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For Duncan & The Spurs, An Unforgettable, Heartbreaking Game 7

Andrew Seah |
June 23, 2013 | 2:04 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

It only takes two plays for a legend's quest for a fifth title to fall short (Keith Allison/Creative Commons).
It only takes two plays for a legend's quest for a fifth title to fall short (Keith Allison/Creative Commons).
In the waning moments of Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, the scoreboard read 92-88, in favor of the Miami Heat. The San Antonio Spurs faced a four-point deficit following a timeout. To borrow a recent Gregg Popovich refrain, it had been a "big boy game" thus far, and this was a monumental moment. 

The tension was palpable and the stage was set for yet another Popovich special - a misdirection play executed with exact precision, yielding a clean look for the guys in the Silver and Black. What transpired - much like the entire series - was nothing anyone expected. Manu Ginobili dished it to Tim Duncan in the post, rubbed off his big man, received the rock, dribbled baseline and, well, no one knows what was supposed to have happened next. Two prodding dribbles later, the 35-year-old flung yet another errant pass vaguely in the direction of Duncan. LeBron James, who was at his astonishing best during the entire game, rose high and intercepted. And just like that, the Spurs lost their final shot to save the game, their season, and the championship.

Duncan reflected, "They made more plays down the stretch, bottom line."

Sometimes, a single possession can determine the difference between a long, brooding summer and one of hard-fought satisfaction. 

As the clock wound down to triple zero, the horns blared and the confetti rained. Cheers erupted, chaos ensued, and cameras on the scene quaked amidst the ruckus. The Miami Heat didn't simply prevail. They survived. Both teams stuck with each other neck-and-neck, like two sprinters in a photo finish, two boxers trading haymakers, or Federer and Nadal in the 2007 Wimbledon Finals. It was one of the most engrossing, enthralling, intense, dramatic 48 minutes that any NBA fan will ever witness. Put it this way: if hair could be plucked like grass, my next appearance in public would have yielded shock and horror.

There were sequences and images, enough footage to supply a new wave of NBA commercials, which typified the heart, effort, and desire that was laid bare on the court. There was James, knocking back three-pointers like they were hot chocolate on a chilly winter's night. His comrade, Shane Battier, joined in the fun, stroking long-range bombs so comfortably it was as if the previous six games didn't happen. Lest we forget James' requisite dagger that should undoubtedly bury any residual chatter about his ability to perform in the clutch.  And then there was 21-year-old Kawhi Leonard, displaying poise well beyond his years - deflecting passes, rebounding like a seven-foot center, and downright out-hustling everyone on the court - all while maintaining his stoic visage. 

The game was replete with moments like these, each a constant reminder that what we were witnessing were the two best teams in the NBA, performing at the peak of their powers, and bringing the best out of each other. And while there is beauty in victory, there is poignance in defeat. None was quite as profound as the unspoken agony that possessed Duncan's entire being after one particular play. 

With 48 seconds left, Duncan caught the ball deep in the left block against Battier, drove hard into the paint, and elevated. He had a superior advantage, both in inches and pounds, over his mark. It was as close to a point-blank shot as he could have hoped to get. He missed. Twice. The ensuing tip-in looked almost a certainty, but it didn't even graze the rim. The 37-year-old veteran retreated down the court, as he has done so many times throughout his illustrious 15-year career, ready to anchor the defense once again. And then the inexplicable happened. He smacked both hands against the hardwood, visibly distraught and utterly furious with himself. 

How could I miss that? I could have tied the game. I had two shots at it too. I could make those in my sleep. I could make those 99 times out of 100. Please give me another shot. I'm not going to get another shot. I missed my chance. 

I have zero first-hand insight into Duncan's psyche, and it wouldn't be far-fetched to say that I'm pretty far from his inner circle. I don’t know the man off-the-court any more than Woody Allen understands making horror films, and it is highly unlikely that I'll ever get the chance to speak to him. But I've devoutly followed his career for years on end, witnessing his dominant peak in the early 2000s and, more recently, his inevitable struggle against Father Time. His 17-foot bank shot from the left block extended is forever etched in memory. 

I would say I have an educated grasp of Tim Duncan – the power forward – and this was one of those rare moments when the former Wake Forest man truly betrayed any trace of emotion. It's long been a running joke in the league and amongst fans that Duncan is a robot, devoid of expression. This certainly wasn't that case as he took out his frustration on the court. What's all the more devastating is that we know exactly why he acted the way he did. 

