Deadspin had an interesting little filler post the other day. It was a hypothetical asking fans if they could change the outcome of one play in sports history, which would they pick? Royce Young from DailyThunder.com quickly pounced on the premise, producing a fine list of five Thunder moments he'd like a do-over on. Oddly enough, stealing the Seattle Supersonics wasn't on his list. Neither was trading James Harden. I guess technically neither are "plays," so whatever. Then Dan McCarney of the Express-News did his own list of the top six "toughest plays in Spurs history."
Since it's my nature to over-analyze everything, I couldn't read these lists without thinking about the butterfly effect, where a seemingly innocuous thing like the flapping of a butterfly's wings causes millions of people years later to see a thoroughly disappointing Ashton Kutcher movie.
We Spurs fans shouldn't have much to complain about, what with five Larry O'Briens in the past 16 years and the perpetual contention and all. There are high school seniors in San Antonio who probably assume that the NBA playoffs is like some tennis tournament, where everyone automatically qualifies. However, because we are spoiled, we keep moping about this shot or that. Not only are we oblivious about how obnoxious the whining sounds to fans of, say, the Sacramento Kings, but we just forget about consequences in general.
Let's take a look at some famous Spurs heart-sinkers. We'll go chronologically.
May 19, 1990, Western Conference Semi-Finals Game 7 at Portland: The play everyone remembers from this one is Rod Strickland throwing a behind-his-head pass out-of-bounds to a Sean Elliott he thought was going to cut baseline, but that happened in overtime when the Spurs were already trailing. A better moment to pick, as Buck Harvey of the Express-News referenced in this column, was the Clyde Drexler three-pointer that cut the Spurs lead to 97-95 with 1:50 to go. (At the 19:20 mark.) The Spurs led 97-90 with 2:30 left and never scored again in regulation.
Was it really that big of a deal though? Even if the Spurs upset the Blazers and found a way to get past the Phoenix Suns in the Conference Finals, waiting for them at the end of the road would've been the defending champion "Bad Boys" Pistons, a veteran squad led by Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, etc. That Detroit team cut its teeth getting past the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics and the Bulls with Michael Jordan and a young Scottie Pippen. They swept the Magic-Kareem-Worthy Lakers in the Finals in 1989 after almost beating them the season before. They were not about to lose the title to a callow Spurs team with a rookie David Robinson, a rookie Elliott, and a green backcourt in Strickland and Willie Anderson. The Pistons would've mugged Robinson and Terry Cummings inside and forced the Spurs to try to shoot jumpers, which was not exactly their forte. San Antonio made 54 threes all season, shooting 23.9 percent as a team. I just don't see a happy ending there.
Suppose it all worked out though and the Spurs won it all that year. It would've forced the team to be a lot more patient with the mercurial, enigmatic Strickland. Avery Johnson would've never blossomed as a Spur and young, impressionable assistant coach Gregg Popovich would've had a warped view of the kind of point guard teams need to win with. He'd have been okay with head-cases and rebels, as long as they produced. He'd have different ideas about chemistry and teamwork. The Spurs as we know them would've never existed.
May 22, 1995, Western Conference Finals Game 1 vs. Houston: McCarney picked Hakeem Olajuwon's general dominance in Game 5,and I can't deny waking up in a cold sweat a time or two after reliving the "Dream shake" in my nightmares. Still, when I think back to that series, Game 1 is what stands out. The Rockets were pretty significant underdogs coming into that series. Even though they were the defending champs, it was a 1 vs. 6 match-up and the Spurs had won five of six regular season meetings. I think winning that first game on the road gave Houston the confidence to think they could pull this off and planted a seed of doubt for the Spurs.
San Antonio didn't play well at all in the series opener, but it looked like they would survive. They led 93-92 and their best free-throw shooter, Elliott, was on the stripe with 24 seconds to go. He missed both (fast-forward to the 2:30 mark) though and Robert Horry, who had been 0-of-4 in the game up to that point, hit an 18-footer for the game-winner for Houston.
Unlike most of the items on this list, I do feel the Spurs would've gone on to win the title had they won this game. Obviously, that's great, especially the part where David Robinson would've beaten Olajuwon and then Shaquille O'Neal head-to-head. The Admiral's career would be remembered in a more flattering light if he headlined a championship club instead of being a second banana to Tim Duncan.
