In an interview with the Argentine newspaper La Nacion a week ago, Manu Ginobili had an interesting comment to a question about how he thinks the 2012-13 Spurs will be remembered historically.
No, long term, it won't be. But we, the ones who were part of it, will remember it because there can't be such a thin line between frustration and ecstasy. It wouldn't be logical. You try to find solace in that. But those that weren't there, those looking at a history of the results of the finals won't remember it. They'll see we were as good as Seattle or Utah were when they lost to the Chicago Bulls.
(H/T to J. Gomez for the translation)
I have to say, I mostly agree, though the circumstances aren't exactly apples-to-apples. The Jazz and Sonics, in losing to the Bulls in six games each, never had them down to an elimination game like the Spurs had with the Heat. They were never one play away, one shot away from derailing the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen-Phil Jackson dynasty.
Let's tackle Seattle first. They won 64 games in 1995-1996, but were still heavy underdogs to the all-time great 72-10 Bulls. It could've been a classic back-and-forth Finals, but it never really got going as the Bulls raced to a 3-0 series lead before dropping their focus for a couple of games and finally wrapping it up at home. The only thing about it I remember really is that Dennis Rodman had a real claim to being Finals MVP, since he was the best player in Games 2 and 6. Still, of the Sonics' four losses to Chicago, only Game 2 was remotely close, so there isn't much to gripe about or remember fondly for them.
(Then your humble narrator remembers that the Sonics don't even exist anymore and feels like a heel for pouring salt in the wound.)
The Jazz are a more interesting case. Some of you may remember that they had not one, but two six-game losses to the Bulls, in consecutive seasons, but because the Jordan shot over Bryon Russell is such an iconic NBA moment few folks remember that the 1997 Jazz actually had the better claim to being able to say they were right there against Chicago. In that series three of Utah's four losses came by two, two and four points. The Bulls outscored the Jazz by four points over the course of the six games. Compare that to 1998 where the margin was 47 points to Chicago (due to the 42-point blowout in Game 3) and the Bulls had a 3-1 series lead before suffering a 83-81 loss at home in Game 5.
Believe it or not, but Jordan actually had three game-winning shots against the Jazz in the Finals, not just the one everybody remembers. He had the buzzer-beater in Game 1 of the '97 Finals (fast-forward to the 6:00 mark of that link) after Karl Malone gakked a couple of free throws with nine seconds left that would've given the Jazz the series lead. Jordan also hit the go-ahead three (fast-forward to 8:00 mark) in his memorable "flu-game" (in which Jordan didn't actually have the flu but instead was hung over, if you believe ESPN analyst Jalen Rose, or inflicted with food poisoning, according to ex-Jordan trainer Tim Grover).
Maybe the '98 Jazz get the historical nod because if they won Game 6 then they would've had Game 7 at home, just like the '93 Phoenix Suns, though it's hard to fathom either of those clubs, even with home court, getting past Jordan in a winner-take-all game. Maybe that's the ultimate validation of Jordan's greatness, that he never needed to get an elimination game in going 6-0 in Finals appearances.
Jordan's Bulls aside, what other, better, comparisons can we make?
Well, the last Finals that went seven games before this one was in 2010, between the Lakers and Celtics, and like the Spurs, the losing team had a 3-2 series lead but was unable to win either of the road games. Unlike the Spurs though, Celtics fans couldn't bemoan their bad luck as far as how close they came to winning the sixth game, since they were thrashed 89-67. What they do cry about is the fact that Kendrick Perkins tore up his knee in that game, back when Perkins was more useful on a basketball court than, say, a washing machine would be.
It's funny how our memories play tricks on us so quickly. Maybe my recollections are warped from reading too many Bill Simmons columns or something, but I could've sworn the Celtics were up ten like, halfway through the fourth quarter of Game 7 before running out of gas. Nope. Their biggest lead was 49-36 with 8:34 to go in the third quarter (not a typo) but by the time the final stanza started it was only a four-point lead, 57-53 (yes, your math is right, that's a 21-4 run by L.A.). Once the Lakers went ahead 65-64 with 5:56 to go, they never trailed again. A fat Rasheed Wallace ran out of gas and nobody on the Celtics could grab a board. Pau Gasol Was royally screwed as the media crowned Kobe Bryant went the Finals MVP despite the fact that he shot 6-of-24 in Game 7 and only 40.5 percent for the whole series.
