Never, ever count out the San Antonio Spurs.
It's a lesson I learned a long time ago and one I continue to brush up on today. It's one you've probably come to grips with as well. At one point or another, we all have.
Doubters have emerged every year since Tim Duncan took his well-rounded game to the NBA. Detractors flocked San Antonio's way in bunches after 2007, the last time the Spurs won a title.
Since then, the Spurs weren't considered capable of contending the way they did previously. They were too old, Duncan couldn't keep playing as well as he had, they were too old, Gregg Popovich's piercing voice would soon go hoarse, Tony Parker would have to win on his own and he wasn't enough...Oh, and they were considered too old. Did I get everything?
The last six years were spent proving the vast majority of the population wrong. Save for a pair of first-round exits, the Spurs have embodied consistency, keeping their streak of consecutive 50-win regular seasons alive that dates back to 1999-00.
Still, the world is always one loss away from falling into what has become an all-too-common trap.
Being the idiot that I am sometimes, I picked against the Spurs in two of their three playoff series.
I had them beating the Los Angeles Lakers (who didn't?), falling to the Golden State Warriors (to be fair, they were my sleeper team) and then mistakenly picked the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals (crap).
Because I'm a glutton for potential punishment, I went with the Miami Heat in the Finals. Once again, they have the opportunity to prove me and a lot of other people wrong.
Never again, though, will I underestimate the Spurs. Never.
In making my Finals pick, I had a firm grasp on the risk involved, as did many others. Picking the Heat wasn't a sure bet; it wasn't the safe bet. Going against the Spurs (again) could be another mistake.
That's how good these Spurs are, how disciplined they play. They're always in it, never out of it, even approaching a Game 7 on the road after choking away what would have been a title-clinching Game 6.
Perfectly imperfect—that's the Spurs. They struggle like any other team (see the end of Game 6), but unlike most, there isn't an off button.
San Antonio didn't play its best basketball through the final 17 minutes of Game 6. What we saw wasn't even close to the Spurs' best. And they almost won.
It took a transcendent fourth quarter from LeBron James, a few botched free throws by San Antonio, a pair of unlikely three-pointers and some improbable miscues on the part of Popovich to sink these Spurs.
Some would posit that the Heat didn't beat the Spurs, that instead the Spurs beat themselves, and they would have a strong case.
Game 5 didn't bring with it the best version of San Antonio, either. Manu Ginobili went off for 24 points and 10 assists, Parker persevered through hamstring issues to drop 26 and five and the ever-ageless Tim Duncan was as consistent as anything, notching yet another double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds. Danny Green (24 points) and Boris Diaw (sensational defense on LeBron) joined the party as well.
That still wasn't the Spurs at their finest. They had 18 turnovers and played suspect perimeter defense for a large portion of the game. Had LeBron and Dwyane Wade not combined to go 9-of-25 around the basket—many of which were easy looks—we'd also be talking about the Spurs' need to improve their interior defense.
But the Spurs won by 10 in a game where the Heat never really threatened until the final four minutes of the fourth quarter. Counting them out now shouldn't even be debated.
Game 6 was an agonizing one to lose. Minutes away from the fourth championship of the Big Three era, the Spurs, well, they choked. Never did they stop swinging, though. Not all their punches landed, but they stayed in the fight. Parker hit big shots down the stretch, and in an overtime period where they scored a mere five points, they were never out of reach, holding the Heat to eight.
Those are the Spurs we've seen all series. Playing resilient basketball is all they know. When they're at their worst or at the lowest of points—like now—they're not done.
San Antonio won't submerge in a pool of self-pity or languish in Game 6 failures come Game 7. The Spurs will come to play.
Parker won't be any healthier, Duncan or Ginobili any younger, Coach Pop any less bitter or gray, but they'll be ready.
No matter what type of game needs to be played or which personality of the alarmingly schizophrenic Heat the Spurs face, they'll be ready.
This shouldn't even be a question. But it is, because we have to ask it. We have to respond to it, too. And if it was the only one we had to answer, the Spurs would be crowned champion now. There would be no need to play Game 7.
Other factors are at play, though. There's another team on the floor who is packed with enough firepower to beat the Spurs even when they're at their best.
The Spurs may win Game 7, at which point inquiries such as ours become irrelevant. Just know that if they lose, it won't be because they don't have enough championship basketball in them. They've already proved otherwise.
Instead, if they lose, it will be because the Heat were better. Not that they wanted it more or deserved it more, but were just better. Refuge from any loss can be found there, in understanding that the Spurs weren't incompetent. Rather, they fell to a (potentially) superior opponent.