As basketball fans, we don’t want the way we view the careers of LeBron James and Tim Duncan, two of the 10 best players of all-time, to come down to a 21-year old Kawhi Leonard making a free throw or Mario Chalmers banking in a buzzer beating three from 40-feet.
We don’t want the way that history looks back on some of the greatest players of our generation to be decided by Boris Diaw making a wide open shot or Chris Andersen pulling down a key offensive rebound. We cringe at the sight of Manu Ginobili, one of the game’s most exhilarating and respectable competitors ever, making crucial blunders as his body can no longer keep up with his mind. We can’t stand the thought that the legacy of James or Duncan will be monumentally impacted by one single game, during which a player like Shane Battier or Danny Green can have as much to do with the result as any of the Hall-of-Famers on the floor.
As someone with nothing invested in the outcome of last night’s game seven, even I could barely stand the tension created by the magnitude of the moment, with each and every shot having a chance to be the one that goes down in history. Each time LeBron or Wade or Duncan or Ginobili made a mistake, I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach, because I feared for their sakes the kind of emotions they would have to deal with for the rest of their lives if any given mishap proved fatal. Mistakes made by my favorite athletes still eat at me, so I can only imagine what it’s like for someone who actually had a say in the outcome.
But, at the same time, even as fans, we die for those moments. As unfair as it is for a series as competitive and as even as the 2013 NBA Finals were, for everything to come down to one game gives us some of the most glorious and gut wrenching moments of our lives. You stomach the absolute desperation for the moments of unparallelled glee and elation. You try your hardest to distance yourself from the outcome, but in the end, you just can’t help but invest every emotion you have in your team, knowing that you’ll either be at the top of the world or at the bottom of the pit at the final buzzer, with no inbetween.
Spurs fans are lucky to have experienced that top of the world feeling four times during the Tim Duncan era. They have gotten to tag along for one of the best runs in NBA history with Duncan carrying them to so much success, so many peaks with so much brilliant basketball along the way. In game six, it appeared as if his career would have a fairytale ending, but a few bad bounces and some brilliant shotmaking from the Heat pried the fifth ring right off his finger. No amount of prosperity can make up for the heartbreaking feeling that game six gave the Spurs, and when the game’s best player was given a second chance at his second ring, he didn’t let it slip away.
James has played some unbelievable basketball in his 10 year career, but the 4-time MVP has never been better than he was in last night’s game. It’s hard to keep track of how many games have been deemed “legacy” games for LeBron, but it’s pretty clear that a game seven in the NBA Finals is as high stakes as basketball gets. And James, constantly derided for not being able to come through in big moments, delivered an all-around performance for the ages, perhaps the most dominant individual performance we’ve ever seen in an NBA Finals, Michael Jordan included.
James scored 37 points on 12-of-23 shooting last night, knocking down five of his 10 three-point attempts while getting to the line eight times. When factoring in those long-range shots, the only time someone has had a comparable game as scorer on the Finals stage was Jordan in the “Shrug Game,” but that was in a game one and a blowout; this was in a game seven, with each of those shots coming in big moments. Of course, scoring isn’t the only thing that makes LeBron great; he also had 12 rebounds and four assists in this game. James was making plays for others, often times collecting the hockey assist anytime the defense overcommited to him, and rebounding like a true big, allowing the Heat to play small the whole game without getting killed on the boards.
And then there was the defense. Oh my was that impressive. Not only was LeBron running the show offensively and rebounding like a mad men, he also defended Tony Parker as well as humanly possible. Parker may be the toughest player to guard in the entire league when you factor in his own individual abilities and the kind of physical punishment the Spurs put you through by making your chase him around the court on screens and put you in quick hitting pick-and-rolls, but there was James, not giving him an inch of separation, preventing him from ever really getting going in the final two games of this series. Parker wouldn’t make excuses for himself, but it’s clear something wasn’t right with him health-wise; that said, you still have to credit LeBron for doing the lionshare of work on Parker, who went 9-of-35 (26%) in games six and seven.
The best part about LeBron is that he isn’t Michael Jordan. He hasn’t forced himself to mimic somebody that others want him to be; he’s been more than happy to just be himself. And that’s great if you are a basketball fan, because James is some unique physical monster that somebody created in a lab. It’s hard to believe that James was just a kid growing up in Akron, Ohio, lucky just to have made it out of high school, before becoming a two-time NBA champion; a mad scientist, one hell bent on creating the perfect basketball player, conjuring up James by giving him elements from all of legends – Magic’s vision and passing, the Karl Malone’s chiseled and brute physique, Pippen’s grappling defense, Kobe’s work ethic, Dr. J’s athleticism and, yes, Jordan’s scoring ability – seems like a more likely explanation for his existence.
