SAN ANTONIO — When a team is as steady, precise and collectively intelligent as the San Antonio Spurs, dissecting its mistakes can feel like nitpicking. Even in their losses, it's much more gratifying to focus on the pretty ball movement than the wild passes that sail over the baseline.
Sunday night, however, was a night for dissecting and nitpicking, and maybe even a night for measured concern.
The Spurs were brilliant, until they weren't. They were good enough to take an 11-point lead against the Miami Heat and erratic enough to give it away. At times, they were mesmerizingly bad.
Tony Parker and Tim Duncan combined to miss four straight free throws in a tight fourth quarter.
Manu Ginobili zinged a pass with so much ferocity that it flew right off Duncan's fingertips and out of bounds.
And Parker, caught in a broken play, chose to drive straight into LeBron James—who has a mere six-inch, 60-pound advantage—in a desperate attempt to draw a foul. As one might expect, this ended badly, with James stripping the ball.
The ball stopped moving. The beautifully orchestrated Spurs offense turned to muck.
It was a decidedly un-Spurs-like finish, resulting in a 98-96 defeat, the loss of home-court advantage and a 1-1 tie in the NBA Finals.
"We didn't take advantage of things; we made bad decisions," coach Gregg Popovich said.
James, now with a fully functioning left leg, thoroughly picked apart the Spurs in the second half, scoring 14 points in the third quarter, eight more in the fourth, capping it all off with a perfect pass to Chris Bosh for the game-clinching three-pointer.
The Spurs were the better passing team most of the night, finishing with a 26-16 advantage in assists. San Antonio was the more precise team, too, with just 11 turnovers (to 13 for the Heat), a major improvement from Game 1.
Yet a few wayward possessions were enough to tilt the outcome, and now the Spurs will be fighting on two fronts—battling the Heat in the present while staring down the ghosts of the past.
The next two games will be played at Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena, the site of the greatest heartbreak in Spurs history: last year's Game 6 loss in the Finals. The Spurs were eight seconds away from winning the championship that night, only to watch Ray Allen hit a game-tying, fate-altering three-pointer. San Antonio lost in overtime, then lost Game 7, and soon everyone was wondering if the team might be gone for good.
Popovich made Game 6 a rallying point this season, forcing his team to review and relive its miscues on the first day of training camp last October. The Spurs embraced the pain, marinated in it and used it as fuel for a 62-win season, forcing their way back to the Finals.
That doesn't mean the memories have faded, and you can bet the Heat's game operations crew will be putting that video of Allen's three-pointer on a constant loop for Tuesday night's game.
"It's a different season," Parker said Sunday night. "For me, personally, I'm definitely not going to think about that the next two games."
That's what players usually say in these situations, but Popovich gave a more candid response in January, when the Spurs traveled to Miami for a regular-season game, their first trip back since the Finals collapse.
Asked then if the return would spark unpleasant memories for his players, Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News' Mike Monroe:
Of course it will, unless they're not human. I don't have to walk into that arena to think about it, so I would imagine that from time to time, it goes through the players' heads, too. It's just natural. Anybody who says differently is a liar.
One factor working in San Antonio's favor: The new 2-2-1-1-1 format for the Finals. The Spurs will leave for Miami knowing that even if they lose the next two games, they will get at least one more game back home, in Game 5.
Under the old 2-3-2 format, the middle three games would have all been in Miami, meaning the Spurs could have lost the series having played more road games than home games.
None of that was much comfort Sunday night, as the Spurs contemplated their untimely miscues.
The Spurs held a 30-19 lead early in the second quarter but lost it over the next six minutes, committing three turnovers along the way. James exploded for 14 points in the third quarter, but the Spurs held firm and took a 78-77 lead into the fourth.
The game seemed to turn for good when Mario Chalmers threw an elbow into Parker's ribs with 6:43 to play, sending Parker to the floor, in obvious pain. Chalmers was called for a flagrant foul. Parker stayed down, holding his side, for several minutes.
When he finally got up, he missed both of his free throws. Duncan missed two more on the Spurs' next possession, as a two-point lead gradually turned into a three-point deficit. San Antonio took its final lead, 93-92, on a Parker three-pointer with 2:26 left.
The final two minutes were a mess, including a broken play that ended with Parker throwing himself into James.
"We tried to run the play that Pop drew in the timeout, and it didn't work out like we wanted," Parker said.
And the decision to drive into James? "Just try to draw contact, get something."
Instead, James got the strip, sending the ball out of bounds. Replays indicated it had gone off Parker, but after a review, officials awarded possession to the Spurs. Ginobili then missed a three-pointer. At the other end, Bosh converted his three-point try, pushing the Heat ahead for good.
Now it is the Spurs who are facing nagging concerns, such as: What happened to Tiago Splitter (two points)? Can we get more from Kawhi Leonard (nine points) or Boris Diaw (seven points)? What happened to our vaunted depth? And why in the world did we stop moving the ball?
"Maybe [it was] a little bit of fatigue, or maybe a little bit of confusion or them scrambling more," said Danny Green. "It could be a number of things. But we didn't look like ourselves out there."
The Spurs cannot rewrite history, cannot erase Allen's three-pointer or extinguish the bitter memories of Game 6. But redemption is still within reach, a happier ending still possible. They might need to chase off a few ghosts first, however.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
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