Like a caged elephant charging at the metal bars with bulldozer and monster-truck force, and with the dogmatism of a fighter pilot yearning for one last glorious ride in the sky, the Spurs broke free.
They pounded the rock until it cracked with that exulting 101st blow. They used the resulting pieces to dent then topple a proverbial wall manifested from the failure and dejection of 2006 and 2009.
With a finishing kick to remember after a third quarter to forget, the Spurs sent the Dallas Mavericks and two summers' worth of angst and vexation packing. With a 97-87 victory, the Spurs became just the fifth seventh seed to win a first-round series.
"The window's still open," Rick Carlisle said in his post-game remarks, "but this is a tough blow."
Four years ago, Manu Ginobili fouled Dirk Nowitzki, and the Mavs began a stranglehold as convincing as a championship-less franchise can have over one with four of them.
Maybe Gregg Popovich did want to play Dallas, after all. The coach always in search of his next challenge backed his team into one of its toughest since Tim Duncan first donned silver and black.
He sat Duncan and Ginobili in the regular season finale at the American Airlines Center, and the move seemed to offend Carlisle and some of his players.
Those who did not know Popovich mistook his paranoia for picking his opponent.
He worries to no end about the health of his veterans, and his late decision cost the Spurs a chance at the sixth seed and a first-round date with the Phoenix Suns.
What this writer once dubbed a "huge mistake" became an appropriate test of character.
I picked the Mavs to win this series two weeks ago. I delivered the prediction in the first line of the column. It came with a caveat.
One player afforded the Spurs a chance to make NBA history.
Ginobili, ever the difference-maker, led the improbable but not impossible charge.
He gave San Antonio the edge it lacked last year, when he watched a five-game ouster in street clothes.
Nowitzki broke Ginobili's nose with an unintentional elbow in Game Three. Eduardo Najera tried a half-mixed martial arts, half-WWE takedown in Game Four.
No one on the Mavs could fracture his adamantine winning spirit. Horse collar, Manu?
Nice try but neigh.
Ginobili's inner compass guided the Spurs to a defining six-game ascendancy.
The doubt and the demons that had dogged them evaporated.
Big brother—the one that seemed from the start like it should own the I-35 rivalry—reigned again.
Mere weeks ago, the Spurs trailed by 14 in Oklahoma City the night after losing in overtime at Atlanta. With all the fortitude they could muster, given their exhausted legs, they rallied and hung on to win by three.
Popovich called it the best win of the Duncan era. He admired the way his team had scrapped, the way it withstood Kevin Durant's 45-point thunderstorm, the way it refused to use the back-to-back set as an excuse.
That night, he witnessed the certifiable guts, guile, and execution he expected his remade roster to show from the start.
That night, short-term memory and exhilaration also got the best of a Hall of Fame coach.
Thursday night, however, Popovich presided over a victory worthy of such a designation.
His Spurs had given away all of a 22-point lead, just as they had surrendered without condition in Game Five.
Dirk Nowitzki was lighting up any defender who dared to check him. He totaled 33 points in another superstar effort.
Rookie Rodrigue Beaubois turned from benchwarmer to unstoppable headache en route to 16 points.
Dallas had sucked the energy from the AT&T Center, and the possibility of a Game Seven loomed large.
The crowd's collective groan said it all.
Here we go again.
Then, the Spurs realized part of the blueprint Popovich and R.C. Buford imagined last summer.
The team squandered comfortable leads in every playoff series of its championship seasons. Game Six was no different.
The ability to hang on in crunch time defined those Spurs. When the Cavs trimmed a 29-point deficit to single digits in a 2007 Finals game, Ginobili drained a three-pointer as Daniel Gibson fouled him with two minutes remaining.
He completed the four-point opportunity, and San Antonio won 102-93 to take a 2-0 series lead.
The Mavs did better than that on Thursday. They overcame the undeniable pungency of an eight-point first quarter.
Heralded trade deadline acquisition Caron Butler played a leading role.
A top-of-the-key trey from Nowitzki gave Dallas its first and only second half lead.
From there, the Spurs found a gear absent since a Game Seven victory at New Orleans Arena.
Antonio McDyess had indeed saved his best for the playoffs. He blocked Jason Terry in the opening period and sank critical jumpers in the decisive one.
George Hill drilled corner threes, including an ice-cold one in Nowitzki's face. Hill's defense on Jason Kidd was better.
Even Richard Jefferson contributed a crucial bucket and some clutch defense.
Ginobili, Duncan, and Parker shook below average shooting nights and found ways to produce in the clutch.
Jason Terry could not find his shot, and Shawn Marion was rendered a non-factor.
Dallas' two Jasons finished a combined 2-of-13 from the field.
The Spurs survived a contemptible foul shooting night—they missed 12-of-31 attempts—and the Mavs' unmistakable roar.
Twice in the previous four years, Dallas left the AT&T Center as the vanquishers.
The Mavs broke hearts in a classic, seven-game slog in 2006. They forced Peter Holt to open his wallet like never before last spring.
They exposed a vulnerability the banged-up, Ginobili-less Spurs had seldom shown.
Hill was not seasoned enough, an aging Michael Finley started at small forward, and many wondered how Buford would transform a cooked roster into one that could win series again, given his limited options.
Thursday night did more than validate a whirlwind offseason as a success. It re-established the Spurs as a relevant Western Conference power.
No seventh seed has ever won four straight series sans home-court advantage, and this one won't. Anything short of a title still qualifies as a disappointment.
Then again, with at least six franchises spending big to win now, relevance might mean as much.
The Spurs needed to get tougher inside. They needed an upgrade over Finley at the three spot. They needed young contributors.
They also needed to lose a 22-point lead to make it all work in a way that mattered.
Popovich improved his record to 25-8 in closeout games, the best in NBA history.
Duncan advanced to the second round for the 11th time in his career.
It took more than a year, an underwhelming 50-win campaign, various injuries, and a would-be nightmare matchup.
Two weeks ago, Duncan's fifth dance with Nowitzki's Mavericks looked to be equal parts intriguing and horrifying.
The Spurs dropped Game One and appeared more discombobulated than Boo Radley.
Nowitzki throttled them for 36 points on 12-for-14 shooting.
Popovich resorted to calling his underperformers "dogs" after the defeat.
The Spurs broke free from the Mavs' hold 11 days later. The death grip switched sides as did the advantage in this inter-state tug-of-war.
The team with four trophies finally discarded the one in Texas with zero.
The Spurs hung on, and in the process, gave Popovich one of the best wins of his coaching career.
If not the best.
He had a rare reason to smile after a regular season rife with doubt and underachievement.
For one night and most of one series, they were those Spurs again.
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