MIAMI — Through heartbreaking losses and hair-raising victories, through Game 7s of the NBA Finals and Game 46s of the regular season, through contract extension after contract extension, what has defined these San Antonio Spurs more than anything else is the simple fact that they stick together.
Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have been the heart, the soul, the backbone and the brains of this operation for more than a decade. Through an unprecedented era of change and volatility, these Spurs have stayed in San Antonio, stayed together.
Coming off the most gut-wrenching defeat they have ever suffered, that unity, that togetherness, that unparalleled bond is more important now than it ever has been.
A group that thought it had seen everything the NBA could throw at it was shaken to the core when it experienced something totally new — when the Spurs gave away a five-point lead with 21 seconds to play in Game 6 against the Miami Heat and missed the chance to secure the franchise's fifth championship.
"We've never been through a situation like this," Ginobili said on Wednesday. "In 10-plus years we've been through basically everything. But I was trying to think. Not like this. So hopefully we are up to the challenge. We know that we can play better, and we have to."
Game 7 is Thursday night in Miami, only because the end of Game 6 went so horribly wrong for San Antonio.
The Spurs were up 13 points early in the fourth quarter and led 94-89 with 21 seconds to go. This team that had closed out so many of these games over the years with its cold-blooded precision was ready for perhaps its crowning achievement — dethroning LeBron James and the defending champion Heat on their home floor, no less.
The NBA was raising the yellow ropes around the court, wheeling the Larry O'Brien trophy toward the mouth of the arena and preparing the postgame celebration that was moments away.
Then James hit a 3-pointer, Kawhi Leonard missed a free throw, and Ray Allen drilled another 3 to force overtime. The Heat held on to win it and force a Game 7, and a team that has always prided itself on not letting the emotions of the moment overwhelm them looked totally defeated, totally devastated.
"Still down," Ginobili said a day later. "After a blow like that, it's not easy to get back up.
"But after 12 hours now, I feel a little better knowing that we have another chance, that we can do so many things better. And that we are in a Game 7 of the NBA Finals. There's not much more than that. We are still in a great situation. We are where we wanted to be at the beginning of the season, still."
In an effort to keep the team together and not dwell on the opportunity that just slipped away, the Spurs went to dinner — together, of course — after Game 6 to share some stories and clear their heads.
"It helped," Duncan said. "It did. The other option is a bunch of us go back to our rooms and sit in our rooms and sit there by ourselves and beat yourself up. So it's always good to be around teammates and kind of get some stuff out in the open. We did exactly that.
"We'll be ready to rock."
This is not the first difficult defeat the Spurs have ever had. There was Derek Fisher's prayer of a shot with 0.4 seconds on the clock in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals. There was Ginobili's foul on Dirk Nowitzki late in Game 7 of the 2006 Western Conference semifinals that allowed the Mavericks to force overtime and eventually beat the Spurs. And there was a home loss against the Detroit Pistons in Game 6 of the 2005 NBA Finals that pushed the series to seven.
But the Spurs have never been this close to having their hands on the trophy and failed to close it out. These robotic Spurs finally let their guard down last night, showing the raw disappointment that comes with such a defeat. Ginobili, who turned the ball over eight times and couldn't convert a layup in the closing moments of overtime, took it particularly hard.
"A competitor feels it deeply, and really, really tough loss in that regard," Popovich said. "I expect Manu to feel like that after the game. But he'll be fine."
Ginobili will turn 36 in July and is in the final year of his contract. Duncan is 37 and Popovich is 64. Once again, everyone is wondering how much longer these Spurs can stick together.
Right now, the only thing that matters is that they can do it for one more game.
"We are close. We've been through a lot of stuff," Ginobili said. "Not like this, but we believe in the challenge. We think that it can make it even sweeter.
"And besides, there's no other option."
As Ginobili said after Game 6, there is no Game 8.
"I think everybody wants to be ready for (Thursday)," Parker said. "Because if you're not ready for tomorrow, you're going to regret it for the next 10, 15 years."
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