Think of the ramifications though, man. If the Spurs win it all under Bob Hill, then Pop wouldn't have the nerve to fire him two years later. It's still possible all the injuries and the tanking could've happened, leading to Duncan, but Pop wouldn't have coached him. Duncan wouldn't have clicked with Hill and he'd have bolted for Orlando in free agency at the first opportunity. Also, can you imagine if the Spurs didn't trade Rodman, even after all the open insubordination and sabotage? Admit it, your had a full-body involuntary spasm just now.
May 13, 2004, Western Conference Semi-Finals Game 5 Vs. Los Angeles Lakers: The infernal 0.4 Derek Fisher shot. Here, let's relive it again together. For fun.
Let's assume for the moment that the timekeeper wasn't wearing a Lakers jersey and that it's totally possible for someone to catch the ball, stop their momentum, turn around, jump and shoot all in 0.4 seconds. The fact is the Spurs had no business winning this one. The Lakers outscored them in each of the first three quarters and were up nine going into the fourth. San Antonio shot 38.2 percent for the game. Duncan threw in an absolute prayer that was even luckier than Fisher's, just the play before. Also, for the game-deciding defensive play, Pop didn't even have Bruce Bowen out there, preferring Devin Brown (?) instead. Karmically, they deserved to lose.
What if they won that game and then survived a Game 7 though? Okay, they probably get by Minnesota in the Conference Finals, but waiting for them after that would've been a Pistons team that destroyed the Lakers. Once Detroit traded for Rasheed Wallace, they found the perfect mix. It allowed them to use Mehmet Okur as a third big and they had a deep bench with Corliss Williamson, Lindsey Hunter, Mike James and Elden Campbell. The Spurs were supposed to counter that interior muscle with Rasho Nesterovic and Hedo Turkoglu? Come on. Parker couldn't even shoot in 2004. This was gonna end badly.
Suppose the Spurs won it, just for the sake of argument. A repeat title would've been cool, but it would've probably compelled them to re-sign Turkoglu and Pop probably would've been less willing to move on from 'Sho and Rose. The Spurs without Brent Barry would've been way less fun. Manu Ginobili's development would've been stunted somewhat. No thank you.
May 22, 2006, Western Conference Semi-Finals Game 7 Vs. Dallas: The Foul. I'm so happy I missed this live. I happened to be on a plane as it was going on. Ginobili was vilified afterward, for taking the chance to block Dirk Nowitzki's layup attempt with the Spurs up three late, leading to a crazy and-1 for the Diggler. Nobody seemed to care that it was Ginobili whose three had given them the lead moments before or that he had scored 12 points in the fourth quarter to help bring them back from the abyss. (Or that Nowitzki fouled Duncan at the very end of regulation on an offensive rebound that wasn't called, which can be found at the 1:50:00 mark here.)
This is probably my most convoluted theory ever, but I've long maintained that had the Spurs beaten the Mavs in the semis, that the Pistons wouldn't have lost to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals that year. Detroit was obsessed with avenging their Finals loss to the Spurs from the previous season. It's all they talked about, all they cared about. They smashed the Spurs by 15 points in each of their regular season meetings in 2006 and made sure to have home court advantage throughout the playoffs, finishing 64-18 to San Antonio's 63-19. I'll go to my grave thinking that once the Mavs upset the Spurs in round two, that the Pistons lost some of their heart and drive. All of a sudden their Moby Dick had been speared by another fisherman. Once Miami got up on them early in the Eastern finals, the Pistons just didn't have the motivation to fight them off. I'd love to interview somebody affiliated with that Pistons team one day and ask them about this.
Anyway, Pop played a ton of small-ball down the stretch that year, having lost faith in Nesterovic and Nazr Mohammed and not willing to give Fabricio Oberto a chance in his first season with the team. Had the Spurs prevailed playing that way, who knows, maybe they never draft Tiago Splitter. I'm not sure any of us would want to live in a world without Tiago.
June 18, 2013, Finals Game 6 at Miami: Geez, I can't believe a scenario where Pop was relying on Boris Diaw to procure the most important rebound of the season didn't work out...
It boggles my mind that anyone with the benefit of hindsight would want to change a thing about how the 2013 Finals ended. Without it, 2014 doesn't happen, not the same way. No redemption for Ginobili, for Leonard, for "the little fat-ass" Patty Mills. 2014 was perfect in every way and it only happened because of that gut-wrenching loss. Why mess with it?
The one Spurs moment I'd be tempted to change would be Harden's backbreaking three in Game 5 of the 2012 Western Conference Finals. Maybe if the Spurs had found a way to win that game, they'd have won that series and then the Finals. Beating peak OKC and preventing LeBron James from ever winning a ring? I might be willing to risk sending a butterfly or two off-course for that one.