MIAMI – They brought out a big yellow rope and a small army of security guards to ring the court. There was a NBA title to be won. Perhaps. The San Antonio Spurs held a three-point lead with just 19.4 seconds remaining. Thousands of Miami Heat fans already fled into the night.
It was right there for the Spurs, who'd come here to eliminate the Heat, and that's when Gregg Popovich made a substitution.
In went Boris Diaw, 6-foot-8 and somewhat athletic. Out came Tim Duncan, 6-11 and 37 years old, but perhaps the greatest power forward of them all and certainly the greatest Spur. He owned 30 points and 16 rebounds at that moment. He was shown the bench anyway.
The Spurs like to switch off picks in those moments, like to be fluid and versatile, and Gregg Popovich is not a man prone to variation or sentimentality. So for the final two Miami possessions of the fourth quarter, Duncan was out.
Seconds later, a LeBron James shot bounced off the rim and high in the air. There were gasps from the crowd. Everything was floating in the balance when Chris Bosh, who Duncan had owned all night, leaped, grabbed the ball and kicked it to Ray Allen.
San Antonio could've tried to foul in an instant, giving Allen two free throws rather than the 3-pointer that forced overtime and will go down in Finals lore. But Popovich has an answer to that foul rather than defend strategy.
"We don't," the coach said.
Later in overtime, the Spurs trailed by one with 8.8 seconds left. Kawhi Leonard grabbed a rebound. San Antonio had a timeout in the bag and now the ball with a shot at everything. One basket and they're champions.
Popovich decided to let them play, rather than get Tony Parker, by far his most dynamic playmaker, into the game.
No set play was called, leaving a struggling Manu Ginobili, who had seven turnovers at that point, to drive hard into traffic, essentially hoping to hit a circus shot or get bailed out by a foul. Neither happened. Miami got the ball. Allen iced it on the line. A desperation shot by Danny Green was blocked.
Final score: Heat 103-100. Game 7 is Thursday.
"Obviously," Duncan said, "disappointing."
"So, it's terrible," Ginobili said.
This was basketball at its finest, back and forth, ups and downs, heroes and goats, a thriller for the ages. Miami came up off the canvas to erase a 13-point second-half deficit and claw its way to another day to fight.
The game is won and the game is lost in a million small battles, but in the end the decisions by Popovich remained glaring and open to question. No Duncan when a rebound could clinch it? No Parker when a basket was needed? These are Hall of Famers.
And this is the essence of Gregg Popovich. This is what won the Spurs those four NBA titles, what's made him the NBA's finest active coach. Everything is considered beforehand and nothing shifts with the emotion of the minute, even the final minute of the Finals.
The Spurs don't foul, they defend. The Spurs switch on final possessions. The Spurs believe in playing on in transition.
"Believe me," Ginobili said, "he had many more reasons to make [these decisions] than for [anyone] to question him."
To that there is no doubt. Still, the game never goes exactly as predicted and even the best coaches can watch the entire thing collapse, can have seemingly every move backfire at the least opportune time. Basketball is too complicated for anyone to pitch perfection every night.
If Indiana's Frank Vogel is shredded for pulling out 7-foot Roy Hibbert and leaving the rim exposed for LeBron in a critical loss in the Eastern Conference finals, then Popovich can be questioned for going with Diaw over Duncan with the title on the line.
And while it was Leonard, not Pop, who missed a critical free throw late in regulation, anytime a lead that big is squandered in a big game, the blame comes back to the bench.
"Up 10 points going into the fourth quarter?" Duncan said. "We like our chances."
This was a gut-punch defeat for the Spurs. Just brutal. They'd done everything to win, everything to hoist that trophy.
The postgame locker room, which, until those final seconds, looked headed for champagne spray and legacy hugs, was virtually silent. Duncan, who appeared to twist his left knee or ankle late in OT, walked with a limp. Danny Green just stared into the wall. Managers collected and sorted uniforms to be washed and prepared for another game, one of the least fun loads of laundry in history.
Bottles of water and Gatorade sat mostly unopened, like no one could muster the strength to even drink. Most of the postgame snacks – "Bobo's Oat Bars: Baked with heart in Boulder, Colorado" – went ignored.
This was a house of mourning.
Outside, Popovich gave his typical short, combative answers. He isn't a man interested in being questioned.
"It was a helluva game," the coach said. "It was an overtime game. It was a game of mistakes. And they ended up on the winning side."
His players remain believers, and for that the Spurs still have a chance. A lesser coach, a younger coach, and this series might be done. Only Popovich can sit Duncan, sit Parker, and have a chance to not lose the room.
"There's no questions there," Duncan assured.
"Me, personally, I trust Pop," Parker said. "I'll go with whatever Pop decides."
None of that makes this easier. The Spurs looked not so much defeated after, but shell-shocked. They'd played brilliantly. Duncan went for 25 in the first half alone, the future Hall of Famer abusing Bosh up and down the court, doing everything in his power to seize that fifth title. Parker had struggled but also made big shots. Leonard had been a beast at both ends of the court. LeBron and Dwyane Wade were controlled for large swaths of the game.
This was supposed to be over. This was supposed to be won. They brought out the damn yellow rope.
Now, the Spurs must return in less than 48 hours, backs against the wall, another chance at this final title, but facing questions about whether they have the spirit to do this again.
"I have no clue how we are going to be re-energized," Ginobili said. "I'm devastated."
Popovich won't want to hear that. The old Air Force Academy alum said his plan to get the team prepared for Thursday was simple. It doesn't appear to involve a lot of emotional healing sessions or hand-holding.
"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," he said. "That's how we get ready."
The plan blew up on him Tuesday. The plan will play again Thursday. No variations. No regrets. No lamenting what was lost and not won.
Next game, next question. Same Gregg Popovich.
NBA Finals coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
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