Ike dishes on his continuing struggle to cope with the Spurs’ loss
No one can legitimately argue that LeBron James isn’t the best player on the planet. (I saw an interview during the playoffs with the dude who gave his first-place MVP vote to Carmelo, and as articulate as the guy was in trying to justify his pick, he’s an idiot.) James has been a clutch big-game performer for the last two seasons too. And at no point in the Finals was I crapping on the Heat, either, so just know that the bitterness you’re about to encounter stems solely from the fact that I was wholeheartedly rooting for the Spurs. In fact, I rooted for the Spurs the entire season; I even said so here.
(Admittedly, as a Bay Area native I rooted for the Warriors in their second-round matchup with San Antonio, but once Curry fell back to earth and the Warriors started crumbling like an overmatched JV team in the face of the Spurs’ precision, I settled back onto the Spurs bandwagon. Unless management inexplicably blows the team up like it did in 2008, the Warriors have a bright future. They also had no chance of beating both Memphis and Miami. Meanwhile, San Antonio’s future is seemingly getting bleaker by the week, and the Spurs did have a shot of winning the title, which I desperately wanted to happen as a last hurrah for Duncan, Manu, Tony, and Pop. Yeah, I would have been ecstatic had the Warriors pulled off the upset, but given the franchise’s tortured history, you have to admit that the Dubs had a pretty great season anyway. After all, the only two playoff losses San Antonio suffered before the Finals were at the hands of the Warriors. Call me a crappy fan, but the realist in me is legitimately proud of that statistic.)
In any case, ever since the conclusion of the Finals, I have been perplexed by the contrast between the overwhelming, gushing media coverage of the Heat and the nonexistent coverage of the Spurs. Yes, the Heat have the best player in the league. Yes, they won back-to-back titles. Yes, they were the best team in the NBA all season, so it makes sense that they won the championship. That’s all good. But they were also seconds away from losing the title. Basically, what’s weird is how little attention people have paid to the Spurs in the aftermath of their loss. The only articles I’ve read about San Antonio talk about how much respect they earned in defeat or about how much beauty and professionalism they bring to the Association. And yeah, all of that is true, but really?! They just lost the championship in the most heartbreaking way possible, their title window is now almost assuredly closed, and that’s all people have to offer? That the Spurs were graceful in defeat? Come on.
I couldn’t sleep after Game 6. Actually. Then the same thing happened after Game 7. I just felt so unbelievably awful for the Spurs. They were THAT close to accomplishing what had at one point in the season been considered impossible — toppling the allegedly invincible Heat, the team that employed the best player in the league by far, the team that had won 27 straight games with suffocating defense and an innovative new smallball offense. (Further, the Spurs almost beat the Heat by blatantly daring their two best players to shoot, which to me is pretty damning as far as the Heat are concerned. That’s the kind of defensive strategy you employ in a high school game, not against two NBA Finals MVPs. Even though Miami had LeBron at his apex and had one of the best regular seasons ever, you cannot call the 2013 Heat one of the best teams ever — they had two seven-game series and were on the ropes constantly, never up in the Finals series until the final buzzer sounded in Game 7.) Anyway, in my humble estimation, the Spurs losing/blowing Game 6 (and then coming up JUST short in Game 7) has to be considered THE most heartbreaking loss of the last 15 years, at least. Nothing else comes close:
- The 1998 Bulls had a chance to close out the Jazz in Game 5 at home, which would have been nice for both the fans and the team given that it was MJ’s last year. Instead, they blew the game and had to fly back to Utah, which ended up being fine, as Game 6 gave us Jordan’s legendary game-winning layup-steal-jumper sequence.
- The 2000 Blazers were up 15 in the fourth in Game 7 against the Lakers (after having come back from a 3-1 series deficit) and lost. Maybe the closest candidate, but it happened in the Western Conference Finals and not the Finals.
- The 2001 Bucks were repeatedly screwed by the officials in their seven-game slugfest with the 76ers, but nobody seemed to care because it was only right for Iverson to make the Finals in his MVP season. To be fair, none of this mattered because no one was taking down the Lakers that year.
- The 2002 Nets were up 21 in Game 3 against the Celtics and lost. But it wasn’t an elimination game and they recovered to win the series and went to the Finals.
- The 2002 Kings couldn’t grab a damn board and lost to Robert Horry in Game 4, then suffered from the most one-sided officiating of all time in Game 6. They then lost Game 7 at home in OT. Still, stakes not as high, as it was the Western Finals.
- With the series tied at 2-2, the 2004 Spurs lost a pivotal Game 5 to the Lakers on Fisher’s shot with 0.4 seconds left. Western Conference Semis.
- The 2005 Pistons lost Game 5 against the Spurs because Rasheed Wallace inexplicably doubled Ginobili even though that left a red-hot Robert Horry open at the 3-point line. Enormous (Finals) stakes here, but it wasn’t an elimination game and the Pistons came back to win Game 6 in San Antonio to force a Game 7 (which they lost).
- The 2006 Clippers were three seconds away from taking a 3-2 lead on the Suns back to L.A. when they stupidly put scrub Daniel Ewing in the game, promptly leading to Ewing allowing Raja Bell to get a three that sent the game to a second OT, which the Suns won. Western Conference Semis.
