MIAMI — Since last June, since that sublime corner shot that ultimately sank their championship, the fear is always the same for the NBA team with the most consistently contending roster in all of North American pro sports:
Can the San Antonio Spurs finish the job this time? As a 21-point first-half cushion was cut to seven in the third quarter of Game 3, as Miami bristled with belief that it had a shot, all the old demons were right there for last season’s crestfallen losers of Game 6.
You just knew they had to respond, you knew: For Tim Duncan and this team it’s not a physical challenge anymore; it’s all in the head. Could they simply finish?
There is a reason some mental health professionals say the most dangerous seven inches in the world is the space between your ears. All the distorted reality we come up with to sabotage our dreams is hard at work, churning to do the psychologically fragile among us in.
Whether this was the main reason Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and their deadeye teammates put on the most flawless first-half offensive display in the history of the NBA Finals can’t be certain.
But when a team displays such selfless teamwork and combines it with remarkable accuracy from all over the court — where at one point San Antonio hit 19 of its first 21 shots for 90.5 percent marksmanship through 16 minutes and just turns LeBron’s lair into a bunch of slack-jawed tourists in white cotton — it’s safe to assume the Spurs did not want to leave the door ajar again in Miami.
In their first postseason visit to the American Airlines Arena since their meltdown loss in Game 6 and ultimate heartbreak in Game 7 against the Heat, it’s safe to say Coach Gregg Popovich did not want to this coming down to Ray Allen in a corner with the ball in his hands and the Spurs’ heart in his sights.
They regrouped in the fourth quarter, found their game, found their range and began moving the ball like they did when the Spurs shot a record 75.8 percent in the first half, 25 of 33 from the field with 15 assists.
“I don’t think we’ll ever shoot 76 percent in a half again,” Popovich said, calling it a fluke. When a reporter reminded him that Popovich said, “You either move [the ball] or die,” on Sunday after the Game 2 loss, the Spurs coach explained that “it just means move the basketball.”
“I mean, it’s a simple game and everybody tries to move the basketball. If you don’t move it, things don’t happen very well for you.”
San Antonio did more than take a two-games-to-one lead in the best-of-seven series, seizing back home-court advantage 48 hours after they gave it away in San Antonio; the Spurs beat back the notion that they aren’t mentally tough enough to close the door on Miami in Miami.
A year later, it’s still hard to fathom how close Duncan was to his fifth NBA title, how close the Spurs were to consigning LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat to one-and-done champions. They were up by six points in a clinching Game 6 — with just 28 seconds left.
Ushers had descended on the floor, ringing the court to provide security for the trophy presentation. A thick plastic yellow tape was put up as a barrier and big bags of T-shirts and baseball caps that read, “Spurs NBA Champions” sat within inches of the court.
Then came Allen’s sublime shot from the corner, a we-got-this-title lead suddenly dissolved to none. And overtime. And heartbreak.
They were also coming off a Game 2 loss at home that was winnable, a game San Antonio missed four straight free throws in a fourth quarter they were ahead by a point at the time.
As much as the Heat won that game, as much as LeBron returned to form after leaving Game 1 with severe muscle cramps, the Spurs contributed to their own demise — just as they did a year ago here.
When Allen stepped back again a few feet from where he made that shot on Tuesday, when he nailed a three-pointer to draw Miami to within 10 points and wake up a stunned building, there had to real concern for everyone who wants to see a 38-year-old, no-vertical Duncan dethrone LeBron at the height of his powers thought the same thing: here they go again, same ol’ Spurs, getting so close, only to be undone by a Kawhi Leonard missed free throw or two, an inability to corral a rebound or close out on a dangerous shooter behind the three-point line.
It never happened in Game 3. Leonard made sure, making his first six shots, hitting some absolutely crazy turnaround jumpers in that dazzling first half.
Everybody filled it up from everywhere, sharing the ball, finding the open man, rewarding the cutters and the trailers, making the game look so easy against allegedly one of the best defensive teams in recent memory.
The team without home-court advantage no longer has the benefit of playing three straight at home, meaning Miami needs to treat Game 4 on Thursday about as close to elimination as possible. Because a loss obviously means the Spurs would take a commanding three-games-to-one lead into a Game 5 on their floor.
And if they’re not going to fall apart on the Heat’s floor, the chances of it happening again back home begin to look more remote all the time.
The series should still go at least six games, but the Spurs responded in a way that left no doubt they are over their mental flagellation from a year ago. They are so over Game 6 psychologically they would probably love to close the Heat out here in another Game 6 just to prove it.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.