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 start sensing that you’re closing in on the title is because if you’re good enough to be in that position in the first place, it means that you’re also good enough to make the right decisions, execute effectively, protect the lead, and closeout the game. By the time that you’ve gotten around to having a lead in the last minute of Game 6 of the NBA Finals, you’ve not only been through all of the possible late game scenarios over the course of a hundred game season, but you’ve established a proven track record that you can make the plays necessary to finish. In other words, a team that is good enough to make the NBA Finals is good enough to protect a lead during the last minute of a ball game nine times out of ten; perhaps even ninety five times out of a hundred. That is why it is so devastating when this happens. The question is, when you are that close and everything caves in around you, how do you respond? Do you grab on to a helping hand and live to fight another day or does your proximity to realizing your dream allow you to become so overcome with the moment that you plummet into the abyss?
Most teams would plummet into the abyss. You would more than likely be resigned to show up and get blown out in Game 7 after losing Game 6 of the NBA Finals on the road in devastating fashion. It is human nature if you are a player on a team in that situation to hang your head and feel sorry for yourself after squandering a golden opportunity to achieve your goal. Once that focus is broken and replaced by regret, it is an astronomical challenge to have the fortitude to prepare properly to turn around and bring the same energy and execution to match a team that is full of new life after enjoying some clutch plays but also a few breaks and perhaps a little luck to narrowly escape elimination. You see, the problem in this particular scenario is that your opponent has also proven over the course of a hundred game season to be good enough to be playing in the NBA Finals and now they have proven that they are also good enough to find life in the face of imminent death. All losses being equal and as the road team, you are probably better off in your pursuit of the ultimate goal of winning the title if you get blown out in Game 6 than you are losing in heartbreaking fashion when you should have won. You can chalk up a blowout defeat on the road to just having a bad night and then try to come back with better focus and energy in Game 7. If, however, you blow the lead in the last minute of Game 6, all you have is “what ifs” torturing and distracting you like an uninterrupted nightmare during the days leading up to Game 7. You’ve let your best opportunity slip through your fingers and the worst part is that your opponent also knows this. Considering that this Finals series is being played in the (now defunct) 2-3-2 format, regardless of whether the circumstances that led to your Game 6 demise were you choking or your opponent coming through in the clutch (or a combination of both), that other team is patiently sitting at home counting their blessings, enjoying life, and getting ready to wipe the floor with you in Game 7. As a team that is carrying all of the baggage of just having blown your shot to close out the NBA Finals on the road in Game 6, you are expected by everyone to “fold like a cheap hooker who got hit in the stomach by a fat guy with sores on his face” in Game 7.
Indeed, most teams facing those circumstances would be toast. The 1988 Detroit Pistons, however, were a team that refused to fold after coughing up Game 6 of the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers 103-102 at the Great Western Forum in LA. Game 6 was not only a devastating loss for the Pistons but it was one of the most heartbreaking beats in modern professional sports. Detroit led Los Angeles 3-2 in the series and 102 to 99 in the final minute of the game before Byron Scott scored with 45 seconds left to cut the Piston lead to two. On the ensuing possession, Isiah Thomas missed a a baseline jumper which set up one of the most infamous plays in NBA Finals history. With 14 seconds left in the game and Detroit still leading by one, Bill Laimbeer was guarding Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as he attempted his signature skyhook shot. Kareem missed and Dennis Rodman was in position to collect the rebound and more than likely the Pistons’ first championship trophy. The problem was that one of the officials had the audacity to call a foul on the shot attempt. There was minimal contact on the play (especially by late 80’s standards) and this series altering call has gone down in infamy in Detroit lore as the “phantom foul.” Kareem sunk both free throws to give LA the lead. On the Pistons next possession, Joe Dumars missed badly on a desperate attempt. Byron Scott collected the rebound and was fouled immediately. Although he missed both free throws, the Pistons were out of timeouts and were forced to attempt a half court shot at the buzzer.
After being so close to winning the title just to have the game taken away by a ridiculous foul call, it was hard to imagine that Detroit would be able to regroup and compete in Game 7. Everyone assumed that the Pistons would get slaughtered by Magic Johnson and the “Showtime” Lakers. Against all odds and to almost everyone’s surprise, this did not happen. It turned out that the 1988 Detroit Pistons were a special basketball team. Somehow, they found the mental strength and inner fortitude to compete in Game 7 in Los Angeles until the bitter end. Down four points with six seconds left, Bill Laimbeer drained a 28 foot three pointer to cut the Laker lead to one point. Detroit went for the steal which allowed LA to advance the ball to A.C. Green who was wide open for a layup with two seconds left. As Laimbeer looked to inbound the ball so the Pistons could attempt a game tying three pointer, it became quickly apparent that the Pistons not only faced the five Laker players in the game on their final attempt but also the defense of the Laker bench as well as several dozen Lakers fans who were already storming the court. It seems mind-boggling today, but the referees made no attempt to clear the court and allow Detroit a fair opportunity to tie the game. Laimbeer, given no other option, threw the ball to the front court to Isaiah Thomas who was promptly knocked down by Magic Johnson. Shockingly, no foul was called and the game ended. Lakers 108 – Pistons 105.
