Sixteen Down [Incomplete]

Written on:July 31, 2014
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Editor’s Note: Sixteen Down was scheduled to be published in its entirety this month. However, due to extenuating circumstances, I have not had the necessary time to finish writing and editing this post properly in a timely fashion. In order to keep this content in its proper chronological place in theLeftAhead feed, today I am posting an excerpt from Sixteen Down which has been edited and is in publishable form. When the entire post is completed I will replace the excerpt with the post in its entirety. For anyone who has been checking the site regularly to read the final installment of the Black & Silver series, I apologize for the delay and the inconvenience. Thanks for your continued support. – TJ


Wish You Were Here – I clutched the rose on my necklace and peered blankly at the television screen. Moments earlier, I had been standing with Jenn in the center of the living room. After screaming, receiving a spectacular hug and then exhaling, I had retreated to the couch and sat down utterly exhausted. I couldn’t move. I quickly realized that I was back in the same vast empty space that I had been in 74 days earlier while sitting in my car in the parking lot of my neighborhood’s basketball court. It was the first time that I had been back in this space since that terrible Thursday evening in early April, but this time it was different. It was the same numbness, the same callosity. The difference was that this time it was familiar. I was acutely aware of it and I knew that the empty void would momentarily be engulfed. I clutched my necklace, I peered at the television, and I focused straight ahead. Like a dusting of snowflakes on the dreary overcast day that constitutes winter’s last crescendo before gracefully submitting to the adagio exposition of a spring sonata, silver confetti danced in my field of vision. I followed one piece of confetti as it floated down from the rafters, around through the air and as it narrowly missed landing safely on a prominent person’s shoulder before drifting rhythmically to the floor. Like a maestro conducting the soloist in a concerto, this singular piece of confetti directed my eyes to play to its every whim. It demanded my attention and captured my imagination. This one piece of confetti seemed to control me because in that moment, and in the vast, empty space that I occupied, for whatever reason, it seemed profound. It was as if it embodied my entire universe. It was as if it were him.

 

* * *

 

Deep in the bowels of the AT&T Center, LeBron James gathered his Miami Heat teammates in a pregame huddle before taking the court for warmups ahead of Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals. Trailing in the series 1-3, the two-time defending champions had their backs up against the ropes and LeBron knew it. Given the trajectory of the series (after James and company had punched the challengers in the nose in Game 2 in San Antonio, the Spurs caught the Heat off guard by counter punching so forcefully in Games 3 and 4 in Miami that the champs were left clutching the ropes to avoid spiraling into a free fall), LeBron understood that it was going to take a super-human effort on his part in Game 5 to fight the Heat off of the ropes and back into the middle of the ring where they could retake the offensive in their quest for a three-peat. His message to his teammates was simple, “Follow my lead.” Less than an hour later, the Heat were thoroughly in control of the basketball game with 5:03 left in the first quarter after LeBron, upon hearing the opening bell, had exploded into attack mode for 12 points in the contest’s first seven minutes. Also working in Miami’s favor was the fact that LeBron’s stellar start was coupled with the good fortune that his team was going up against an over-anxious opponent (it was evident that the San Antonio Spurs had returned to their home court and began Game 5 playing like a team that was pressing to win a championship instead of playing like a team that was focused on winning a playoff game). Therefore, a perfect storm was brewing in San Antonio to provide Miami a legitimate opportunity to get back in the series. LeBron James had simultaneously put on his cape and inspired new life in his teammates which allowed the Heat to capitalize on an uncharacteristic lack of composure on the Spurs’ side. It had all added up to a 22-6 lead for the the champs.

