MIAMI — Depending on your perspective, either the Miami Heat completed an epic comeback or the San Antonio Spurs suffered a stunning collapse in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. What everyone can agree upon is that the best thing in team sports is up next.
On Thursday night, the Heat and Spurs meet here in a decisive Game 7. It’s a one-game showdown to close a championship series that has been among the most compelling in league history. No other ending would have sufficed.
The Heat and Spurs haven’t just played inspired basketball. They’ve provided great theater: tragedy and triumph all in 48 minutes (a little longer in Game 6).
We’ve seen a villain, a hero, failure and redemption. And that just describes the performance of Miami’s LeBron James. Both teams are capable of nailing the final act.
The best players star on this stage. During his 12 Finals appearances, Boston’s Bill Russell played in five Game 7s. He took home five titles. Willis Reed’s gutsy performance in 1970 is part of NBA lore, but not as many people remember that Clyde Frazier scored a game-high 36 points in the Knicks’ Game 7 victory over the Lakers. In 1988, James Worthy dropped 36 points on Detroit to help the Lakers become the first repeat NBA champion since Russell’s Celtics accomplished the feat in 1969. No wonder they called him Big Game James.
Miami has one as well. For LeBron James’s critics, every game is a referendum on his career. He should have received a lot of votes after his last game.
The country’s most scrutinized athlete scored 18 points in the fourth quarter and overtime combined as Miami overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit in Tuesday’s 103-100 victory. James overwhelmed the Spurs while leading a furious rally. Don’t expect him to let up now.
“At the end of the day, it’s the last game of the season. You have to muster up all the energy that you might have,” James said. “It’s not about X’s and O’s at this point. They know what we’re running. We know what they’re running. We know their personnel. They know our personnel. It’s about getting stops defensively, staying in it mentally, not turning the ball over and making a few shots.”
That seems simple enough. History, however, tells us you don’t want to play on the road in Game 7s of the Finals. Visiting teams have a dreadful 3-14 record. The Washington Bullets were the last road team to win a Game 7 — in 1978. That’s a serious home-court advantage.
Hosting Game 7 is the Heat’s prize for having the NBA’s best regular season record, “and if you said . . . we could decide this season with a Game 7 in our building, every single one of us would take it,” Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You know, they’re the best two words in team sports: Game 7.”
The Spurs would disagree. When a team is up by five points with 28 seconds to play in a potential close-out game of the Finals, the last thing it wants to do is have to play a winner-take-all game two nights later in front of a hostile crowd. The Spurs’ fifth championship was within their grasp Tuesday night. They let it slip away.
“We know what we can do,” said Tim Duncan, who came through with 25 points during the Spurs’ Game 7 victory over Detroit in the 2005 Finals. “We know we can win games either here or anywhere else. We just had a lapse for a couple of minutes here and there.”
Some would say the Spurs’ coaching staff dropped the ball, too. San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich came under scrutiny for his fourth-quarter decisions.
Popovich started the fourth quarter with Duncan (30 points, 17 rebounds) and Tony Parker (19 points, eight assists) on the bench. The Spurs struggled to score, James went into Michael Jordan mode and the Spurs’ lead disappeared. Then Popovich took out Duncan because of matchup concerns late in the quarter. Chris Bosh’s offensive rebound led to Ray Allen’s tying three-pointer with 5.2 seconds to play.
Popovich has guided the Spurs to four titles. He has the hardware to support his thinking. Poor free throw shooting down the stretch was the Spurs’ biggest problem. Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard each missed a free throw in the final 28 seconds. That’s not how to finish strong. The Spurs know they have to overcome what happened. Actually doing it is the hard part.
“There’s no Game 8 afterwards. We’re going to have to play our best game,” Ginobili said. “But yeah, there’s no secret recipe for bouncing back.”
The Heat usually finds a way. After losses in this postseason, Miami is 7-0. The Heat last lost consecutive games in early January. The Spurs have to “realize we have another great opportunity,” Parker said. “It’s going to be another great game.”
Positive thinking never hurts, and the Spurs have been here before. But the Heat will end the season playing on its court. In Game 7s, there’s no better place to be.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/