In the madness of the wild and turbulent final 17 minutes -- as this NBA Finals took off and soared past Spinal Tap’s 11 -- the words of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich echoed. “It’s a game of mistakes,” he had said when asked to sum up all he has learned about professional basketball. In some ways, all sports at the highest level are more about mistakes than triumphs. But it’s especially true in pro basketball. A game of mistakes. And the Spurs, shockingly, were not ready for it.
The mistakes Tuesday night came in such fast and spectacular waves -- crushing turnovers by an overanxious LeBron James, terrible decisions from Manu Ginobili, a devastating missed free throw by Kawhi Leonard, baffling no-calls from officials, distracting complaints about those no-calls from everybody, dreadful decision-making from fleeing Miami Heat fans, bizarre substitutions from Popovich himself -- that there was no way for the mind to process it all.
This was basketball as chaos, and on this night it did not suit the Spurs. It might cost them a championship. Until Tuesday night -- really until the final quarter and overtime of Tuesday night -- the Finals had been interesting but oddly unfulfilling. The two teams are so different that they mostly just traded dominance -- sort of a when-unemployment-goes-down-inflation-goes-up kind of series.
When the Spurs -- cool, collaborative, precise, determined -- worked the ball around, made three pointers, clogged the lane, they dominated the games.
When the Heat -- powerful, passionate, temperamental, spectacular -- attacked the basket, slapped the ball away, blocked shots, ran loose on the break, they dominated the games.
“It’s a series of runs,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra told his players in the huddle, and that was exactly right -- the two teams rarely seemed to play their passionate best at the same time. It was up then down, black then white, San Antonio then Miami, Miami then San Antonio, until the fourth quarter began and San Antonio led by 10 and Miami was on the brink.
Then, the game and the series and, really, professional basketball as a game took off -- Miami had no choice but to throw everything at the Spurs. The mercurial Mario Chalmers, who like a TV show special guest star seems to show up for some episodes and not for others, made a three-pointer. Mike Miller made one while wearing only one shoe. LeBron James lost his famous headband and attacked with clear and present desperation.
It was a full frontal attack, and the Spurs were pushed back. But then, as expected, they finally held their ground. Tony Parker made a ridiculous, impossible step-back three to tie the game, then followed with an awkward looking, turn-the-wrong-way turnaround to give San Antonio the lead with 56 seconds left. Ginobili made the lead four with two free throws with 37 seconds left. LeBron James committed a turnover. This was when many Miami fans streamed for the exits, perhaps to beat traffic, perhaps because they knew the Spurs were too dependable to blow this lead, perhaps because they had dinner reservations. In an act of fitting sports justice, the doors would be locked behind them.
Well, even if it was a serious sports crime to leave this game with the outcome still in doubt, you could at least see WHY so many fans gave up. The Spurs, in these situations, are normally like James Bond -- well-dressed, tranquil and so exasperatingly confident that the bad guy can’t help but give away hisplans. You never expect them to crack.
And then, Tuesday, they cracked.
Ginobili, a good free throw shooter, made one free throw but missed one too to give the Spurs a five-point lead. Popovich, for reasons that undoubtedly make sense in theory, pulled the great Tim Duncan -- probably to give his team their best chance at defending the three-pointer -- and, yes, James badly missed the three-pointer. But Miami got the offensive rebound. Would Duncan have grabbed it? Back to James. This three-pointer went in. The lead was just two.
This time Leonard got fouled. A good free throw shooter. He missed one of two free throws. Again Duncan was out of the game. Again James badly missed a three pointer. Again, Miami got the rebound. Would Duncan have grabbed it? Pass to Ray Allen, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history. He found his footing, behind the line, and swished the shot. Game tied.
A game of mistakes. In the overtime, Tony Parker’s free throw with 2:42 left gave San Antonio a three point lead. The Spurs would not score another point. Parker, exhausted, missed one shot, had another blocked, and was on the bench in the final seconds. Duncan did not attempt a single shot in the last three minutes. The Heat was only slightly better, but that was all they needed. They led by one.
Then, Ginobili drove hard to the basket in the Spurs last gasp. Maybe he was fouled, but there’s not enough room on the entire Internet to review the calls and non-calls of the last 17 minutes. The NBA, at this level of fervor, is essentially beyond officiating. You are only our own. In the end, Ginobili committed his eighth turnover. Eight! The last shot, by San Antonio’s Danny Green, was blocked by Chris Bosh. And then it was over.
The Heat did not just win the game. They overloaded the Spurs fuses. Miami did not play pretty or mistake free basketball the last 17 minutes -- in fact, it was the opposite of that. The Heat turned it into an unstable and stormy game and the Spurs, all of them, Popovich, Parker, Ginobili, even Duncan, all of them got lost in the fog.
What does that mean for Game 7? Who knows? As soon as the game ended, Popovich knew that he had to restore order. He knew that he had to leave this bit of disarray behind and get his Spurs back on dry land. Someone asked him how he can get his team ready after a loss like this. His answer, while seemingly sarcastic and grumpy, had a larger truth to it.
He grumped: “Get them on a bus, it arrives at the ramp over here, we get off the bus, we get on the court, and we play. That’s how we get ready.”