With seven minutes elapsed in the first quarter of Game 5 and trailing by 16 points, the Spurs were in dire straights and in desperate need of a basket on the next possession to prevent LeBron and the Heat from running away and hiding before 18,581 anxious Spurs fans had even had an opportunity to show Miami how thunderously loud the release of nine years of pent-up championship closeout noise might be when it’s coming from deep in the heart of Titletown, TX. For a little one-horse town that has been able to parlay a pair of winning lottery tickets into eventually boasting an arena which houses a small-market basketball franchise that is in contention for an NBA championship every single season, nine years is an awful long time to wait for moments such as the one before the Alamo City on Sunday, June 15. The AT&T Center (also known as the house that David Robinson and Tim Duncan built) had not hosted a home closeout game in the NBA Finals since June 23, 2005 (the 2007 championship team closed out the Cavaliers in Cleveland in a sweep). Combined with the extra fuel that an opportunity to put to rest the heartbreak from losing last year’s Finals to the same opponent would provide the Spurs fans in the arena and it was obvious heading into the game that the noise of the home crowd could be a huge advantage for the Spurs throughout the night. Nonetheless, Miami’s quick start to open up a 16 point lead had successfully taken the famished and revenge-thirsty crowd out of the game and had, thus, surprisingly neutralized San Antonio’s advantage. You could hear the tension in the building permeating through the television by virtue of the absence of noise coming from a shell-shocked crowd, which is why this possession was shaping up to be the critical moment in the ball game. If the Heat were able to force another missed shot or turnover and convert the stop into another easy basket at the other end (extending their lead closer to 20), Gregg Popovich may have been ready (out of frustration and with two losses to spare) to pull the regular rotation players and give the likes of Aron Baynes, Jeff Ayers, Matt Bonner, Marco Belinelli, and Corey Joseph a prolonged opportunity to try to get San Antonio back in the game.

Looking over at Coach Pop on the sidelines, I could almost see it written on his expression. One more empty offensive trip followed by another Heat basket and, indeed, he would have elected to bench the regulars. I’m sure he knew that it would have been a tall order to hope for that reserve unit to find success in slowing down a LeBron freight train which had already left the station, but he would have pulled the trigger anyway. The infamous Popovich mass-substitution that was forthcoming if things continued to go south would have demoralized the crowd but it would have also been the right decision and a necessary message for the NBA Coach of the Year to send to the rotation players in order to force them to regroup and refocus (similar to the earlier surrender in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder). The upcoming possession for the Spurs was, therefore, the critical moment in the ball game because it quite possibly could have been the last chance the regulars might get to right the ship. In less than seven minutes, the AT&T Center scene, which was supposed to be a coronation, had rapidly deteriorated into a dark, murky mess. We were less than seven minutes into Game 5 and the Spurs front office was dangerously close to needing to get on the phone with a South Beach hotel and confirm our reservation for a block of rooms the following night. Indeed, gray clouds were beginning to congregate once again in the skies above San Antonio and as Spurs fans we were helpless to stop whatever hell the basketball gods were conspiring to unleash. It just seemed like one of those nights. Besides dealing with trying to defend the best player in the world playing at the peak of his game, our offense (to that point) had been abysmal. The Spurs were 1-12 from the field and once again our attack, as it had in Game 2, seemed flustered by Miami’s frantic defensive pressure. The prospect of returning to Miami to face a suddenly rejuvenated championship team that had climbed within two victories of making NBA Finals history by becoming the first team to overcome a 1-3 series deficit was beginning to seem like a real possibility. There was no question that this next possession was the critical moment in the game. Somebody in a home white uniform needed to step up and give this lethargic Spurs team (a team that had seemed invincible 36 hours earlier) some life. We needed a spark and it had to arrive on this possession. Otherwise, there was a distinct possibility that Game 5 was already lost.

 

 