Forcing LeBron, as well as Dwyane Wade, to hit perimeter jumpshots is a common gameplan for stopping the Heat, but you will never see a team execute that gameplan as effectively, precisely and as beautifully as the Spurs did in this series. Gregg Popovich designed brilliant help schemes, Kawhi Leonard played incredible individual defense on James, and Duncan toed the backline as expertly as he ever has, often times forcing the game’s best perimeter threat to change his shot or pass the ball when they met in the paint. The Spurs had the perfect blueprint to limit James, but at the end of the day, any defensive gameplan involving LeBron will put you at his mercy, and in game seven he broke the process by beating San Antonio with his outside shot. The Spurs decided they would live with LeBron taking jumpers, but they died by it in game seven.
With one minute left in the game, Manu Ginobili chased down a loose ball after Shane Battier missed a three from the top of the key. As Manu grabbed for the ball, Dwyane Wade came flying towards him, diving to save the possession. Manu collected himself and pushed the ball up to Danny Green as James gambled for a steal. Wade and James’ failed effort plays left the Heat defense in scramble mode, and with 50 seconds left, Ginobili entered the ball into Duncan on the post with Battier on his back.
At the time, the Spurs were down 90-88, but they had a perfect mismatch on the block with a small forward guarding their best player, one of the five best of all-time, on the block. Duncan took one dribble towards the lane, brought the ball up and got a wide open hook shot over Battier; it caromed off the back of the rim. But the play wasn’t over, Duncan still owned a size and length advantage over Battier and had realized his shot was off, so he bounced back up off the floor for a putback attempt. He’s never had a cleaner look at the rim, with the ball suspended in mid-air and his hand coming up to tip it in. With the proper amount of touch, Duncan could have tied the game and changed the landscape of the Finals. Instead, he rushed his motion just a bit, and the ball went wide of the rim.
A disgusted Duncan violently wiped the sweat off his face with his jersey on the way up the floor. Once he was back on defense, he crouched down and slammed the floor in frustration. Never had Duncan made such a crucial mistake in a deciding Finals game, and he seemed to realize that one shot – a bunny, an easy tip-in – may have decided who was crowned the 2013 NBA Champions.
“So many little things that could have gone our way in the last play or the last two plays to win it,” Ginobili said after the game. “There’s such a fine line – such a fine line – between being celebrating and having a great summer, and feeling like crap and just so disappointed.”
On the rebound, Miami called a timeout to set-up a potential game-clinching play. The Heat came out of the timeout and gave the ball to their Hall-of-Famer, their all-time great. With LeBron handling up top, Mario Chalmers rushed up to set a screen as the shot clock wound down. James came off the screen, Parker showing hard and bumping him a bit off path. James picked up his dribble and stopped dead in his tracks near the right elbow. He hesitated for a second – a dramatic pause prior to the biggest shot of his life – and as Kawhi Leonard leaped at him to contest, James calmly released the jumper, sealing the envelope on everybody’s Finals MVP ballots, as well as the lips of all of those who have criticized his big game fortitude, with a swish.
When asked after the game if it was too soon to be proud of what his team accomplished, a despondent Duncan replied: “It’s a hard question to answer right now.”
I’ve never seen Duncan so affected emotionally by the outcome of the game. During my brief time covering him and the many years that I’ve watched him, you come to expect him to be that stoic and statuesque presence at the podium, always their to squash any feelings in the room. But this time, he was crestfallen, only mustering verbal pauses before taking a second or two to clinch his forehead and gather his thoughts.
“To be at this point,” Duncan said, seemingly fighting off tears.
“With this team,” he continued, on the verge of an emotional breakdown at any second, with thoughts of what he had gone through with his teammates over the course of this season and all he had accomplished with Pop, Manu and Tony over the years clearly seeping into his mind.
“In a situation where people kind of counted us out, it’s a great accomplishment to be in a Game 7.”
Though Duncan can always look back on what he was able to do during his career, the memories of his mishaps from this series will never elude him.
“Game seven is always going to haunt me,” he says, citing his own missed opportunities down the stretch as the horrors.
About thirty minutes later, it was LeBron James’ turn to take the podium. He walked onto the stage, a smile on his face, a stogie in his mouth and the Finals MVP trophy in his hand, and sat down.
When asked of his plans now that he’s a two-time NBA Champion and a two-time Finals MVP, James said he’s ready to say “I do.”
“I got a wedding coming up,” LeBron said. “And it will be an unbelievable wedding now that we’ve won. I might have called it off if we lost.”
With the odd bounce of a ball, a random hot streak from a role player and an untimely regression for another, so many tremendous players making tremendous plays and seven unbelievable games of basketball, legacies and lives were changed forever.
As criminal as it for history to change on such an unpredictable whim, and as tough as it is to see a legend like Duncan miss out on a defining moment with uncharacteristic blunders, I walked away from game seven feeling that the best player on the planet – a legend himself – earned everything that was given to him.
And that’s a perfect way for one of the best series ever to end.