The '06 Mavericks never got to an elimination game against the Heat, but they did have a 2-0 series lead and were up 89-76 with just over six minutes to go in Game 3, in a Finals series where I rooted with all my might for an asteroid that never crashed.
Fans of the '05 Pistons have as good a claim as almost anybody. They were one Robert Horry NBA Jam "He's on Fire" montage from beating the Spurs in four consecutive Finals games, though of course we'll never know how being down 3-2 and going home for two must-win games would've changed the mentality of both teams for Game 6. Instead, Detroit flew down to San Antonio having to pull off nearly the impossible task of winning both road games, which of course they almost did. They were up nine points midway through the third quarter before all their bigs got in foul trouble and Tim Duncan had his way with the likes of Elden Campbell and Tayshaun Prince to knot it up at 57-57 entering the fourth.
The '94 Finals between the Houston Rockets and the New York Knicks seems to be a good fit on the surface. It also went seven, and the losing Knicks were up 3-2 before losing a pair of close ballgames at Houston by scores of 86-84 and 90-86. There was nothing too tragic about Game 6, although John Starks' buzzer-beating three-pointer was blocked by Hakeem Olajuwon, snuffing out New York's comeback attempt from being down 84-77 with around 1:45 to go. Game 7 was similarly tight, but the Knicks never got closer than three points down the stretch.
Honestly though, all I remember is John Starks' 2-of-18 shooting in that last game. This is the Finals that the casual fan accuses Spurs-Pistons of being: two teams who play the exact same style, inside out, without point guards, really, just slinging rocks at each other before professional basketball players figured out how to shoot three pointers at an acceptable level. The O.J. Simpson "chase" dominated the news around this time, but even staying on the field of play, the '94 NBA Finals was completely eclipsed by the incredible NHL Finals between the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks. Who needed Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing with Mark Messier (and Brian Leetch, Adam Graves, Alexei Kovalev and Mike Richter) battling Pavel Bure?
Believe it or not, but we have to go all the way back to 1988 to find the best comparison, in a Finals that saw the upstart Pistons, led by Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, trying to dethrone the defending champion Lakers -- just like the Heat, interestingly enough. The Pistons were up 3-2 in the series and led for most of the second half of Game 6, thanks to Thomas' remarkable 25 points in the third quarter on a badly-sprained ankle. Duncan, you'll recall, had 25 points in the first half of Game 6 at Miami. Detroit led by three points with less than a minute to go, but a Byron Scott jumper cut it to one and when Thomas missed a baseline shot with 27 seconds left, the Lakers had their opening, which they seized thanks to a dubious foul call on Bill Laimbeer against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who hit the tying and go-ahead freebies for the Lakers to pull the game out 103-102.
Game 7 wasn't quite as classic. Thomas' injury worsened to the point that he only played 28 minutes and was held scoreless in the second half. The Lakers were up 90-75 midway through the fourth before a furious Pistons rally, but they never had the ball with a chance to tie or go ahead, pulling within two once with 1:17 to go, and then to only a one point deficit with six seconds to go, but Magic Johnson immediately found a streaking A.C. Green for the clinching layup.
It's all well and good, but to me none of these is the right fit. I mean, we're talking about a circumstance where the Spurs were so agonizingly close to toppling an iconic, heavily-favored giant, and like 15 things had to go wrong for them to not do it. Let's count them off together, just to be morbid.
1. Ginobili misses a free-throw.
2. Pop takes out Duncan.
3. LeBron James misses his first three so badly that the rebound caroms off the backboard at a crazy angle, confusing everybody.
4. Kawhi Leonard can't come up with the board despite having both hands on it because...
5. Boris Diaw crashes into his arms.
6. Danny Green, at half court, is nowhere close to covering a wide-open James for the second chance...
7. Which James buries.
8. Leonard misses a free-throw.
9. Pop, again, takes out Duncan.
10. Nobody remembers to box out Chris Bosh after another James three-point miss.
11. The ball goes right to Bosh.
12. Nobody covers Ray Allen...
13. Who cans the three.
14. The Spurs don't score on the final play of regulation.
15. The Spurs don't win in overtime.
It's sick. Just sick.
