It all comes down to Game 7 for the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, just as the basketball gods intended.
The Miami Heat staged an epic rally in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, leaving fans with the two best words in sports: Game 7.
On Thursday night, everything will be on the line. An NBA championship. The legacies of two Big Threes. The reputations of two of the game's best coaches.
Both teams stand exactly 48 minutes from either triumph or heartbreak. They'll play like there's no tomorrow because, well, there really won't be one.
The 2012-13 NBA season ends Thursday, no matter what. (Unless David Stern wants to make this series a best of 15...please?)
Before we reach what promises to be one of the most memorable games in recent NBA history, let's examine the factors that will likely end up determining who walks out of AmericanAirlines Arena with the 2013 NBA championship in hand.
After his breakout performance in Game 5 of the 2013 NBA Finals, Manu Ginobili came crashing back down to earth in Game 6.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich inserted the struggling Ginobili into his starting lineup before Game 5 and began reaping the rewards immediately. The Argentinian scored seven points and dished three assists within the first six minutes of the game and never looked back, finishing with 24 points and 10 dimes.
Ginobili couldn't recapture that magic in Game 6 despite earning his second start of the season. He knocked down only two of his five shot attempts in the overtime loss, finishing with nine points and a career-high eight turnovers.
To make matters worse, he missed a free throw that could have bumped the Spurs' lead to six with 28 seconds left in the game. Instead of securing the Spurs' fifth championship since 1999, Ginobili left the door open for the Miami Heat to stage one of the most memorable comebacks imaginable.
"I have no clue how we're going to be reenergized," Ginobili said after the game, according to Brett Pollakoff of ProBasketballTalk. "I'm devastated. But we have to."
If the Spurs hope to emerge victorious in Game 7, they'll need Ginobili to put his Game 6 stinker behind him immediately. It's anyone's guess whether he'll be able to do so.
Through five games, the story of the 2013 NBA Finals was the red-hot shooting of Danny Green.
In Game 5, Green shattered Ray Allen's record for most three-pointers made in an NBA Finals (22). A combination of great execution from the Spurs and lackluster defense by the Heat resulted in a never-ending onslaught of open looks for Green.
Lo and behold, Bosh and the Heat backed up that talk.
Green hit only one of his five three-point attempts in Game 6, finishing with three points on 1-of-7 shooting from the field. The man who inspired such nicknames as "Touched by God" couldn't summon divine inspiration upon his return to the AmericanAirlines Arena.
The Spurs only shot 5-of-18 from deep as a team in Game 6, which won't be enough to get it done on the road in a winner-take-all Game 7. San Antonio's shooters will need to rediscover their touch on the road or they'll be going home empty-handed on Thursday.
In the first half of Game 6, Tim Duncan put the Spurs on his back and looked primed to personally carry them to a championship.
The 37-year-old finished the opening half with 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting and eight rebounds. He hadn't scored 25 points or more in a game since the Spurs' first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers, and yet there he was, carving up the Heat defense like Swiss cheese.
Standing 24 minutes away from elimination, the Heat had no choice but to pull out all the stops against Duncan in the second half. They began sending double-teams his way, providing Chris Bosh with some much-needed defensive help, and it worked like a charm.
The Big Fundamental failed to register a single point in the fourth quarter or overtime and found himself parked on the bench in some of the game's most critical situations. With fewer than 10 seconds standing between him and his fifth NBA championship, Duncan could only watch as Bosh secured the most clutch rebound of his life and dished it off to Ray Allen for the game-tying three-pointer.
Grantland's Bill Simmons called the Duncan breakout game, asking in his pre-Game 6 column, "What would be a better storybook ending than a 37-year-old Duncan throwing up one of those old-school '32 and 15s' on Miami?"
Well, 30 points and 17 rebounds nearly did the trick. It's hard to fathom Duncan mustering another turn-back-the-clock night in Game 7, but he might have to for the Spurs to win the title.
After laboring through the first three games of the finals, Dwyane Wade exploded with a vintage "Flash" performance in Game 4.
His 32 points, six steals, six rebounds and four assists that night helped the Heat even the series at two games apiece, turning the finals into a best-of-three.
If the Heat hope to emerge victorious in Game 7, they'll need Wade to go back into the time machine once more.
Miami fans faced a real scare early in Game 6 when Wade drove to the basket, banged knees with Manu Ginobili and came up hobbling. Coming out of halftime, Ray Allen started the second half for the Heat as Wade spent a few extra minutes in the locker room.
