MIAMI -- The Heat would not be playing in Game 7 of the NBA Finals on Thursday if not for Ray Allen. The reason they had survived the final crushing moments of Game 6 was because the ball found the player who most knew what to do with it. It was because of stars like him that the Heat will be confident of defending their championship in the seventh game. But Allen understands that not everyone is like him.
"I think it's part of who a person is," Allen said Wednesday of the ability to cope with pressure. "I've played with a lot of guys, and some guys, down the stretch, they don't want to be in that situation.
"For me, I always felt like worst-case scenario is you miss. That's not a bad alternative. I've watched Michael Jordan for my whole life playing basketball. He's always inspired me to be great. I've seen every shot he's made to win a game, but I've also seen a lot that he missed, and it always showed me that he was human. And he knew that, 'I've got to get back to the gym because I don't want that feeling -- I don't want to miss that shot anymore.' So it's in a guy's DNA to want to step up and play big and not worry about the outcome."
Many have predicted that the Spurs will not be able to overcome the disappointment of the five-point lead they squandered in the final 28 seconds of regulation. If those predictions of San Antonio surrendering in Game 7 turn out to be wrong -- and I think they will be very wrong -- it will have been because the Spurs weren't disappointed by Game 6 as much as they were angered by it. They were seething at their failure to finish what they started, and no one was more furious than Manu Ginobili, who committed eight turnovers and missed a free throw that could have finished off a fourth championship for himself and Tony Parker, and a fifth for Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich.
"That's how a competitor feels," said Popovich after hearing of Ginobili's devastation. "A competitor feels it deeply -- and [it was a] really, really tough loss in that regard. And I expect Manu to feel like that after the game. But he'll be fine."
Allen's assessment of himself and other big-timers is that stars are born -- and then self-made, too. It wasn't enough that Jordan was naturally gifted and insatiably hungry to win; he would not have won if he hadn't returned to the gym time after time to add skills to his natural talent. The reason Allen has been able to play his best in the biggest moments is because he hasn't had to think about those moments or what they mean. He had practiced backing up blindly into the corner for his big three-pointer, and his feet knew how to move and restore his balance as naturally as his fingers move when typing at a keyboard. He has spent his career enhancing his DNA by practicing every kind of shot he can imagine.
"I've practiced laying on my back and then having somebody throw the ball to me, getting up and then being ready to shoot," Allen said. "Laying on my stomach. On my knees. With my back to the ball. Just so many different ways and angles to shoot the basketball -- I've practiced it all. In that situation, it wasn't surprising to me. My body wasn't unfamiliar to that situation."
If each team could nominate one player with the cold-bloodedness to perform in the closing minutes of a Game 7, it would probably be Allen for Miami and Duncan for San Antonio. Duncan was 0 for 5 in the fourth quarter and OT of Game 6, but that had more to do with the Heat's intensified defense and his own fatigue at age 37 in the midst of generating 30 points and 17 rebounds in 44 minutes. The inbounds pass Duncan threw with 1.9 seconds remaining in overtime across the court to lead Danny Green into the corner was the equivalent of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady finding a receiver in the end zone in the final seconds of a playoff game. Chris Bosh (who had promised that Green wouldn't be left open in Game 6) blocked that shot, but the pass was one that few players would have dared to attempt with such confidence.
"I prepare for every game exactly the same," said Duncan. "That's why I feel every game is exactly the same. Obviously, the pressure is there, the stage is there, the energy is there. But preparation doesn't change. You don't go in saying some days you want to be more aggressive than others."
James and Dwayne Wade will look forward to Game 7 with confidence. They'll be more emotional than Allen or Duncan, and that passion may get the best of them at times: They're going to make mistakes, but they're not going to be afraid of the moment. They're going to attack as the pressure grows.
Mario Chalmers is going to be aggressive, too. He won a national championship for Kansas in 2008, and he has made big plays down the stretch throughout his three years alongside James and Wade. Then there are Bosh, Mike Miller and Shane Battier, who have made big plays before and may make them Thursday.
The reason the Spurs are likely to give themselves a chance in the fourth quarter of Game 7 is because their three future Hall-of-Famers have the same qualities that have endowed Allen, James and Wade. Like Duncan, Parker will attack relentlessly. Like Wade, Ginobili may make some regrettable plays. But there isn't a coach who wouldn't want to have a star of Ginobili's aggressive character going into a winner-take-all game.
Ginobili took on the blame for San Antonio's loss in Game 6, but his failure on Tuesday promises to fuel him in Game 7. He and his teammates have been preparing for this moment for a long time. They could have retired years ago with their multiple championships; one more title wasn't going to make a big difference to their legacies. But they've kept at it anyway for the last five years while suffering all kinds of humiliating losses, and each time they've recovered to try again.
After Game 6, when they believed they should have been celebrating their latest championship, the Spurs' players and coaches and their families met for dinner at an Italian restaurant near their hotel here. It was the kind of dinner that happens routinely in European basketball, and rarely in the NBA. The players sat together and talked about other bad losses they had overcome in the past, and they also remembered how they had been able to win Game 7 of the 2005 NBA Finals against the Pistons.
"Our core of guys have been through a lot together," said Duncan. "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. I think some of the guys kept saying if it was the beginning of the season, if somebody asked if we wanted to play a Game 7 for the NBA championship, we would say yes. So we're here. We have this opportunity and we're going to take it."
The players who thrive in a Game 7 are those who are familiar with the demands. Look for Ginobili to make a strong recovery. And then, if the seventh game is tight into the final minutes, watch closely to see who looks most comfortable while others are losing their focus. You'll be looking at the next NBA champion.