Following the San Antonio Spurs’ series-clinching Game 6 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, Tim Duncan was asked by TNT’s David Aldridge about squaring off against the Miami Heat one year after his team's heartbreaking seven-game defeat.
“We have four more to win,” Duncan said, as reported by Sports Illustrated. “We’ll do it this time.”
We’ll do it this time.
Coming from Duncan—a player for whom the word “reserved” barely does his constitution justice—such conspicuous confidence was striking indeed. Did Duncan know something the rest of us didn’t? Were his Spurs in possession of some special secret beyond the comprehension of us feeble humans?
Three games and two transcendent performances later, San Antonio’s magic number is down to one—the demons dealt by last year’s dastardly defeat, well within an exorcism’s reach.
Appropriate, then, that the Spurs will have their chance on a Sunday, screams of hometown fans serving as the sermon, San Antonio’s beatific brand of basketball the righteous rites.
Only three teams in league history have won a playoff series after trailing 3-1. None of them did so in the NBA Finals.
Not that the Spurs are taking comfort in that fact. Not against these Hardwood Houdinis.
A refresher for the forgetful: Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. Manu Ginobili hits his second free throw to give San Antonio a 94-89 lead with 28 seconds remaining. Scores of white-clad fans head for the exits, even as LeBron James drills a three to pull his Heat to within the same.
Another missed free throw, this one by second-year forward Kawhi Leonard, and suddenly Miami has real life. When James’ next attempt falls errant, the deal seems sealed. But then there’s Chris Bosh, who grabs the rebound and, without so much as a second thought, wings it out to Ray Allen.
With less than hair’s worth of air between him and the outstretched hand of Tony Parker, the greatest of three-point shooters coils his calves, rises and lets fly the defining shot of that or any other Finals.
The rest is history. Tragedy, if you’re the Spurs, who would succumb in overtime before bowing out in hard-fought Game 7.
Even months later, the images of Game 6 remained seared inside the mind of head coach Gregg Popovich.
“I think about Game 6 every day,” Popovich told Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News. “Without exception. I think about every play. I can see LeBron’s first shot, and the rebound, and the second…I’ve been quite lugubrious…As sad as you can possibly be.”
For an aging team with four titles to its credit, such a crushing conclusion would seem the perfect cue to call it a run, to bow out gracefully and let the legacy take hold and grow.
Instead, the Spurs served immediate notice that not even the scars of Game 6—to say nothing of age or atrophied ability—would get in the way of their ultimate on-court destiny: a brand of basketball the likes of which the league may never see again.
What’s more, San Antonio’s success—forged as it’s been without the services of a traditional superstar—has finally begun to resonate on the fringes of NBA fandom. Here’s Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney:
The rotating cast of seemingly interchangeable parts draws deserved praise for both Gregg Popovich and his “system” above all else. Within the system catch-all is a specificity of meaning without singling out any particular player; even casual fans of the NBA have some grip on the particulars of Spurs basketball, and it’s through that understanding that this all-time team is generally appreciated.
Such is only right for a team that plays together cohesively and without fail. The only problem with seeing the forest for, well, the forest is that some magic rests in the trees. The Spurs’ landscape is lush and impressive only because of all the texture in the games of individual components. Tim Duncan’s help defense. Danny Green’s curl routes. Manu Ginobili’s step-back jumper. All contribute to the bigger picture and San Antonio’s grander designs, yet shouldn’t be completely lost within them.
So yes, these Spurs are one year older, their hair a shade grayer and their bones a bit more brittle. They’ve lost an inch here and a nanosecond here. They sprint and spring more slowly and rest a little longer.
And yet, the 104 games they’ve played since Game 6; the cascading questions of career clocks running out; the practice that’s flirted so palpably with perfection: their impact has been even more noticeable.
Forty-eight minutes stand between the Spurs and their fifth title in 16 years—48 minutes to recapture their legacy’s last chapter. If they play at anything close to the level of the previous 96, it shouldn’t be a moment more.
But if San Antonio learned anything from last year's Finals, it's that closing out these Heat demands a science as precise as any pick-and-roll or back-door cut, one where—secure though the win may seem—no seconds are left to guesses.