Miami Heat 95, San Antonio Spurs 88: The title that got away and will never be forgotten
MIAMI — I’m not sure exactly what to write about.
What a postseason. What an NBA Finals. What a Game 7.
But if you’re a Spurs fan, you’ll never forget this series for all the absolute worst reasons. San Antonio had every chance to finish this thing in Miami and it couldn’t. Heartbreakingly, painfully, horribly, it couldn’t. The Heat left the floor with a 95-88 win and their second title in as many years.
In a fashion apropos to the prior events of this series, the last opportunity the Spurs had to stay in the game was lost in the form of a Manu Ginobili turnover. It was his fourth giveaway of the night, all of which came in the final frame. It’s been as difficult a stretch as this Spurs great has ever seen, and after Game 7 he admitted he never got rid of Tuesday’s sting.
“I still have Game 6 in my head,” Manu said. “Today we played an OK game, they just made more shots than us. LeBron got hot. Shane (Battier), too. Those things can happen.”
But then he continued.
“Being so close and feeling that you are about to grab that trophy and then seeing it vanish is very hard. I think that if we would have lost both games like this I would have been a little more up. But it’s a tough feeling.”
Ginobili had 18 points, 5 assists and 3 rebounds in a 6-for-12 shooting performance, but Game 6 and the turnovers are what will last longest in the memory bank. Especially with the uncertainty of his immediate future. In the midst of bitter disappointment, the 35-year-old Manu was asked about one of the biggest upcoming decisions of his life. With all the swirling emotions, could he give a definitive answer about his plans?
“No, it’s not the moment,” he said with tired eyes. “I’m very disappointed, very upset. I really can’t say anything.”
But sometimes it’s not about the mistakes you make. Sometimes it’s about acknowledging what the other team did. The Spurs dared James to shoot jumpers all series long, and for the most part it had been effective. But tonight, James was the best player on the planet again, and there was nothing San Antonio could do about it.
LeBron went for 37 points, including five 3-pointers and a perfect 8-for-8 from the line. And what’s more, he had nine baskets outside the paint. On the biggest stage, under the most intense criticism, he buried jumper after jumper on his way to a second title. If James is hitting shots from the perimeter, even the perfect defense might not be enough.
Still, the Spurs had a chance. Despite all of it, they had a chance. And if we’re drawing attention to Ginobili’s turnovers, it’s only fair to bring up another topic: Tony Parker essentially disappeared from the Finals over the last two games. Whether it was his hamstring, exhaustion or just a Heat defense that was at a different level, the Spurs’ MVP didn’t have anything left in the tank.
He was 3-for-12 from the floor with 10 points and four assists in the season’s finale as his team fell.
“I have no excuse. I’m not going to put it on my hammy and stuff like that,” he said. “I just didn’t play well. My shot was not falling. Couldn’t get in a rhythm tonight.
“It’s tough to come so close. Those last two games are tough.”
The level of disappointment is physically nauseating. The end was there, the ropes were being stretched out and the trophy was being rolled onto the floor. And that was on Tuesday, before it was rolled back into the bowels of American Airlines Arena. But tonight, it stayed on the floor, and James and Co. were there holding it.
I’ve never been big on consolation prizes or moral victories, and the same can certainly be said of this Spurs team. But this season was special. Duncan’s fifth NBA Finals appearance, 14 years after his first. The continued brilliance of Tony Parker, who had the best season of his now 12-year career. The never-ending hard work and grit of Manu Ginobili. The result we all wanted didn’t come, but the process itself was beautiful to watch.
And isn’t that perfect, after all? Gregg Popovich always talks about the process, not the result. He and his players obviously left their hearts and souls on the court, and the pain of walking off after the last game of the NBA season a loser must be immense. But there was no disingenuousness in his words at the podium as the championship music blared in the background.
“I couldn’t love our guys more. What they accomplished this year is something nobody would have ever expected,” Pop said. “And they showed a lot of good play to get where they got. And I couldn’t be more proud of them.
“It was a great series, and we felt that. I don’t know if ‘enjoy’ is the right word, but in all honesty, even in defeat, I’m starting to enjoy what our group accomplished already, when you look back,” he continued. “And you need to do that, to put it in perspective.”