Like so many times before during his illustrious basketball career, when things seemed to be at their darkest in San Antonio, all of a sudden Manu Ginobili’s majestic talent, in all its brilliant colors, appeared at the edge of the horizon and started rising up to fill the sky. During this possession, which doubled as the critical moment in the game, Manu sprang to life and delivered the necessary spark. Down sixteen, Ginobili put the ball on the floor, got bumped by Rashard Lewis, and finished a continuation by dropping a runner in over the top of Miami’s interior defense. Fourteen down. And one, Manu at the free throw line. Nothing but net. Thirteen down. Coach Pop was now relieved of the responsibility for making the decision on whether or not to pull the trigger on emptying the bench. The critical moment of the game (perhaps the critical moment of the series, the playoffs, the season, the last seven years) had just happened and Manu Ginobili, the greatest competitor to ever put on a San Antonio Spurs jersey, had delivered. He also wasn’t done. On the next Miami possession, Shane Battier (desperate to get himself going in his final NBA game) became overly aggressive trying to establish position. Manu, who was guarding him, refused to give ground and Battier, in frustration, delivered a lethal elbow to Ginobili’s chest. The officials blew the whistle, but the confrontation continued nonetheless. Battier, unrelentingly continued to throw his weight into Manu’s upper body. Exacerbated, Ginobili through up his arms and ceded position. The unexpected release of opposing force caused Battier to tumble to the court and once arriving on the floor, the Miami journeyman kicked up his legs, tripping Manu, which caused Ginobili to come crashing to the ground as well. Offensive foul, turnover, Spurs ball. Battier’s unwarranted aggression against the Spurs’ sixth man proved to be a costly mistake. Within 7 seconds of the turnover, Manu was letting a three pointer fly at the other end of the court. Nothing but net. Miami timeout. Ten down. After the timeout, the Heat ran a set that resulted in Ray Allen attempting to attack off the dribble with Patty Mills guarding him. With Patty draped all over him, Jesus Shuttlesworth lowered his shoulder during his drive and dropped Mills to the hard court. The referees swallowed their whistles and with no charge forthcoming, Allen dribbled into an open 16 foot jump shot. Surprisingly, the knock-down jump shooter missed and Ginobili snatched a contested rebound. He dribbled down the court, commanded the attention of the Miami defense, and found a wide open Kawhi Leonard alone for another three pointer. Kawhi buried it. Assist, Manu Ginobili. Seven down. 45 seconds had elapsed from the game clock and Manu Ginobili had scored 6 points, drew a charge, grabbed a rebound, tallied an assist and cut a 16 point Miami lead to seven in the blink of an eye. Manu freaking Ginobili.

 

 

The two teams traded baskets for the remainder of the first quarter and the Heat ended the period with a seven point lead heading into the second. To begin the next quarter, Coach Pop drew up a play that the Spurs rarely use, a play that he had added to the Spurs playbook for Richard Jefferson, once upon a time. Kawhi Leonard received the ball at the top of the key and immediately swung it over to Boris Diaw over on the left wing. He then cut hard to the basket curling off of a perfect Tiago Splitter back screen that picked off his defender, Dwyane Wade. Tiago’s defender, Chris “Birdman” Andersen was slow to react and Boris delivered a perfect alley oop pass that Kawhi hammered home without breaking a sweat. Five down. The Heat came back down and ran a set to get Wade a shot but as he tried to attack Danny Green off of the dribble, Danny stripped the ball from him and eventually tied him up for a jump ball. Danny went on to win the tip and the Spurs were back in attack mode. The Spurs methodically worked the ball up the court and around the horn. Tiago to Boris to Tony to Danny back to Boris to Kawhi isolated on the left elbow against LeBron James. Kawhi sized up the king, juked him once with a jab step and head fake, and then rose up and drained a 20 foot jumper right in his eye. Three down. It was beginning to seem as if the Spurs momentum was starting to build up pressure like water in a damn that was ready to burst open.

Miami, however, was able to regroup and hold the Spurs off over the next few minutes. Wade and Chris Bosh both dropped in jump shots to get the Miami lead back to seven during a four minute stretch in which the Spurs went cold from the field. With the offense stagnating, San Antonio turned to our safety blanket to operate the offense for the next few possessions. With the smaller Udonis Haslem guarding him, Tim Duncan went to work. Tony Parker fed Timmy in the post and Timmy dropped a beautiful retro 13 foot turn around fade-away over Haslem’s outstretched arms. Wade came right back down, drew a foul, and made both free throws. On the next possession, the Spurs went right back to TD in the low post. LeBron came with a double team to help Haslem so Duncan turned away from James right into Udonis hoping to draw a foul. When a foul was not granted on the body contact down low, Haslem was able to regroup and block the shot back out to the perimeter. Timmy reacted quickly to regain control of the basketball but with the shot clock winding down he had to throw up a desperation shot. It missed but Boris was in position to grab the rebound and alertly fired it back out to Marco Belinelli who pump faked a scrambling Ray Allen, took one dribble, and buried a 17 foot jumper. C.R.E.A.M.. Marco had signed with the Spurs last summer so that he could play for a championship contender and despite limited minutes, he was delivering in his first NBA Finals. After Haslem missed a 19 foot jumper from the top of the key and Diaw secured the rebound for the Spurs, San Antonio methodically worked the ball back in to Duncan in the post who turned and swept across the lane for a running jump hook over a helpless Haslem. Coming home. Miami quickly called a timeout but it seemed to be of little use in quelling San Antonio’s momentum. On the next Heat possession, Ray Allen was called for an offensive foul setting a moving screen away from the ball on Boris Diaw. Having clearly established a mismatch in the Duncan – Haslem match up, the Spurs were happy to continue exploiting it. After the Allen turnover, Tony dribbled off of a screen by Timmy, passed to Boris on the wing, who hit a cutting Duncan near the rim. Tim rose up and scored over Haslem once again and drew the foul. One down.

