MIAMI — Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili trudged off the court, their heads hanging, bald spots that come from more than a decade of games like this for all to see.
These proud San Antonio Spurs gave everything they had in Game 7. And when their valiant fight fell just short, they couldn't stop thinking about the title they gave away two nights earlier.
LeBron James scored 37 points and the Spurs couldn't quite finish one last stand in a 95-88 loss to the defending champion Miami Heat on Thursday night.
"To be at this point with this team in this situation, where people every year continue to count us out, is a great accomplishment," said Duncan, his voice quivering in a rare show of emotion for the intensely private star. "To be in a game 7 or be in a game 6 and up one with two chances to win an NBA championship, that's tough to swallow."
Duncan had 24, 12 rebounds and four steals and Ginobili scored 18 points with five assists. But Tony Parker struggled with just 10 points on 3-for-12 shooting and the Spurs were left lamenting the Game 6 collapse that cost them their fifth title under coach Gregg Popovich.
"Being so close and feeling that you are about to grab that trophy and then seeing it vanish is very hard," Ginobili said. "I think that if we would've lost both games like this, I would be a little more up. But it's a tough feeling."
The Spurs were in it the whole game, down 90-88 with two minutes to go after a 3-pointer by Kawhi Leonard. But Duncan missed two point blank chances to tie and had a turnover in the closing minutes, and James went out and grabbed the title that was there for the taking after the Spurs let it slip away.
"For me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me," Duncan said.
It was a heart-breaking way to end it for these Spurs, who were 21 seconds from title No. 5 when everything went wrong in Game 6. James hit a 3 and Ray Allen hit another with 5.2 seconds to go to tie it, and the Heat outlasted the Spurs in overtime to force a Game 7.
"It's such a fine line between celebrating and having a great summer with now feeling like crap and just so disappointed," Ginobili said.
Now, once again, they will face proclamations of their demise. Only this time, it may be harder to hold those off.
Duncan is 37, but coming off an All-NBA First Team season and a vintage performance in the finals. The 31-year-old Parker is nearing his apex after one of his finest seasons. But Ginobili will turn 36 next month and will be a free agent, perhaps marking the end of the three-person core that helped put the Alamo City on the NBA map, and keep it there for 10 years.
"I couldn't love our guys more," Popovich said. "What they accomplished this year was something nobody ever expected. They showed a lot of mental toughness and a lot of good play to get where they got. I couldn't be more proud of them."
They gave it their all, these Spurs. But in the end, James was just too much, and a prophecy came to be.
Back in 2007, when the Spurs swept James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the franchise's fourth title, Duncan found the young superstar for a quiet moment to tell him that the league would one day be his.
Now James has four MVPs, two Olympic golds and back-to-back titles on his resume. Duncan has been right so many times throughout his career. This time, it's at his expense.
The questions begin now. Will Ginobili return? Can Duncan keep turning back the clock? And does the 64-year-old Popovich have another year left in him?
Parker chafed when asked if he thought this was the last run with this group.
"I can't believe you're asking that question," Parker snapped. "It's been five, six years you saying we're too old, so I'm not going to answer that."
Duncan said flatly that he will be back next season — "I have a contract that says I am" — and Ginobili said it was too soon to think about that.
"It's not the moment," Ginobili said. "I'm very disappointed, very upset. I really can't say anything."
The coach said, win or lose, he will take some time after the season to do some traveling and be with his family before he makes a decision. But he sure didn't sound like the kind of guy who was pondering riding off into the sunset.
"After a little while just getting up when you want to in the morning and really not having challenges gets a little boring," Popovich said before the game. "You can only grow so many tomatoes and read so many books. You want to get busy, get competitive again.
"When I stop feeling competitive around September, then I'll hang it up."