This was his best shot at winning his fifth ring, which would be monumental for several reasons, chief of which is that it puts him level with Kobe Bryant in their perpetual jostle for "Best Player Of Their Generation". This had also been a renaissance season for him, posting per game averages that rivaled his peak years. His team had finally made it back to the Mount Rushmore of basketball, and was merely 5.2 seconds (or a Ray Allen dagger) away from becoming champions in Game 6 just two nights before. 

After his miss, both teams headed back to the benches during a Heat timeout. As the camera swiveled and laid its gaze on the cerebral, veteran Spur, his eyes were wide in disbelief, unmistakably replaying that sequence in his head over and over again. On the grandest of stages, with his legacy in the balance, he just came up short. Prior to this, the life-long Spur had never experienced failure in the NBA Finals, going a perfect four for four. This was an unfamiliar feeling that was met by an uncommon reaction. But we all know that feeling, one of utter helplessness while awaiting impending failure. 

Watching the post-game press conference was all the more brutal. Duncan was despondent, often slouching and shrugging his shoulders, glancing up for the briefest of moments before retreating his gaze towards an empty table in front of him. Duncan said, “The obvious word is disappointing. Tough end to the game. Made some bad decisions, missed some tough shots. I don't know what to say." He added, "For me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me." There was no life in his words, only the fresh sting of defeat. 

There is nothing to take away from this, at least not in the short run. And in Duncan's case, there isn't even a long run. The man is ancient by NBA standards, and it's a testament to his dedication and professionalism that he is still a potent force and arguably the best big man in the NBA today – at 37 years old. Losing in the NBA Finals is always a heartbreaking affair. But losing in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, in what could have been your final swan song and an unforgettable statement of dominance by defeating the four-time MVP and the reigning champions? Knowing full well that the outcome could have been very different had you made that running hook? That’s borderline Shakespearean. 

35-year-old Manu Ginobili, no spring chicken himself, corroborated the disappointment in the Spurs’ locker room. “At this point, it's very hard because we are all sad and disappointed, but as I said before, when there's such a fine line and we were so close of winning it, I mean, everything can be like failure or success just because of a shot," Ginobili said. “I am trying to put things in perspective, but it's very hard.” 

Last season, after the Oklahoma City Thunder came up short against the Miami Heat, our last enduring image – depending on who you were rooting for – was of superstar Kevin Durant, locked in an embrace with his parents, as tears flowed down his cheeks. This year, with a team as mentally strong and experienced as the Spurs, there were no tears caught on television. Nevertheless, there are legions of Spurs fans that will be silently weeping, and with good cause.

Kawhi Leonard's future with the Spurs looks bright (Mark Runyon/Basketball Schedule)
Kawhi Leonard's future with the Spurs looks bright (Mark Runyon/Basketball Schedule)
The future is far from uncertain, even optimistic, with Kawhi Leonard – a name that will surely be remembered in households from here on out. Matching up against reigning MVP LeBron James didn’t faze Leonard, and neither did the bright lights and intense scrutiny of the NBA Finals; The 15th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft recorded a monster double-double in the loss with 19 points and 16 rebounds. 

“I told him (Leonard) he was absolutely amazing,” Popovich said. “He's going to be a future star because he's only beginning to feel what he has. He’s like a little baby learning how to walk. I don't even call plays for him and you see what he does out on the court.” Similarly, the Spurs, just like every other year, will make prudent decisions and retool for yet another surprising playoff run next year.

But so many breaks went right for San Antonio this year, even as the end of Game 7 spiraled out of control. Russell Westbrook went down at the start of the playoffs, effectively eliminating the Spurs’ biggest rivals in the conference. Manu Ginobili, so resoundingly inconsistent throughout the playoffs, owned Game 5 on a throwback performance. Little-known Danny Green made the most three-pointers (27!) in the NBA Finals by any player, ever. When taking into account the evidence, the decline of their aging trio, coupled with the lightning-in-a-bottle performances that their role players delivered, one can’t help but feel that this is probably the closest Duncan is going to get to ring number five. 

When Spurs point guard Tony Parker said that the team wanted to “win this one for Timmy”, he was speaking for both the team and the fans. It was an earnest, genuine sentiment that stemmed from the culture of appreciation that Duncan has imprinted on the organization from the top down. Duncan is the heartbeat of the organization. He is the tone-setter, the fundamental cog that makes everything tick. He isn’t just the face of the San Antonio Spurs. He is the San Antonio Spurs. This was the Spurs’ last chance to send him off with the one thing he desires more than anything else in the world. 

We know it. Duncan knows it. The Spurs know it. And that’s the saddest part.

Reach Staff Writer Andrew Seah here



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