The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs will engage in one of the greatest spectacles in sports on Thursday night, a Game 7 for the NBA Championship.
After an entire preseason, an exhausting 82-game regular season and a grueling postseason, the Larry O'Brien Trophy is at stake in just one game.
"The moment is going to be grand," MVP LeBron James said on Wednesday.
Grand and rare.
The last Game 7 in the NBA Finals took place in 2010 when the Los Angeles Lakers held off the Boston Celtics. Prior to that, in 2005, these Spurs won their third NBA title in a seven-point victory over the Detroit Pistons.
Both home teams triumphed in those Game 7s. That's a theme. The last five Game 7s in NBA Finals history have all gone to the host. The last time a road team pulled off the enormous feat of winning a Game 7 on the road came in 1978 when the Washington Bullets beat the Seattle Supersonics in Seattle.
"I think we should be happy about that opportunity to try to make history," said Spurs guard Tony Parker. "It's a great challenge. We know we can beat them here. We just have to do it again.
"If you told me before the season that we'll be 3-3 in The Finals against Miami, I think everybody on the team will sign up for it."
Everyone on the Spurs might, but they will have a tough time shaking the notion that a seventh game shouldn't have been required.
Up five points with 28 seconds on the clock in Tuesday's Game 6, the Heat got an offensive rebound and James made a 3-pointer. San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard went 1-for-2 from the free-throw line, then, once again, an offensive rebound doomed the Spurs.
Chris Bosh of Miami poked the ball to Ray Allen, who made a desperation trey with five seconds left. That tied the game and in overtime, San Antonio had another chance at the title.
Manu Ginobili, who was as dreadful in Game 6 as he was brilliant in Game 5, took the ball to the basket, down one, with less than 10 seconds left, but committed his eighth turnover. There was contact, but Allen buried two foul shots for a three-point Heat lead.
Tim Duncan hit Danny Green with a beautiful, cross-court inbounds pass with under two seconds, but Bosh blocked the shot. Again, there was some contact, but the question now is, how can the Spurs put such a crushing loss, one Ginobili characterized as "devastating," behind them for Game 7?
"We've been through a lot," said Duncan, who had a monster first half of 25 points, but finished with 30. "Our core of guys have been through a lot together. We have some young talent here, but they're going to feed off of what we do. And Tony, Manu and I have been in this position before. We're excited about the opportunity."
Any loss like that, when you are tantalizingly close to a title, is heartbreaking. But some curious decisions by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made the loss confusing to boot.
He sat Duncan during both Heat 3-pointers late in the fourth when a defensive rebound would have clinched the game, and the title.
"It's not that simple. That's not why they got the 3s," explained Popovich. "Switching makes sense just to take away the 3. But on an offensive rebound, it's one of the toughest things in the NBA, to pick up people. And we had one guy who didn't pick up.
"And then on the last possession we were switching at the 3-point line to take away the 3, and Boris Diaw has a little more speed than Tim Duncan, so it makes sense to have him out there reading at the 3-point line. Unfortunately we had two guys that went to LeBron and didn't switch with Bosh, and he went right to the hole. He's the guy who got the rebound.
"So it has nothing to do with Duncan."
Fine. But at the end of overtime, Parker, still one of the league's best penetrating guards, was on the bench.
But the Spurs will have to do their best to forget about Game 6. The team went to dinner following the loss and the experience was deemed positive.
"It helped. It did," said Duncan. "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."
The Spurs haven't faced a Game 7 since the 2008 Western Conference semifinals when they beat New Orleans.
The Heat are in their third Game 7 in the last two years. They eliminated the Boston Celtics in last season's Eastern Conference finals, and bettered the Indiana Pacers in this year's conference finals. Both of those wins came at American Airlines Arena.
"We've been in Game 7s before, so we just try to stay in the moment," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
James was brilliant in Game 6 with 32 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. It was his second triple-double of the series and he was the catalyst in Tuesday's fourth-quarter comeback.
With the Heat down 10 to start the fourth quarter, a headband-less James scored five buckets in the paint and swatted Duncan in a crucial moment. The Heat took the lead on an Allen layup, but what was interesting was, Dwyane Wade and Bosh were both on the bench. The unit that reclaimed the lead was James, Mario Chalmers, Allen, Mike Miller and Chris Andersen, who didn't play in the previous two games.
"It creates a lot of space," James said of that lineup. "With Mike and Ray, they stayed home on those guys a lot, it allows me to get downhill and get to the paint."
Now, the Heat have a chance to become the first repeat champions since the Lakers in 2009-10. It would be the franchise's third title.
"I want our team to go down as one of the greatest teams," said James. "And we have an opportunity to do that. Hasn't been many people to win back-to-back championships."
San Antonio can get its fifth ring. Duncan can become the second player in NBA history to win a title in three different decades.
"We feel that obviously we like our chances, and to be in this situation, a Game 7, we're just going to leave it all out there and see what happens," said Duncan.
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