It was becoming noticeably visible on the television screen that body language of LeBron James’ teammates was beginning to change. You could almost see the exacerbation in their faces. James would not be quite as easily discouraged, who now seemed resigned to the fact that this was quickly becoming a contest of the best player in the world versus the best team in the world. The evaporation of the Heat lead made LeBron look more determined. On the next trip down the court, the same could be said about the San Antonio Spurs players who were oozing with defensive intensity. LeBron Jame attempted to attack the off the dribble and was met at the rim by the four outstretched arms of Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard. LeBron missed the contested layup and there was a scramble for the loose ball that resulted in the ball cascading out of bounds off of Manu. A determined LeBron attacked the rim again after Miami inbounded the ball. Again, he was met at the rim, this time by Timmy and Boris and again he missed the lay up. This time Kawhi gobbled up the rebound and immediately started pushing the ball up the court. On the break, Rashard Lewis picked up Kawhi sprinting down the middle of the court, but as Kahwi approached the three point line, Lewis continued back pedaling to the free throw line. Wi pulled up and drained a cold-blooded triple. The amassed San Antonio Spurs fans in the AT&T Center lost their collective minds. Two up. The San Antonio Spurs had our first lead of Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals.

Despite the two point lead, Manu Ginobili (having already made a play in the critical moment in the game) was not finished redeeming himself for his 2013 NBA Finals performance. After Miami wound up with a contested Ray Allen fade away on a broken play, Patty Mills narrowly missed a three, and Rashard Lewis air balled a contested three, Manu caught the ball near the top of the key and waived off a screen to get an isolation against Lewis. Manu calmly dribbled the ball back out to near the half court line to set up his attack. He drove left on Lewis and as Chris Bosh came to help near the rim, Manu smoothly reversed the ball underneath the basket with his left hand and dropped it up off the backboard on the other side of the rim for a sick reverse layup. Four up. After Patty Mills drew a charge on Dwyane Wade on the next Heat possession, the noise level in the arena began to reach pandemonium levels. The Spurs brought the ball back down the court and five passes later, Manu was fouled on another drive to the basket and almost converted the three point play on a runner. He uncharacteristically rimmed out the first free throw but he knocked down the second one. Five up. The AT&T Center was going bonkers and you could almost see the demons of Game 6 of last year’s Finals gathering their things together to get ready to leave the building. LeBron, however, still competing drove the lane again and created a wide open three pointer for Bosh. Seemingly half-heartly, Bosh launched the shot which rimmed out. Timmy secured the rebound and got the ball back to Manu on the outlet. With a full head of steam and that look in his eyes, Manu drove to the cup and jumped in the air for what seemed would be another spectacular reverse layup or floater. To the surprise of every member of planet Earth’s basketball viewing public, Manu Ginobili didn’t put the ball in position for a layup or floater. Instead he just kept rising up in the air. Up and up he went until he had the ball so high that he was at a clear advantage over Chris Bosh, who was challenging Manu at the rim. The 36 year old proceeded to slam the ball so violently into the basket directly in Bosh’s face that I literally began crying tears of joy. Seven up (and I’m not talking about he soda), demons exorcised. In my 30 years of watching in NBA basketball Manu Ginobili is the only player I have ever seen that has been able to do things with a basketball that have made me so full of such utter euphoria that my only recourse is to begin weeping and that is a good enough reason for me to make him the player of the game. The Spurs fans in attendance finally reached the crescendo of Titletown, TX’s thunderously loud closeout noise. The writing was on the wall. When James, still competing, was able to drop in a fade-away jumper to cut the lead back to five, the Spurs dribbled back down the court and even though the show was over, Manu amused the fans by granting them an encore. After a series of San Antonio Spurs passes, Manu caught the ball at the top of the key, dribbled right off of a Tim Duncan screen, stepped back off of the dribble, and drained a juicy fade away three pointer. Eight up, as if it was all a dream, and the ball game was over. The San Antonio Spurs had a lead that they would not relinquish.