Wade wasn't stellar offensively on Tuesday, finishing with only 14 points on 6-of-15 shooting, and it's worth speculating on whether that knee contributed to his struggles. The Heat had a point differential of minus-15 with Wade on the floor, which speaks to why coach Erik Spoelstra kept him on the bench for the majority of the fourth quarter.
At this point, it's clear the Spurs don't respect Wade's shooting ability, deciding instead to pack the paint and let him beat them from the perimeter. He'll need to make San Antonio pay for that strategy in Game 7, or Spoelstra won't have any choice but to bench him for a shooter like Allen, Mike Miller or even Shane Battier late in the game.
Give LeBron James credit: While he wasn't stellar offensively in the first three quarters of Game 6, he did a masterful job of keeping Tony Parker in check.
James drew the defensive assignment against Parker for most of the game, as Spoelstra must have gotten tired of watching the Frenchman slice and dice his way into the lane against Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole.
For James, who already appeared to be demonstrating signs of exhaustion heading into the game, covering the speedy Parker would be no easy task. Grantland's Zach Lowe admitted as much after the game, tweeting, "I didn't think he could defend Parker like he did tonight for so long."
Parker scored a respectable 19 points but finished only 6-of-23 from the field. James' length clogged up Parker's ability to seamlessly run pick-and-rolls—the bread-and-butter of the San Antonio Spurs' offensive attack throughout most of this series.
Heading into Game 7, Gregg Popovich must assume the Heat will stick James right back on Parker in most of their defensive sets. Does that mean more ball-handling responsibility for Manu Ginobili, who caught a bad case of turnover-itis at the worst possible time in Game 6?
Or will Parker take over, strained hamstring be damned, even while facing off against the reigning MVP?
Through the first four games of the championship round, the series followed a relatively simple recipe: Whichever team won the turnover battle emerged victorious.
In Games 5 and 6, that maxim no longer held true. The San Antonio Spurs took the 3-2 series lead in Game 5 despite losing the turnover battle, 18-13, while the Miami Heat returned the favor in Game 6, winning the game despite posting two more turnovers than the Spurs.
Still, both teams thrive in transition, which makes the turnover battle that much more critical. Sloppy miscues on one end tend to lead to easy points on the other, which can mean four- or five-point swings in the blink of an eye.
For Miami, it's especially important to generate easy looks off turnovers, as the Spurs' half-court defense continues to pose challenges. The Heat can't afford to get bogged down offensively in Game 7, as they'll need their crowd to be deafening from start to finish.
Two final-minute miscues from LeBron James nearly cost the Heat the chance to stage their epic comeback in Game 6, and Manu Ginobili's giveaway at the end of overtime all but guaranteed a Game 7.
It wouldn't be surprising to see the seventh game, like Game 6, come down to whichever team can excel most with late-game execution.
Chris Bosh has a chance in Game 7 to prove once and for all that he truly belongs in the Miami Heat's Big Three.
Besides his breakout performance in Game 4, Bosh has been largely invisible, at least offensively, in the finals. The San Antonio Spurs have been daring him to shoot mid- and long-range jump shots, and he's been unable to cash in at a high enough rate to make them regret that strategy.
While Bosh only finished with 10 points on 5-of-12 shooting from the floor in Game 6, he made his impact felt in other ways late in the game. With the Heat trailing by three points and only seconds from being eliminated, Bosh secured a rebound off of LeBron James' missed three that led to Ray Allen's game-tying trey from the corner.
Bosh also came up with two enormous blocks in overtime, helping the Heat secure the series-tying victory. He got his fingertips on a Tony Parker jumper with 30 seconds left and Miami clinging to a one-point lead, then erased Danny Green's last-second attempt at a game-tying three to win the championship.
The Heat don't necessarily need Bosh to put up 20-plus points to win Game 7, as James, Allen and Dwyane Wade are more than capable of carrying the load offensively. Miami will need Bosh to anchor its defense, however, if it plans on emerging as NBA champion on Thursday night.
Leave it to Ray Allen to hit one of the most unbelievably clutch shots in NBA Finals history.
After Kawhi Leonard split a pair of free throws with 19 seconds left in Game 6, the Miami Heat had one last-gasp effort at tying the game and avoiding elimination. LeBron James couldn't connect from distance, but Allen made the most of his long-range opportunity.
True to form, his three-pointer splashed home, tying the game at 95 with just over five seconds remaining. And unlike in Game 1, Tony Parker didn't have a last-second miracle up his sleeve.