- The 2006 Spurs lost Game 7 at home to the Mavs in OT. That extra session wouldn’t have been necessary had Manu not fouled Dirk on a game/season-saving and-1 at the end of regulation with the Spurs up. Western Conference Semis.
- In the 2006 Finals, leading 2-0 in the series, the Mavs were up 13 with like five minutes left in Game 3 and lost, then never recovered. The rest of the series was also horrendously officiated, but they still had multiple games to get their act together and didn’t.
- The 2008 Lakers squandered a 24-point lead in Game 4 against the Celtics. Happened in the Finals, but not an elimination game.
- One second from taking a 2-0 lead back to Orlando, the 2009 Magic decided to pressure the inbounder rather than double Cleveland’s LeBron James, who nailed a game-winning three at the buzzer. But the Magic bounced back, beat the Cavs in six, and made the Finals, where they suffered yet another devastating loss in Game 2, when Courtney Lee missed two game-winning layup attempts inside of 15 seconds. A win there could have changed the entire makeup of the series, but in my view, the Lakers were simply better than the Magic.
- Up 3-2, the 2010 Celtics lost Kendrick Perkins (when he was actually valuable) to injury early in Game 6 against the Lakers, got destroyed, then came back in Game 7 and blew a 13-point third-quarter lead. Probably the closest candidate, but in neither game were the Celtics SECONDS/one free throw/one rebound away from being crowned champions.
You might have to go back to 1988 to find the closest parallel — when the Pistons took a 3-2 lead to L.A. and barely lost both Game 6 (with Isiah spraining his ankle and still scoring a Finals-record 25 in the third quarter) and Game 7. But those Pistons came back and won the next two titles. The Spurs? They’re done; this was their last chance, which is why I’m so distraught.
In the aftermath of Ray Allen’s Game 6 miracle, Marc Stein published a truly incredible statistic (one that only stings worse now that we know the Spurs couldn’t successfully bounce back in Game 7): in the last 15 years of NBA action, there have been about 1,200 cases of a team being up by five with between 20 and 30 seconds remaining in the game. That team has gone on to win the game 98.6% of the time. In Game 6 the Spurs were up five with 28 seconds to go and lost. Unreal. Everything had to go right for the Heat for them to keep their season alive, and it did. I know luck is always a factor in NBA championship runs, but that? Given the circumstances and the unbelievably high pressure/stakes, that might have been the single best stretch of basketball luck I’ve ever seen. The missed Spurs free throws, the absolute LBJ brick from three that was somehow rebounded by Miller and passed back out to James for another (made) three, the Duncan substitutions, Popovich uncharacteristically running out of timeouts, another missed James three, the Bosh rebound, the Allen three, the refs stopping the game (to check that Allen’s shot was a three, which was obviously the case) instead of letting the Spurs inbound the ball against a Heat defense that would have been off-kilter. All of that was insane. (Obviously, you have to give props to Jesus Shuttlesworth for being mad clutch.) And to top it all off, the Heat fans LEFT THE ARENA EARLY! They walked out on their team! If only for karmic, sports-fandom reasons, the Heat shouldn’t have won that game.
[Update from September 2013: Back in July, as I was preparing to publish this piece, SlackPost’s Avinash Chak told me about a commercial from the mid-2000s that featured Phil Jackson dispensing some Confucian life lessons to crappy fans who stupidly left a game early. I spent 30 minutes on YouTube trying to find it, all to no avail. Luckily, someone has since uploaded it. Here it is, in its eerily prescient glory. And I mean eerie; the fans in the ad are Heat fans!!]
People also gave Tony Parker a lot of crap for his mediocre performances in the last two games of the Finals, but let’s not forget that he was injured and had said on record that 1) his hamstring could tear at any second, and 2) he would have been out at least ten days if it were the regular season. (Solid note from my man Avinash: the sports media lamented Parker’s injury at first, then praised TP for playing through it and killing it the following game. But then they conveniently forgot about it and only talked about the Heat adjusting to win rather than a hurt Parker contributing to the Spurs’ shortcomings. If LeBron or Durant or any other high-profile superstar had picked up an injury even half as bad as that hamstring sprain, no one would’ve allowed you to forget that that was why their team was losing. Of course, Wade was unhealthy throughout the playoffs, which we shouldn’t disregard either.)
That Parker injury robbed the Spurs of their offensive bread and butter (the pick-and-roll attack), leading them to rely an abnormally large amount on Duncan, who turned in an absolutely epic Game 6 performance. In spite of that, as well as a terrible Manu performance, sloppy turnovers galore, and LeBron going straight nuclear, the Spurs were still seconds away from winning the title in Game 6. Then, in Game 7, Shane Battier’s corpse morphed into Shane Battier, LeBron morphed into Ray Allen/Danny Green from Games 1-5, Danny Green morphed into Eric Snow, Chris Bosh scored ZERO points (!!), Mario Chalmers freaking banked in a three at the end of the third, Wade started hitting all of his ill-advised contested pull-up jumpers with 13 seconds on the shot clock, the Spurs steadfastly continued to give James space even though there were flames blowing from his ass NBA Jam-style, and Tim Duncan shockingly came up empty on those two game-tying layup attempts with less than a minute to go. LeBron James went off in those last two games and did his thing, and there was a certain inevitability about the Heat winning the championship anyway, but damn, if I were any member of the Spurs I might just retire right now. How are they supposed to recover from that? I sure as hell still haven’t, and I’m not sure I ever will. Can you tell?