Distant history tells us that the Spurs won’t recover from their Game Six loss.
June 7, 1978.
35 years and 13 days separate the Spurs from the last team to win Game Seven on the road. The 1978 Washington Bullets overcame the Seattle Supersonics in a strange anticlimax to a great series. It wasn’t a game decided by the stars, as both teams’ leading scorers fouled out and watched their fate unfold from the sidelines. Elvin Hayes (WAS) and Gus Williams (SEA) had little impact.
Perhaps 1978’s Danny Green or Ray Allen was Bob Dandridge –the unexpected Bullet role player who led his team in scoring and helped them raise the championship trophy, victorious. The Spurs could take heart. They have role players. They have an elder statesmen, like Hayes was, coming off of a huge game six in Duncan. They have a fading star like Wes Unseld in Manu Ginobili. And they have rising promise in Kawhi Leonard, who has made a statement in these playoffs not unlike Mitch Kupchak did in his 1978 arrival.
In 1978, winning game seven on the road was proven possible. Why should the Spurs be any different? Alas, because here, history delivers a devastating blow.
The Bullets pulled this feat off before the 2-3-2 format. No team since that format was instituted has played game six on the road, and win or lose, been able to take game seven. And that’s not all. The Bullets won game six. Game seven came on a tidal wave of momentum instead of a collapse in which the championship was in sight. Teams facing that reality, like the Spurs, have been less fortunate.
In 1984, the Lakers couldn’t pull out a win at Boston Garden despite Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 29 points, Magic Johnson’s 15 assists, and a team field-goal percentage of almost 50%. On the road, that wasn’t enough. It was an end that George Orwell might not have seen coming.
In 1988, the “game seven curse” started to look predestined for road warriors. This should sound familiar: the Pistons had all but won game six, and the championship. They’d led the Lakers by three with a minute remaining, by one with 45 seconds to go. It was only a poorly timed foul on Abdul-Jabbar that would seal their collapse; he’d hit two free throws with 14 seconds left. The Lakers took game six by one. The Pistons fought, but didn’t recover, losing game seven by three points.
In 1994, the cycle of history struck again. The Knicks, led by Patrick Ewing and his flattop, lost a heartbreaking game six by a score of 86-84 to Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets. Unable to close out the series in their first game returning to The Summit, the Knicks quietly lost game seven. Their beleaguered run for a title would go overlooked and overshadowed by the OJ Simpson controversy.
In 2010, this storyline once more reared its ugly head. The Celtics, led by their own aging superstars in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and the young, mercurial Rajon Rondo, seemed poised to win a second title in the Doc Rivers era against the rival Lakers. Then they went to LA for game six. Kendrick Perkins suffered a leg injury, the Celtics suffered a loss, and the city of Boston suffered from a far as game seven all but unraveled in the wake of the first loss in the Staples Center.
This is what history tells us. Road teams, in this era, don’t win game sevens. Road teams, in this era, don’t recover from the collapse. History tells us that the San Antonio Spurs will not get any closer to their fifth Larry O’Brien trophy than they were as they lost the lead in game six, when the golden goblet had already been wheeled onto the floor prematurely.
And yet, recent history tells us the Spurs always recover.
December 18, 2012.
Six months and two days separate the San Antonio Spurs from the last time Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili took the floor together and lost twice in a row. They’ve responded to 17 losses in that span –and often, with authority.
They average 105.3 points per game following a loss since December 18, and 11 of the 17 response games have resulted in double-digit differentials where the Spurs simply leave their competition in the dust. This includes these playoffs, where Coach Popovich has displayed his innate ability to adjust to what ails his team.
Take Game 5 against the Golden State Warriors. The world was ready to anoint Stephen Curry as the next big thing. Golden State had found its golden boy. Then the Spurs’ defense held him to nine points. Duncan and Parker both secured double-doubles. And the Spurs won handily 109-91, not losing again until they met the Heat two rounds later in the Finals.
Take Game 3 against the Heat. After getting blown out by Miami in game two, the Spurs and Popovich amped up their defensive schemes. The result? They held the Big 3 (Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh) to 43 points…combined. San Antonio won the game by 36 points.
Take Game 5 of this incredible NBA Finals. After Miami’s stars figured out how to respond to San Antonio’s defense, Popovich & Co. countered with an offensive attack that left the Heat slack-jawed and at a loss –literally. The Spurs shot 60% from the field, the starting five averaged 21.4 points each, and their own big three came up huge. Duncan dropped a double-double, so did Manu, and Parker led the team with 26 points.
So while history says no team on the road can recover from the devastation of a game six loss, recent history suggests a caveat: if any team can avenge near-bliss and sudden catastrophe, it’s the Spurs. They always recover. Like their fearless, silent leader, Tim Duncan, they always rebound.
And yet, immediate history tells us we have no idea what’s coming.
June 20, 2013.
Seven hours separate the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat from Game Seven. And if the past six games are any indication of what’s to come, then it’s anyone’s guess. The only predictable outcome in the 2013 NBA Finals has been unpredictability.
Game one featured a Spurs close victory, borne from super efficient play (only FOUR turnovers) and a great game by Tim Duncan. That gave way to a game two performance in which San Antonio turned the ball over 16 times, in which Duncan scored only nine points, and in which the Heat won in a rout.
Game three, a tour-de-force of San Antonio dominance over Miami, arrived on the shoulders of unheralded players Danny Green and Gary Neal, who scored 27 and 24 respectively. Suddenly, game four was all about the stars, as the Heat’s romp of the Spurs was led by Lebron James and Dwyane Wade scoring 33 and 32.
Game five bore witness to the first battle of the big threes. The Spurs outlasted as Duncan scored 17 with twelve rebounds, as Manu scored 24 with 10 assists, and as Tony Parker dropped 26 points in front of an ecstatic home crowd. It was enough to defeat James and Wade’s combined 50 point effort.
Then Game Six happened. It will always be capitalized, perhaps as one of the best playoff games in history. It was simply unpredictable because we’ve never before seen anything quite like it. There was Duncan resurrecting his former self in the first half, dominating the boards and the hearts of millions. There was Lebron James losing his headband but gaining steam in the second half, helping the Heat surge back into the game and to that impossible finish. There were the miracle shots by Tony Parker that came too early to prevent the miracle response by Ray Allen.
The trophy was on the court. And then it wasn’t. Because the ending wasn’t impossible.
And it wasn’t the end. As it shouldn’t have been. This historic moment calls for an historic game seven. Two franchises cross in their eras of dominance –the rising Heat, the fading Spurs –two generations meeting somewhere in the darkness of night. Two opposite approaches to winning a title, and yet, both have 48 minutes to come away with the hardware.
History suggests the Spurs can’t win. History suggests the Spurs can’t lose.
History looms around tonight’s game seven. But even history can’t predict the result –except this: it will be historic. It will be an instant classic. It will be the game, no matter what, that redefined expectations.
Because history can never truly tell us how the ball will bounce.