National Columnist

In Game 7, Spurs battle Game 6 memory, common sense ... and Heat

MIAMI -- How do the San Antonio Spurs come back from that?

No, really. How do they do it? Game 6 of the NBA Finals wasn't just a difficult loss. It was brutal. Heartbreaking is a word that comes to mind. Cruel is another. Crushing? That one applies, too.

The Spurs were 30 seconds away from winning, and winning somewhat handily. They led the Miami Heat by five points, and fans at American Airlines Arena were leaving. Thousands were pouring up the aisles, out the tunnels, into the night. Arena security had started lining the court with the yellow rope used to separate the NBA champions -- in this case, the Spurs -- from the rest of the world.

This game was over. One more miss by the Heat, one more rebound by the Spurs, a free throw or two to ice it, and this was a victory for San Antonio -- by six points, maybe seven. Here came the miss, a LeBron James 3-pointer. And here came the rebound, as three Spurs surrounded the loose ball.

This game was over.

And then the ball bounced away from the three Spurs, out to Heat forward Mike Miller, and eventually made its way back to James. He buried a 3-pointer.

This game wasn't over -- but it was close. Some fans stopped in the aisles. They didn't return to their seats, but they were going to watch the final seconds from their spot near the tunnel. Other fans kept going, exiting the arena. Over.

But then 82 percent foul shooter Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs missed a free throw, and the Heat hit another 3-pointer to tie the score.

And then came overtime. More teasing for the Spurs, a 100-97 lead this time, but another missed free throw -- this one from 84-percent foul shooter Tony Parker -- and another series of baskets by the Heat. And another physically contested shot at the buzzer, this one from Spurs guard Danny Green. Another miss. Another no-call from the referees.

A loss.

Away goes the yellow rope. Away goes San Antonio, too?

That's what we wanted to know Wednesday, the day before Game 7: How do the Spurs come back from that? What do they tell themselves to make it better?

Tony Parker gave the answer.

"If you told me before the season that we'll be 3-3 in the Finals against Miami, I think everybody on the team will sign up for it," Parker said.

Parroted Tim Duncan: "Some of the guys kept saying, 'If it was the beginning of the season, if somebody asked if we wanted to play a Game 7 for the NBA championship would you say, 'yes' or 'no,' we would say, 'yes.' So we're here. We have this opportunity and we're going to take it."

Sounds good. Sounds hopeful.

Sounds next to impossible.

Keep in mind, they're not simply trying to win Game 7 after losing two nights earlier in a cruel, crushing manner. They're trying to win Game 7 on the road. Against the team that led the NBA in victories this season. And led by the best player in the world, LeBron James.

History says it can be done, but adds the caveat that it isn't done very often. Seventeen times the NBA Finals have gone to Game 7, and 14 times the home team has won. A road team hasn't won Game 7 since 1978 when the Bullets beat the Sonics. And the Sonics didn't have LeBron James.

That history was mentioned to Parker.

"I think we should be happy about that opportunity to try to make history," he said, beaming.

The Spurs went out to dinner after Game 6, well after midnight in Miami, to discuss what had happened and what needed to happen next. Did it work? Of course it did, they say.

"Yeah, it helped," Duncan said. "It did."

Added Parker: "I felt like after ... dinner, we are going to bounce back."

This is what people do, even professional athletes -- especially professional athletes. If the Spurs are lying to themselves about the healing power of a late-night meal, you can understand why. At the highest level, sports are as much mental as physical. Everyone can make shots in the NBA, but not everyone can make shots in the fourth quarter, and fewer still can make shots in the fourth quarter in the NBA Finals. Why? Because it's mental.

So is this. The Spurs believe they will be ready for Game 7 because they say they will be ready for Game 7. Because they ate together and shared stories and decided that, back in September, they would have jumped at the chance to be here for Game 7.

But the truth is, the Spurs should be home today. They should be at a parade in San Antonio. Duncan, Ginobili and Popovich should be considering retiring on top. They can pretend otherwise, but I wouldn't believe them.

What I do believe is the anguish of Manu Ginobili. After Game 6 he said it was "bad, very bad" and called the loss "tough, a tough moment." After talking about it for a few more minutes, he decided there was another way to describe Game 6:

"So, it's terrible."

And this is what Ginobili said on Wednesday:

"Of course it's mental," he said, because bless his heart he just cannot tell a lie. "We physically are able to recover and be wise about getting your body ready. But the mental part is the toughest at this point. ... I'm still down. A blow like that, it's not easy to get back up."

Ginobili kept talking, but he no longer sounded like Ginobili. He sounded like smiling little Tony Parker, or placid-faced Tim Duncan. He sounded like the robot the Spurs are going to need all their players to become in the 48 hours after losing Game 6.

"We are in a Game 7 of the NBA Finals, so we are still in a good situation," Parker Ginobili said. "We are where we wanted to be at the beginning of the season."

The Stepford Spurs are talking a good game. Soon they will go play it.

 
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