who knows, maybe leaning on James with his weight really does fatigue James. Or maybe playing 44-plus minutes every night fatigues him. Or maybe nothing does. I'm still not sure he's human.

Do I have any confidence that Diaw will give us productive minutes in Game 6? None whatsoever. I think eventually the Heat will just leave him wide open and force him to shoot and Diaw will still refuse and stagnate the offense. However, if it makes you feel better I also have no confidence in Tiago Splitter, who's cost himself some money this series. It'd be terrific if he can summon a closeout performance comparable to what he did to the Warriors in Game 6 of that series.


They Might Be Giants (Please don't be the Giants)

The only other time My Favorite Team was in a final up 3-2 and going on the road for Games 6 and 7 was the San Francisco Giants in 2002. It's my most painful memory as a sports fan.

I still remember everything clear as day.

They won Game 1 of the World Series, at Anaheim, 4-3, behind homers from Barry Bonds and J.T. Snow and some clutch relief pitching from Robb Nen.

They were down 5-0 in the blink of an eye in Game 2, put on a stunning rally to take a 9-7 lead (that would've been more if not for a double-play grounder from Jeff Kent), before their bullpen blew the lead and they went on to lose 11-10.

Game 3 was a blowout loss at home, with fatty Livan Hernandez starting, and things were looking pretty grim.

Game 4 looked bleak early too, as they trailed 3-0, but Kirk Reuter didn't allow any more after that and the Giants somehow scored four runs on some dinks and bloops. I think Reuter even had a bunt hit in there somewhere.

Manoli and I skipped a community college creative writing class to take in Game 5, and this time the Giants won in a rout, 16-4, with Kent hitting two homers and Rich Aurilia going deep once as well. It was such a drubbing and San Francisco had such momentum that it seemed inevitable that they'd finally win their first World Series of the Bonds Era, as well as their first for the franchise since moving west from New York in the 50's. Even better, they would be starting their second best pitcher, Russ Ortiz, in Game 6, while the Angels had to rely on Kevin Appier, some has-been gas can.

The Giants had won games 1 and 5 when I watched at Sneakers, this sports bar I like, so I wanted to go back there for Game 6, only I had work that afternoon and I knew I'd be cutting it close to game time by the time I got out. My mom was a Giants fan too though, and she wanted to watch with me, so I told her to get there an hour early to get us seats. I knew the place would be packed quickly for the game.

Of course, my sister ruined everything. She distracted mom with some shopping ordeal and they got to Sneakers a whole minute ahead of me, with the restaurant well full and seats impossible to procure. We ended up getting an order to go and trudged back home, with me furious at my family, more my mom, who should've known better than my selfish, oblivious sister who wouldn't know the Super Bowl was on if it was played in her backyard. It was a bad omen, in my crazy warped mind.

Both teams wasted scoring chances through four innings before the Giants broke through in the fifth, on a two-run shot by Shawon Dunston, their DH batting ninth because their manager at the time was the Vinny Del Negro of baseball managers. They scored another run on a wild pitch to make it 3-0. In the sixth inning Bonds hit one that still hasn't landed and it was 4-0. Ortiz somehow escaped a jam, as he did the whole game, in the bottom of the sixth, striking out the Angels DH, Tim Salmon, on a fastball right down the middle with the bases loaded. Salmon should've launched it, the pitch was as straight as a string and screaming to be hit, but he didn't even swing. Kent knocked in another run in the seventh to make it 5-0. Bonds, who had already taken Angels fire-balling rookie sensation Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez deep once earlier in the game had a chance to hurt him again, but for some reason he seemed oddly nonchalant on the at-bat and chased a low and in slider to end the inning. It seemed odd to me because Bonds was so locked in that playoffs, with eight homers (four in the World Series alone) that he simply wasn't chasing bad pitches. It seemed like a "Eh, we're gonna win this thing, let the kid have his one cool story" kind of gesture from Bonds. The important thing was that the Giants were nine outs away from a championship and had a huge lead.

The first Angels batter in the bottom of the seventh made an out but the next two guys got hits. Baker came out of the dugout and Ortiz handed him the ball, as pitchers customarily do with their managers in baseball when they're being given the hook. Baker though, yelled for Ortiz to turn around as he was walking off the mound and flipped the ball right back to his pitcher, an unspoken message that meant, "Here's a souvenir you'll want to keep, a ball from the game you won for us to win the World Series." The Angels dugout noticed it. Boy did they notice it.