To do this comparison justice, we have to go to baseball, where the 1986 Boston Red Sox were a mere strike away from beating the New York Mets and ending the "Curse of the Bambino" in Game 6, up 5-3 in the bottom of the 10th inning at Shea Stadium in New York and with two outs and nobody on base for the Mets. In fact, they had 15 pitches in that game that could've been the final out (you can see the entire sequence here), before closer Bob Stanley threw a wild pitch on the 16th that allowed the tying run to score. Three pitches later the Sox lost on Bill Buckner's infamous (and highly overrated) error. Simmons wrote a decent column about living through the experience as a die-hard Red Sox fan, back when he cared about his writing.
The Red Sox were up 3-0 as late as the sixth inning of Game 7, but wound up losing the game 8-5. They eventually ended their curse in 2004, and their fans have been completely spoiled and insufferable ever since.
Ultimately, I agree with Ginobili, that the Spurs will go down in history as afterthoughts by most, but necessarily for the same reasons. What made the Charles Barkley-Kevin Johnson-Dan Majerle Suns, and the Malone-John Stockton Jazz and the Shawn Kemp-Gary Payton Sonics memorable, even endearing in a way, is that they never did get over the hump as franchises. They had their chances, but burned them all. If any of those franchises had gone on to win one after, then nobody would be talking about those Finals now, even with the losing teams and their stars as footnotes to the greatness of Jordan, Pippen and Olajuwon. I mean, who even thinks of the '88 or '05 Pistons? Those teams found glory later on or the year before.
The '86 Red Sox have been written about and referenced a thousand times more than the Mets, partly because of the narcissistic, angst-ridden New England culture, partly because it extended their World Series drought and partly because their opponent wasn't some defending champ with an all-time great player but rather just the Mets -- the annoying, bratty younger brother of the monolith Yankees. And even then far too many people recall Buckner as a goat who made the series-losing error instead of realizing a) the game was already tied by then b) it was only Game 6 and c) it's questionable whether he would've beaten Wilson to the bag anyway.
Believe it or not, but the Spurs near-miss won't have much historical significance for anyone long-term except maybe Duncan, for his legacy among the greats. Somewhere along the way our media culture has lost its way and far more attention is being given to individuals instead of teams. The NBA, for
better or worse, has been hijacked by James for at least the past four years. It was a great story for the Mavericks to upset the Heat in 2011, but the media narrative afterward was like 10 minutes on how terrific and redemptive it was for Dirk Nowitzki, followed by months of months of articles and television features on James being a choker who can't come up in big games.
Just two years later, it seems like nobody can even remember much about that Finals (James certainly seems to have expunged it from his memory completely, telling reporters during the 2013 Finals that he's "50 times better" than he was in the 2007 Finals vs. the Spurs, even though he was far worse against the Mavs in his second Finals appearance). The whole series has been marked as a "learning curve" for the James-Bosh-Dwyane Wade triumvirate, a necessary bump in the road before they "learned how to win."
All the same, had the Spurs won a couple months back, about 15 minutes would've been spent on what a nice story it was for our guys, particularly Duncan and Pop, before the book was soundly slammed shut on the Spurs and all the talk abruptly shifted to "what's wrong with the Heat?" and endless debates about whether they should trade Bosh, Wade, or both; whether Pat Riley should fire Erik Spoelstra, whether James is overrated since he's 1-3 in Finals appearances, and whether it's now a foregone conclusion that he'd leave after 2014. Win or lose, most of the talk would've been about Miami.
So, yeah, Manu's right. Only Spurs fans will ever remember how close we came years from now. Most won't even remember that the Spurs even played the Heat, let alone that they came within a whisker of toppling them. Heck, if the Thunder make it back to the Finals next year, then they'll be completely forgotten, even worse than the Knicks, Sonics or Suns, who are remembered as losers whereas last year's Spurs team won't be remembered at all.
Our loss had all the heartbreak of the Red Sox in '86, but we can't well claim to being cursed with four titles in the past 15 years, now can we? Maybe it's for the best that it will all quietly turn to ash in the dustbin of history. Maybe we're all better off this way. I think the last thing any of us would want a decade from now if a stranger in a bar asks us what team we pull for and we reply "Spurs" is for them to shake their heads, pat us condescendingly on the shoulders and say, "Aw man, you guys were sooooo close I can't believe y'all BLEW that game."
No, that wouldn't be fun.
Still, after weighing the pros and cons, really thinking about it long and hard, I've come to the conclusion that it would've been preferable to win.