"It's going to be the shot that I'm going to remember for a long time," Allen said after the game, according to ESPN.com's Michael Wallace. "There are a lot of shots I've made in my career, but this will go high up in the ranks because of the situation. That right there was luck shining on our side."
If Game 7 comes down to the final few possessions, there's no question that Erik Spoelstra will have Allen on the floor. The Heat proved in Game 6 that no deficit is insurmountable so long as they've got the NBA's all-time leader in threes ready to fire away from deep.
Can he come through in the clutch again? History says yes.
Let's make one thing clear right off the bat: Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the NBA, bar none.
With that said, a few of his late-game decisions from Game 6 will be heavily scrutinized for years to come if the Spurs can't clinch the championship in Game 7.
As noted on Twitter by NBA gambling guru Bob Voulgaris, Pop's decision to leave Tim Duncan on the bench with the Spurs clinging to a three-point lead at the end of regulation raises some eyebrows. If you're not fouling in that situation, you're counting on the opponent to miss a three-point attempt, which means you must secure the defensive rebound.
Pop also elected to keep the five-man lineup of Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Danny Green, Gary Neal and Manu Ginobili in the game early in the fourth quarter as the Heat cut the Spurs' lead from 10 points to four. Fatigue for Tony Parker appeared to be a factor, as the point man played all 12 minutes in the third quarter.
There's a very realistic chance of Popovich coming back in Game 7 and blowing us all away with a handful of adjustments that leave the Heat baffled. Still, his fourth-quarter decision-making in Game 6 merits some scrutiny.
Of all of the questions that Gregg Popovich will face between now and Game 7, the issue of who defends LeBron James will be the most critical.
Through the first three quarters of Game 6, the Spurs limited James to only 14 points on 3-of-12 shooting. James appeared perplexed by their changing defensive looks, unwilling to venture into the paint against double- or triple-teams.
The King solved the riddle in the fourth quarter, however, exploding for 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, two rebounds, two assists and one momentum-swinging block against Tim Duncan.
While Boris Diaw had successfully frustrated James in the first seven quarters of Games 5 and 6, the reigning MVP got his revenge in the fourth quarter on Tuesday. He blew by the slow-footed Diaw on several drives, sending the message that if the Heat were to be eliminated on this night, it would be on James' terms.
Kawhi Leonard will still draw the primary defensive assignment against James, as he's been simply superb at defending him without fouling. He's been holding his own against LeBron in the post, too, which has been critical for the Spurs' chances in these finals.
Expect Pop to continue throwing a range of defensive looks at James in Game 7, with Leonard, Diaw and Danny Green drawing the man-to-man matchup at times. With only 48 minutes standing between LeBron and a second straight championship, however, it's going to be a momentous task to keep him in check.
Throughout the finals, it's been impossible to predict which LeBron James will show up, both game-to-game and quarter-to-quarter.
In all but one quarter in Games 2 and 3, for instance, James played with a stunning level of passivity on offense. After being buried in criticism between Games 3 and 4, the reigning MVP began forcing the issue more on offense with repeated trips into the paint.
Yet there he was in Game 5, refusing to take Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw off the dribble. Game 6 started in a similar fashion, with James a stunning 3-of-12 from the field through three quarters.
Facing the prospect of being 12 minutes removed from yet another disappointment in the NBA Finals, the long-overdue LeBruption came in the fourth quarter. He started the Heat's fourth-quarter rally by passing to a wide-open Mario Chalmers for three, scoring on a drive to cut the Spurs' lead to five and feeding Mike Miller for a one-shoed three-pointer to bring Miami within four points only 90 seconds into the fourth.
With the Spurs clinging to a two-point lead nearly halfway through the fourth, James swooped in to block a shot from Tim Duncan, allowing the Heat to take their first lead since the second quarter moments later.
Two unseemly final-minute turnovers from James almost derailed Miami's effort to force a Game 7, but he also set the stage for Ray Allen's last-second heroics by drilling a three-pointer of his own with 20 seconds left and the Heat trailing by five.
With 32 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, James became only the third player in NBA history to post a triple-double in the finals while facing elimination, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, joining Bill Russell and James Worthy.
It's almost unfair to ask him to emulate that performance in Game 7, but that's part of the baggage that comes with being widely regarded as the best player in the world. He's either one game away from being 1-of-4 in the NBA Finals or a back-to-back champion.
If the Heat plan on winning the 2013 NBA championship on Thursday, James needs to unfurl a master class on both ends of the court for all 48 minutes.