The previous time they met in an NBA Finals, it was the other way around. It was 2007 and Duncan knew every trick to lead his Spurs to a sweep of James' Cavaliers. Back then, the Spurs were able to prevent James from driving to the basket, and at 22 he didn't know any other way.
Now it was six years later and the Heat were 39 seconds away from a 95-88 victory in Game 7 of the NBA Finals for their second straight championship. As Duncan stood in the hole at the top of the key, far down the court from where he had missed his two chances to tie the game, the Spurs' deficit was still a manageable 90-88. But all Duncan could think about was how his short running hook had caromed away, and how his put-back had missed the backboard entirely. Either one would have evened the score with the potential of leaving the Spurs with the final possession on Thursday to either force overtime or to win a fifth title for Duncan outright.
Duncan finished with 24 points, 12 rebounds and four steals in 43 minutes -- two short nights after he'd given the Spurs 30 and 17 over 44 minutes in Game 6. None of those numbers mattered to him as he missed those layups and retreated fast to the other end, slapping at the floor the way his age-old rival Kevin Garnett does. But Garnett does it to take on the challenge defensively. Duncan was castigating himself.
"It's a hard question to answer right now," Duncan said when asked if he felt pride for the achievements of his team. He was thinking about how close his Spurs had been to winning Game 6, and he was thinking about how close he had been to the basket with the ball in his hands at the end of Game 7. If the question was whether the Spurs had been able to put the disaster of Game 6 behind them, Duncan's answer would be yes. Their five-point lead that had lapsed in the final 28 seconds of Game 6 was not relevant to the way he was feeling now.
"Game 7, missing a layup to tie the game," Duncan said. "Making a bad decision down the stretch. Just unable to stop Dwyane [Wade] and LeBron. Probably for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me."
As Duncan and his exceptional teammates struggled on the court and suffered thereafter, the landscape of the NBA was drawn into perspective. The Spurs had turned out to be the best opponent for Miami. They had the necessary depth and experience, the athleticism of Kawhi Leonard (19 points and 16 rebounds in Game 7 to affirm his imminent stardom) and others to buoy the three future Hall of Famers, the stubbornness and belief and a 3-2 lead with the five-point advantage they would never forget. And now this chance to win the seventh game. They had all of that in their favor and it wasn't enough to overcome James.
With each year the fear has been that James would continue to improve his jump shot, and in this game he relied on it for the majority of his 37 points. James and three teammates scored all but one of Miami's field goals, and that was enough to hold off the finest and truest team the NBA has seen in the post-Jordan era. The Spurs had all of the fundamentals covered, and yet the weight of their entire roster was outscored by four Heat players -- the second time in four games that happened.
There can be no assurances that the Heat will extend this trend for a fourth straight NBA Finals and a third championship in a row. Wade has been vulnerable to injury for two years now and there is always going to be speculation of a trade involving Chris Bosh, even though it is unlikely Miami could ever receive equal value in return. So never mind the future. Consider the past two years, and how this team has bonded around James' unprecedented versatility to make good on the presumption that no one can beat it.
This year, no one could. It will be no consolation for Ginobili, even though he recovered from the sixth game to provide 18 points and five assists in Game 7. In the last seven minutes of the season, however, he committed three turnovers, including a drive-and-kick over his shoulder for Duncan that James intercepted. That final turnover marked the end of the Spurs' hope for one farewell championship, while also inviting Ginobili to recall the miseries of the game before.
"So many little things that could have gone our way in the last play or the last two plays to win it ... there's such a fine line, such a fine line between celebrating and having a great summer, with now feeling like crap and just so disappointed," Ginobili said, still dwelling on Game 6. "I think it's part of the job, to say it one way. There are moments where there's celebration and you forget that you got lucky at a point. Like, you know, a few shots in '03, '05, '07."
Those were the years that Ginobili, Duncan and Tony Parker won championships together, in their collective primes.
"This time it went against us," said Ginobili, 35, who will be considering retirement now that his contract is expiring. "And again, we were five seconds away from raising that trophy. And it just didn't happen. So I am trying to put things in perspective, but it's very hard. And the next few days are going to be very hard."
Parker, the Spurs' MVP candidate, was 3-for-12 in Game 7, and 9-for-35 in the last two losses while slowed by a strained hamstring. Danny Green -- who had been nominated as a potential series MVP while breaking Ray Allen's record for three-pointers in a Finals through five games -- went 2-for-19 in the final two games, including a 1-for-12 performance in Game 7.
"I didn't come to play tonight," Green said. "I let my teammates down."
Duncan wasn't thinking about Green, who was finishing his first year as a full-time starter and couldn't be expected to carry his team to an upset of James' Heat. What Duncan was thinking about were the two layups he missed. He could think of nothing else in the final minute of the seventh game as he finally raised his head and walked back to his team's huddle. Coach Gregg Popovich met him at half court to wrap an arm around his midsection before Duncan flopped down onto the team bench and hunched forward again to cover his face in a towel.
It is amazing, truly, to remember that Duncan is the greatest power forward the league has ever seen. He has put together a run of 16 straight years of contention that no champion has ever matched in terms of consistency and duration. He has won four championships and he has been the model of teamwork that coaches around the world cite when they need an example to show their young players. And none of that meant anything to him in the final minute of his 16th exemplary season, six years and six days since he last met James in these circumstances.
"To be in a Game 6, up one, and two chances to win an NBA championship and not do it," he said, with an expression far more severe than his typically understated words, "that's tough to swallow."
The difference in LeBron James was devastating.