To be continued…


One Left

Written on:June 15, 2014
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Juicy – It was all a dream… All thirteen players that suited up for the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of the 2014 NBA Finals dotted the box score with at least two points. Yes, thirteen players scored for one team in an NBA Finals game. This has never happened before. The NBA expanded the active roster for an NBA game from 12 to 13 players during the lockout-shortened…

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Two Left

Written on:June 12, 2014
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City of Blinding Lights – It has been quite a long time since the San Antonio Spurs have had a superstar basketball player on our roster who was born on the American mainland. 29 years to be exact. “How could this be?” you ask. Well, Tony Parker obviously doesn’t fit that criteria. He was born in Bruges, Belgium on May 17, 1982. Manu Ginobili obviously doesn’t fit the criteria either….

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Seven Right

Written on:June 9, 2014
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Starin’ Through My Rear View – The Miami Heat lead the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals five to four after coming into the AT&T Center last night and stealing Game 2 of this year’s series 98-96 in front of 18,581 properly cooled off Spurs fans. My fear coming into last night was that the Heat were capable of stealing Game 2 by forcing the Spurs into committing an…

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Three Left

Written on:June 7, 2014
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Revolution 1 – “You say you got a real solution, well you know, we’d all love to see…” the fan. “You ask me for a contribution, well you know, we’re all doing what we can.” It is true. The San Antonio Spurs had not paid the electric bill for the power used at the AT&T Center in almost a year. However, this is not a story about a sports franchise…

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Four Left

Written on:June 5, 2014
Four Left

Here Now – It was a devastating way to lose the NBA Finals. When you’re up three games to two and you have a lead on the road in the last minute of the fourth quarter of Game 6, you have the trophy so close within reach that you can almost scape a fingernail on it. Even though no lead is ever safe in the NBA, the reason why you…

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Five Left

Written on:May 30, 2014
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C.R.E.A.M. – Championships rule everything around me, C.R.E.A.M., get the trophy. Baller, baller skill y’all. For the seventh consecutive home playoff game, the San Antonio Spurs blew out our opponent last night defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder 117-89 at the AT&T Center to take a 3-2 lead in the 2014 Western Conference Finals. In a surprising tactical adjustment, Coach Pop started Matt Bonner instead of Tiago Splitter in order to…

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Six Right

Written on:May 28, 2014
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Californication – Last night, an irrationally unsettled Scott Brooks played Russell Westbrook 45 minutes in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 105-92 victory over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Midway through the third quarter, with the Spurs down by 20 points, Gregg Popovich pulled his top six players and let his third string play the remaining 18 minutes of the game. After the Spurs bench…

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Five Right

Written on:May 26, 2014
KRS-One

Hot – The writing was on the wall from the first Oklahoma City shot attempt of the ball game. When Serge Ibaka calmly drained the first bucket with his lethal mid-range jumper and the crowd exploded as if Jesus had taken the stage at a Pat Robertson led evangelical revival, it was more than clear that the Thunder had meticulously planned for Game 3. This meticulous planning, however, did not…

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Six Left

Written on:May 24, 2014
Jimi Hendrix

All Along The Watchtower – There are two things that you need to know about Danny Green. The first is that Danny Green loves animals. And the second? Danny Green lives downtown and apparently his property is conveniently located near a KFC with a great lunch special because if you give him an ounce of daylight, Danny Green gets buckets. The Oklahoma City Thunder are quickly learning that the San…

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