By Michael Parente
Tonight, we find out whether these San Antonio Spurs are the ’86 Red Sox or the ’74 Celtics.
Only one team can overcome the kick to the groin Miami gave San Antonio Tuesday night in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, and that would be the Spurs, who still have the veteran leadership of Tony Parker and Tim Duncan and the cool, calm assertiveness of head coach Gregg Popovich, who has won four titles with the Spurs and is the longest-tenured coach in all four major American sports (MLB, NHL, NBA and NFL).
The problem is Game 7 has been unkind to road teams. No team has won Game 7 of the Finals on the road since the Washington Bullets beat the Seattle Supersonics in 1978, and road teams are just 14-3 overall in Game 7 of the Finals since the league’s first championship series in 1946.
What’s even more problematic is that might not even be the biggest hurdle San Antonio has to overcome tonight. In addition to having to erase the memory of their Game 6 meltdown (San Antonio flushed a five-point lead in the closing seconds with a chance to win its fifth title in the last 14 years), the Spurs must find a way to beat Miami on its home court with Parker still nursing a hamstring injury and Duncan trying to ward off Father Time for at least one more night. The Spurs actually led by 10 points entering the fourth quarter of Game 6 until Popovich gave both Parker and Duncan a breather that resulted in a 14-7 run for Miami sparked by the God-like play of LeBron James. This is part of what Popovich has to deal with tonight, too; for all the talk of whether or not James is exhausted from back-to-back-to-back trips to the Finals, both Parker and Duncan (31 and 37, respectively) are more inclined to run out of gas tonight than James, and there’s a better chance of Kanye West winning Father of the Year than there is of Duncan posting 30 points and 17 boards in back-to-back games.
The Spurs have the unenviable task of avoiding the same indignity suffered by the aforementioned ’86 Red Sox, who came within one out of eliminating the Mets in Game 6 of the World Series before Calvin Schiraldi, Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner carved their names in baseball history. The Red Sox never recovered from the Game 6 meltdown and lost the following night, too. The Texas Rangers also know the feeling. Two years ago, they came within one strike of ending St. Louis’ season in Game 6 of the World Series when Nelson Cruz misjudged a fly ball in right off the bat of David Freese. The Cardinals tied the game, fell behind in the 10th inning, rallied to tie it again and then won it in the 11th before choking the life out of Texas for good the following night in Game 7.
San Antonio could also make history by duplicating the feat of the ’74 Celtics, who are still the only team to win a championship in Game 7 after losing Game 6 in overtime. That series is also the last one in which either team failed to win consecutive games; if the Spurs win tonight, they, too, would have alternated wins and losses, ending that 39-year drought.
Miami also has its own demons to conquer; it remains to be seen whether or not James earned enough goodwill from last year’s victory in the Finals to absorb a loss to San Antonio, which would be his third loss in four trips to the Finals. The public’s perception of a player’s ability – or lack thereof – to win when it counts often depends on that player’s reputation. James, for what it’s worth, is generally perceived as an arrogant, unlikeable character for a myriad of reasons and probably wouldn’t get as much rope if his team loses tonight as would someone such as golfer Phil Mickelson, a generally affable guy who, for lack of a better term, has “bit the big one” under pressure far more than he’s won. More importantly, another loss in the Finals might finally put to bed any talk of a dynasty in Miami. As great as “The Big 3” are, the window closes a little more with each passing year.
There’s so much at stake tonight, which makes this tremendous theater for anyone who enjoys the dramatic ebbs and flows of professional sports. Someone will emerge as an unlikely hero tonight, whether it’s Danny Green continuing to shoot his way to an improbable Finals MVP award, or perhaps Ray Allen in what might be his last run at a title. This series is exactly what the NBA needed to compete with what has turned into a brilliant chess match between the Bruins and Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals.
For all intents and purposes, the pressure’s on the Spurs. They’re the road team trying to overcome that gut-wrenching loss in Game 6 in what might be their final opportunity to cement themselves as the NBA’s last great dynasty. The Heat figure to be looser than Amanda Bynes with the comfort of their home court and their fans guiding them through any and all adversity. Will it be enough? That’s why we watch. The script has yet to be written.
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