Basketball isn’t a game of perfection, even in its biggest moments. There will always be botched plays, missed shots and untimely turnovers, but it’s all about how you manage the ensuing situations. Danny Green’s 1-for-12 performance will hurt, especially after he scorched the earth through the first five games of the series. Parker’s disappearance was tough to swallow, especially after an MVP-caliber season. Manu’s turnovers and crumbling level of play were awful to witness, especially with memories of Finals past so fresh in mind.
But what makes this a little easier to handle is the fact that we’ve been able to experience all of this brilliance, all of this jubilation. And maybe that’s why this hurts so much. We’ve seen this celebration before, we know what it feels like to watch our favorite team hold up the Larry O’Brien trophy. To be so close to that point again and watch it slip away is almost unbearable, because we don’t know when we’ll ever get another chance to see it. Hell, we don’t know IF we’ll get another chance to see it.
Still, I’ll keep coming back to the point that we’ve already seen it, and we’ve already felt more joy from this team over the last decade and a half than most teams have had through their entire existence. The Spurs aren’t going anywhere, at least not for now. And it all starts with Tim Duncan, who was asked if he’ll be back.
“Back for what?” he retorted, before the reporter clarified the intention of his question.
“I have a contract that says I am (back next season),” Duncan said.
These questions will undoubtedly keep coming more and more in the near future, though it’s not like they haven’t been floating around for the last several years. Before Parker slid off the stage, he answered his final question of the night with some obvious anger. Anger stemming from the repetition of a line he’s heard a million times already.
Do you have any thoughts that this might be the last time this group plays together?
“Can’t believe you’re asking that question,” Parker said. “It’s been five, six years you’re saying we’re too old. I’m not going to answer that.”
And as he left the podium, he walked into the offseason after missing out on a fourth ring by a single rebound. All the work this season culminated in this, but it’s only one season. This team doesn’t stop pounding the rock with one result, win or lose. This is all a process that’s been larger than any single season, and the end of the line isn’t yet in sight.
Where the stonecutters that have gotten this team to where it is today are growing longer in the tooth, they’re being helped by a new group of younger hands. And, boy, are they capable ones. As Duncan and Manu near the end, and as we wait and see where Parker’s career will eventually take him, we can sit back in awe of what we’ve seen from Green during this series, and even more impressively, what we saw from the Spurs’ incredible 21-year-old small forward.
Kawhi Leonard’s 19 points and 16 rebounds were almost enough to carry his teammates, the stars who’ve lifted the load since his formative years. And he’ll learn from tonight. He learns from every game. His mind is a sponge, and much like his current mentors, all he cares about is basketball. He quietly goes about his hard work, and we’re already seeing the fruits of a young man’s labor.
“I just talked to Kawhi and told him he was absolutely amazing. Nobody expected him at this young age to play the way he has through the whole playoffs,” Pop said. “He really is a star in the making. He’s just beginning to feel what he has. He’s like a little baby learning how to walk, as far as NBA basketball is concerned.”
And if that’s true, it will be fascinating to watch him grow from infancy. The shift in regime is happening, and it’s coming sooner than expected, all because of a trade involving George Hill and a 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft. The Spurs will need more than just Leonard as the future approaches, but it’s difficult to get a better running start than this with San Antonio’s franchise cornerstones still in tow.
It’s going to be difficult to sleep in San Antonio, tonight and for some nights to come. But as Pop said, it’s necessary to maintain perspective. What we just saw from a Big 3 that’s stayed together for more than a decade now as similar formations around the league’s landscape have crumbled was nothing short of amazing. But as it was once Duncan’s league, it’s now LeBron’s, and sometimes that must be conceded.
The Spurs will still be around. They might look and feel different, but they’ll still be there. The concepts, the principles, the practices, they won’t change drastically along with personnel evolution. Parker will be back and Timmy says he’ll be there with him. At this point, who knows what will happen in Ginobili’s world, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him back at a discounted rate.
They’ll all be older, and each 48 minutes will become more and more difficult. But as the role players evolve and become more than that, they’ll have help. Help that will be even better next year. As Game 7 showed us, superstars win titles in this league. The Spurs’ stars are fading while many others around the NBA are burning the brightest.
But, if you take Popovich at his word, the Spurs have another in the making. And Leonard’s star is just beginning to shine.