Baker brought in mercurial reliever Felix Rodriguez, the same guy who gave up the lead in Game 2. He had a terrific fastball, but no second pitch, which was why he never became anything more than a setup man. He battled middling Angels first-baseman Scott Spiezio for what seemed like a hundred pitches, Spiezio fouling off one after another after another. Finally, he hit what looked like a simple fly ball to right. Only it kept carrying. And carrying. This was no majestic no-doubter like the kind Bonds hit on the reg. It was just a fly ball. A can of corn. But damn if it didn't keep carrying, right over the outstretched arm of right-fielder Reggie Sanders and over the fence for a home run to make it 5-3.

I was shocked, I couldn't believe it. It was a gut punch, to be sure. Still, I remember telling mom, "They just need six more outs." The top of the eighth inning lasted about 1.3 seconds, with the Giants batters going 1-2-3.

A new reliever, Tim Worrell, came on for the Giants. On his first pitch of the game Angels center-fielder Darin Erstad hit a bomb and it was 5-4. Crap. Then he gave up another hit and then a bloop fell in front of Bonds. Baker called on Nen to somehow put the fire out. Nen was pitching with a rotator cuff that was practically completely torn. His fastball, once a pitch he threw in the high-90's, was now in the 89-90, range, so low on the radar gun that Baker ordered the scoreboard operator to not post the number during home games. Nen had been getting the job done in the playoffs on will, guile and little else. This time though he ran out of miracles and gave up a ringing double in the gap. Both baserunners scored and all of a sudden it was 6-5 Angels. Nen got out of the inning, finally, but he was never able to pitch competitively again for the Giants or anyone else. He gave everything to win that ring.

The Giants went down meekly in the ninth and lost.

I was scheduled to work the night of Game 7 and I didn't even bother trying to change my schedule. I knew what was going to happen. Everybody at work who followed the team knew. I recorded the game just in case, but really I had no faith at all. You just don't blow a Game 6 like that and recover. The Giants would be pitching Hernandez again (picture Boris Diaw, now picture asking him to pitch during Game 7 of the World Series despite him never having played baseball in his entire life and you have an idea of what Mr. Hernandez was like as a pitcher) and he was predictably shelled early in the game. Meanwhile the Giants shell-shocked hitters were shut down John Lackey, a rookie starting pitcher. They lost 4-1. Obviously I've never watched the game.

Eventually, eight years later, the Giants finally did win a World Series at long last. Then, oddly enough, another just two years later. Bonds, Kent, Aurilia, Snow and Nen never got theirs though. Those guys never had a chance at redemption. Their one shot slipped through their fingers.

The point of this story, which 99 percent of PtR doesn't care about, is that I'd really, really, really like the Spurs to wrap this puppy up in six, pretty please with a cherry on top. No baseball team won the Series in a road Game 7 since the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates and no basketball team has done it since the 1978 Washington Bullets at Seattle, when I was five months old. I'd like to think I have more faith in the Spurs than I had in those Giants, especially given the championship pedigree of their big three and the us-them-us-them-us... pattern of this series, but the truth is how much --if any-- confidence I'd have would depend on how Game 6 unfolded. If it was just some standard loss, then yeah, whatever, let's hope for miracle. If they blow some late 10-point lead though or lose on some buzzer-beater, then forget it, no chance.

The general tenor from the media going into the game is that the Heat should win it in a walk since they'll be back home, desperate and haven't lost two in a row since January. Flying Spaghetti Monster knows the refs will be heavily on their side. This might make Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals look tame by comparison, the officiating will be so lopsided.

Despite all of that, I think the Spurs will win. I think Pop and the guys will give everything, right here, right now, not saving anything "for the swim back" of a Game 7. Historically the Spurs have been excellent in road Game 6's up 3-2 when the pundits thought their opponents were superior and would easily force a deciding game. It's almost as if the team that's down lowers their defenses a bit, expecting the Spurs to relax since they have a game in hand. Instead, this is the spot where we've always pounced. Going in to the series I predicted Spurs in six with wins in Games 1, 3, 5 and 6, and here's hoping the coin flips my way a sixth time. I've never wanted anything so much my entire life. I can't imagine caring about another game this much ever again. Just one more guys. Just. One. More.


The Golden God

My gut tells me that if the Spurs win tonight it will be on the back of Tim Duncan, the best basketball player since Michael Jordan. I think he's going to leave it all out there, every last drop in his tank and pull out one last vintage performance, something like 28-17-5-5, repeatedly punishing the Heat for going small against him and not doubling quickly. I think he'll be the difference maker on both ends of the floor and that he might just snatch the series MVP from Parker and Green with his play tonight, to give him Finals MVPs 14 years apart.

I have this picture in my head of a postgame conversation between he and James. "You lied to me," James will say. "You said it would be my league after the last one."

"It is your league," Duncan will reply. "You've got the money, the fame, the hype, the attention. It's all yours. Right now they're all talking about you, just like you wanted. I just like winning basketball games."