After surrendering a lead in the last minute of the fourth quarter and eventually losing Game 6 of the NBA Finals on the road, it was hard to imagine that San Antonio would be able to regroup and compete in Game 7. Everyone assumed that the Spurs would get slaughtered by LeBron James and “The Heatles.” Against all odds and to almost everyone’s surprise, this did not happen. It turned out that the 2013 San Antonio Spurs were a special basketball team. Somehow they found the mental strength and inner fortitude to compete in Game 7 in Miami until the bitter end. Kawhi Leonard hit a three point shot with just over one minute left in the game to cut a five point Heat lead to two, 90-88. After Shane Battier missed a three point attempt, Manu Ginobili secured the rebound with exactly one minute left on the clock and the Spurs advanced the ball with an opportunity to tie or take the lead. San Antonio worked the ball in to Tim Duncan in the post. Noticing that he had the smaller Battier defending him, Timmy drove immediately towards the middle of the paint to attempt a point blank jump hook; a shot that he had made hundreds if not thousands of times before in his career. He shot it long off of the back rim but immediately responded by attempting to tip it back up and in (something he has also done hundreds of times in his career). The tip attempt failed and Chris Bosh secured the rebound. With 28 seconds left in the game and clinging to a two point lead, LeBron James drained a clutch 17 foot jump shot to put Miami up four. After Manu Ginboli missed a three pointer on the ensuing possession, the Heat closed out the game by hitting three out of four free throws. Heat 95 – Spurs 88.
The thing about special basketball teams who have the fortitude to compete on the road in Game 7 of the NBA Finals after being less than a minute away from winning a championship in Game 6 is that they have a demonstrated ability to regroup. Sometimes 48 hours just isn’t quite enough time to come all the way back from something so heartbreaking… but a year certainly is. After experiencing that and still having the fortitude to comeback and claim the best regular season record in the NBA the next season (1988-89 Detroit Pistons: league best record of 63-19, 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs: league best record 62-20), no amount of playoff adversity can seem to derail you from your quest for redemption. Last Saturday night, the San Antonio Spurs trotted out for the second half of Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals in Chesapeake Energy Arena (a building in which we had lost 9 straight times) trailing by 7 and with Cory Joseph in the game at the point guard position. It became quickly apparent that Tony Parker, our leading scorer, was out of the game due to injury. The TNT broadcasting team subsequently reported that Tony would not return. Despite this unfortunate turn of events, San Antonio (with Cory as our floor general) put together one of our most dominant quarters of the postseason. The Spurs outscored the Oklahoma City Thunder 37-20 in the period by picking the OKC defense apart with the type of precision ball movement that has been the team’s trademark this season. Up ten points on the road with an opportunity to close out the Thunder heading into the fourth quarter, it seemed inevitable that league MVP Kevin Durant and his sidekick Russell Westbrook would make a run to save their season. Sure enough, they did exactly that. Oklahoma City kept chipping away at our lead throughout the fourth quarter and finally, with 32 seconds left in the period, Durant made a driving layup to give the Thunder a 99-97 lead. A year is a long time to think about redemption. On the ensuing possession, Manu Ginobili (who had missed a crucial three pointer in the last minute of Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals) came free off of a Tim Duncan pick and just buried the go-ahead three point dagger with 27 seconds left. Even still, after Kevin Durant turned the ball over and Manu split a pair of free throws, Russell Westbrook re-tied the game 101-101 by making a pair of free throws. Manu got a clean look at the buzzer to win the game, but back rimmed it.
The two Western Conference heavy weights traded punches for most of the overtime period until Tim Duncan found himself in the low post with a smaller defender on him clinging to a one point lead (108-107) with less than 30 seconds left in the overtime period. A year is a long time to think about redemption. Timmy (who had missed his jump hook in the last minute of Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals with the smaller Shane Battier on him) noticing he had the much smaller Reggie Jackson on him turned to his left into a leaning jump hook with Russell Westbrook closing frantically to double team and rattled it home to earn player of the game honors. Trailing by three, Kevin Durant missed a good look at a three pointer to re-tie the game and Boris Diaw (who had a monster night with 26 points) made two out of four free throws down the stretch to secure the victory and send the #BlackAndSilver back to the NBA Finals. Spurs 112 – Thunder 107. A year is a long time to think about redemption.
I was hanging out in the studio the weekend that Brian and Eric recorded this song in 2005. I remember that the three of us, along with our friend Matt, went to a Spurs game that Saturday night to break up the grind of a marathon recording session. I couldn’t even tell you anymore who we played on that particular night, I just know that ever since then I have associated this song with Spurs playoff runs and I guess that is the reason. After Saturday night’s epic closeout victory, I blasted this song on my living room stereo and basked at what the Spurs had just accomplished while also thinking about my best friend. Indeed, we are here now with the opportunity to secure ultimate redemption for our devastating Game 6 defeat to the Miami Heat in last year’s NBA Finals. This is the first rematch in the Finals since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls defeated Karl Malone’s Utah Jazz in both 1997 and 1998. The time before that? That was 25 years ago in 1989 when the Detroit Pistons were able to regroup and overcome any and all playoff adversity on their quest for redemption to set up their opportunity for a rematch with the Los Angeles Lakers. In Game 7 of last year’s Finals, I witnessed the same heart in the San Antonio Spurs that I remember witnessing from the 1988 Detroit Pistons in their Game 7 against the Lakers. The ’88 Pistons weren’t on my mind, necessarily, when I sent out my tweet immediately following San Antonio coming up just short in Game 7 last year but the rare inner fortitude that both team’s shared was and that was what gave me the confidence a bold prediction and the faith that we would be exactly where we are tonight; on the eve of our opportunity to finish off some overdue business. A year is a long time to think about redemption. Tomorrow night, the San Antonio Spurs will embark on revolution 1: the art of teamwork perfected. There is something cyclical about this beautiful game that we call basketball. I’ve had this feeling for a while now that the 1988-1989 Detroit Pistons and the 2013-2014 San Antonio Spurs are kindred spirits. How did the ’89 Pistons fare in reaching their ultimate goal of redemption? They swept the Los Angeles Lakers out of the 1989 NBA Finals four games to zero. I’m just saying.
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